The defining moment of the 2020 Democratic National Convention was neither a slickly produced policy video nor a speech from a former president. Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s address, arguably the best oration of his long career, wasn’t it either.
Instead, it was a testimonial from a 13-year-old boy from New Hampshire named Brayden Harrington.
Harrington, like Biden, has a stutter. The two met at a CNN town hall in Concord this February, where Harrington told the candidate about his difficulty with speech. After the event, Biden met with the boy backstage. He talked to Harrington about techniques for managing the stutter, like practicing in front of a mirror. He gave Harrington a copy of his speech from the night, which had markings designed to help get the words out — markings Harrington used in crafting his DNC comments.
Harrington explained to millions of people how much Biden’s support mattered.
“I’m just trying to be a kid,” he said. “And in a short amount of time, Joe Biden made me feel more confident about something that’s bothered me my whole life. Joe Biden cared. Imagine what he could do for all of us.”
The underlying message was clear. Joe Biden is the kind of man who takes time out of his day to help a person with a disability. President Donald Trump is the kind of man who uses his platform to mock one.
Throughout the convention, the Democrats spotlighted stories like Harrington’s — of Biden going out of his way to treat ordinary Americans with kindness and decency.
There was the Delaware rabbi who remembers Biden showing up at a woman’s memorial prayer service in 2006 because she had donated $18 to each of his Senate campaigns going back to 1972.
There was the campaign intern who introduced his grandmother to Biden, leading to Biden delaying a CNN interview so he could speak to the elderly woman for a half hour.
And there was the New York security guard, Jacquelyn Brittany, who bonded with the candidate during a short elevator ride. “In the short time I spent with Joe Biden, I could tell he really saw me. That he actually cared. That my life meant something to him,” she said. At the DNC Brittany formally nominated Biden for the presidency.
It’s typical for parties to try to humanize their candidates at conventions. But the 2020 DNC’s decision to feature story after story of Biden’s extraordinary personal kindness went beyond the norm — elevating character and decency to the level of an overarching campaign theme akin to the urgent need for a better coronavirus response.
In fact, those two messages were closely interlinked. Because right now, the White House is occupied by a cruel man whose indifference to ordinary Americans has killed tens of thousands of the citizens he’s supposed to be helping.
The Trump-Biden contrast is one of cruelty versus kindness
Adam Serwer’s short 2018 essay in the Atlantic, “The Cruelty Is the Point,” is one of the defining texts of the Trump era. Serwer argues that the essential core of Trumpism is taking pleasure in inflicting pain on members of outgroups — immigrants, racial minorities, and anyone else who doesn’t fit in Trump’s 1950s vision of what a great America looks like.
“His only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty,” Serwer writes:
It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
Trump’s vision, a vicious struggle between those who have historically had power and those who had not, has electoral power in a world where an all-consuming culture war dominates our public debate. It depends on galvanizing his most vicious supporters through displays of validating cruelty, and depressing voters who might otherwise vote Democratic. It thrives by making people hate each other.
But in 2020, the culture war isn’t America’s biggest problem: the coronavirus is. Over 170,000 Americans are dead, from all walks of life. This is a shared crisis — one that affects communities unevenly, but affects all of them nonetheless.
In this crisis, Trump’s viciousness — the narcissism and meanness that powers his cruelty-driven politics — is not a political asset. At a time where Americans are suffering, relying on help from the federal government to stay healthy and financially secure, they look to the White House and see an oligarch who’s never been able to even feign concern for their problems. A June 2020 poll from Fox News found that only 37 percent of Americans believe Trump “cares about people like you.” 57 percent said he does not.
Biden’s personal kindness offers an off-ramp.
When you hear about Joe Biden’s fundamental decency, you imagine a world where we aren’t constantly hearing about the latest outrage from the White House — a world where a man who genuinely cares about ordinary people isn’t mocking Americans, but doing his best to protect them. He’s the kind of man your kids can look up to and your ailing parents can count on for support. Joe Biden has lost a wife, a daughter, and a son — and felt pain that has gifted him with empathy. He’s offered to personally speak with every American who lost a loved one to the coronavirus.
Biden’s politics are not mine. During the primary, I was skeptical that he was the best candidate to take on Trump in November. But I didn’t grasp the extent to which Covid-19 would remake our political landscape.
In a world of mass suffering, the median American voter seems to want someone who promises stability — an end to the violent chaos of the Trump era. What’s more, there seem to be some important blocs of voters — educated suburbanites, most notably — who find Trump’s culture war cruelty actively repellant. Biden’s peculiar blend of reasonably progressive politics and impeccably moderate credentials is well-suited to capitalize on this.
But the bedrock on which all of this rests, the fundamental appeal of Biden’s candidacy in this time, is that he’s not Trump.
I don’t just mean this tautologically — that he is literally another warm body. That’s a big part of it, but it’s not the whole thing.
Rather, it’s that Biden’s political persona is the opposite of Donald Trump’s.
For Trump, the purpose of politics is cruelty — to validate his supporters, and his supporters alone, by hurting the people they hate. For Biden, the purpose of politics is caring — to use the mechanisms of self-government to help the ordinary people that he, clearly, cares so much about. That’s what the Democrats wanted to convey about Joe Biden, how they wanted to define him over the course of these last four days.
The kindness was the point.