Biden, Trump and American Vanity

Published February 22, 2024

Wall Street Journal

The election of 2024 is a train wreck. But is it an accident?

Isn’t it true that America’s presidents reflect the society that sends them to the White House—its tone and style, its character, some intangible national self? Think of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge as representatives of the 1920s. Think of Dwight Eisenhower, icon of America in the 1950s. Or of Ronald Reagan as the incarnation of the 1980s.

Now, a generation or two down the line, the 2020s have given us Donald Trump and Joe Biden. No one much likes the choice. Both men, almost everyone agrees, are selfish, tiresome old cartoons. Does that mean that America itself has turned into a selfish, tiresome old cartoon?

You could argue the opposite—that these things are a matter of random selection, as in quantum mechanics, too complex and contingent to support a theory of karma and comeuppance. Would some oracle, gifted at reading the fate of nations, have predicted that America would wind up with a dilemma like this in 2024? Maybe the gods are as surprised as the rest of us at the country’s bad luck.

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Lance Morrow is the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His work focuses on the moral and ethical dimensions of public events, including developments in regard to freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and political correctness on American campuses, with a view to the future consequences of such suppressions.

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