The Biden Era’s Defining Characteristic: Anti-Politics

Whether because of Trump fatigue or COVID or both, the Biden years have been defined by a kind of anti-politics. Many fewer Americans are now paying politics much attention at all.

President Joe Biden speaks during an event in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, September 6, 2023. (Bonnie Cash / UPI / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In early 2021, I paid a visit to my local secondhand bookstore. Though I go there regularly to browse and pick up new books, this time the goal was actually to lighten my shelves. Because I always buy more than I can possibly read and because publishers send me more than I can possibly review, an annual clean-out is usually in order — and on this occasion the situation was especially dire. Between 2016 and 2020, books about Donald Trump had seemed to pile up faster than I could get rid of them. A few, usually those with original reporting, proved quite insightful, but many didn’t have much to say that was remotely new. Plenty were screamingly mediocre, and some were so transparently exercises in grift you almost had to admire the chutzpah of their authors.

Regardless of merit or novelty, however, the general rule with Trump-related books is that they tended to sell in absurdly large numbers. David Frum’s Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, published in 2018, immediately shot to number one in Amazon’s “Fascism” category and was soon sent back to the printers for a second run, while David Cay Johnston’s It’s Even Worse Than You Think became the website’s bestselling title in “Political Conservatism and Liberalism.” Shattered, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s 2017 account of Hillary Clinton’s doomed presidential campaign, sold more than 125,000 copies and made the New York Times bestseller list. Books like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker’s A Very Stable Genius, and Bob Woodward’s Fear all sold upward of fifty thousand copies.

As I discovered when I tried to offload my own collection, Trump books had proliferated so much by the beginning of Joe Biden’s term that staff at many secondhand bookstores had been ordered by management to stop taking them. (In the early 1980s, Atari reportedly set up a mass burial site in New Mexico for hundreds of thousands of unwanted gaming cartridges. Today, one imagines, there presumably exists a similar graveyard somewhere for books with titles like The Covfefe Chronicles and Liar-in-Chief.)

Joe Biden’s presidency, though the desired outcome for the countless millions who anxiously consumed Trump-era books and media, has not yielded a similar literary boom. Quite the opposite, in fact: as Politico’s Daniel Lippman reports, titles concerned with the current White House occupant aren’t simply failing to sell but, in many cases, bombing.

Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency, Allen and Parnes’s successor to Shattered, fell well short of the New York Times bestseller list and has shifted less than ten thousand copies since its publication in March 2021. Lippman offers up a few more emblematic examples, among them New York magazine writer Gabriel Debenedetti’s The Long Alliance: The Imperfect Union of Joe Biden and Barack Obama (less than 1,500 copies); the Associated Press’s Julie Pace and Darlene Superville’s Jill: A Biography of the First Lady (less than 2,500); and Chris Whipple’s The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and Ben Schreckinger’s The Bidens: Inside the First Family’s Fifty-Year Rise to Power (less than 5,000 each).

Critical books about Biden from the right aren’t selling particularly well either, and some conservatives now openly admit that they have struggled to create a coherent demonology of Biden. “Biden never does anything interesting,” Eric Nelson, the publisher of HarperCollins’s conservative imprint, Broadside Books, recently complained to Politico. “The Hunter Biden stuff has done pretty well, because he’s appropriately interesting. But Hunter Biden is not the president.” “If your nickname is Sleepy Joe,” added an anonymous right-wing commentator, “you kind of have to simultaneously say this person is ruining everything and is supremely evil, but also he’s inept and that’s sort of a challenging combination.”

The trend is visible across other media as well. Cable news viewership plunged during Biden’s first year in office, with major networks continuing to report sagging audience numbers into 2023. By the beginning of 2022, social-media engagement with news content was only half of what it had been at the time of Biden’s swearing-in, despite a larger number of articles being published overall.

The Biden presidency may not have yielded the transformative policy outcomes some predicted during its opening months, but, in a much narrower sense at least, it can now be definitively said that Bidenism has been a resounding success.

In a different world, the shock of Trump’s victory in 2016 might have inspired a reckoning among liberals and a newfound spirit of transformative ambition within the Democratic Party. Instead, the conventional and conservative Biden prevailed in 2020 — not only over the Left and Bernie Sanders, but also over a series of would-be Obama Mark II’s auditioning to perform a reenactment of 2008.

To be fair, the Biden presidency has occasionally surprised in departing from the style of governance favored by its Democratic predecessor. The administration’s opening months notably displayed a less conservative attitude toward public spending than Obama’s and, in word if not always in deed, Biden has sounded more explicitly pro-worker as well. There’s also an ongoing debate on the Left about the ambition of “Bidenomics.”

Elusive Rooseveltian vistas notwithstanding, however, the ambient mood of the Biden presidency has not been progressive radicalism nor even really conservatism, but instead a more diffuse kind of anti-politics. If the Trump era was defined by the ceaseless, and often deafening, drone of news content with the volume dialed up to eleven, Biden’s tenure in office — whatever its substantive successes or failures — has in contrast seen a generalized dulling of political sentiment across the board. Trump fatigue and COVID are the most obvious culprits, and Biden’s signature avuncular style — a marked departure not only from Trump but also from the messianic rhetoric of 2008 — has proven a potent soporific for an overstimulated moment in which political zeal has increasingly given way to a mixture of exhaustion and cynicism.

Whatever comes of the various debates surrounding the politics of Biden’s first term, there can be little doubt that one of its most significant corollaries has been to mollify the political landscape and make politics something people think about less.