The sleepwalkers

13 October 2021

3:34 PM

13 October 2021

3:34 PM

It is customary for presidencies to lose vitality and purpose in their last months. It is unprecedented for a presidency to lose its way in its first year, and when it still holds a majority in both houses of Congress. The Biden presidency has donned Jimmy Carter’s cardigan of shame in only nine months.

If, that is, it ever was the Biden presidency. It was sold from the get-go as the ‘Biden-Harris presidency’. Double-barreled names are an inveterate mark of snobbery, and in this case the snobbery is that of the higher tokenism. Even the Democrats’ own members didn’t want Harris on the card in 2020. Harris’s symbolic merits as a woman of color seem to have been outweighed by her blatant falsity and opportunism. She is doing a great job of keeping the lowest possible profile, waiting for the moment when Biden, like that other paradigm of Seventies leadership Gerald Ford, takes another header down the steps of Air Force One.

President Biden is the oldest person to have held the most important office in the world, and he delivers a convincing impression of a man not in full possession of his marbles or his mouth. His days are devoid of official activity. His weekends are long and getting longer. The only reliable aspect is that his appearances before the mic will be querulous and his freestyle exchanges with the press erratic. It is now clear that Biden requires a long rest after moderate exertions like delivering a speech at the UN. The Afghanistan withdrawal episode confirms that Biden and his cue cards will not deliver the goods during a real emergency.

The president is not the only sleepwalker in high office. Anyone with their eyes and ears open knew that the administration’s legislative centerpiece, the spectacular $3.5 trillion ‘infrastructure bill’, would fail to get through the House on time in September. Yet onward Nancy Pelosi pushed, past sensible objections from Democratic senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and into the familiar entanglement of haggling over the debt ceiling and emergency funding for the federal government.

Pelosi wasn’t dreaming when she mistakenly called the Build Back Better hype the ‘full Obama agenda’. It is true that, domestically at least, the Biden-Harris administration is committed to Obama’s permanent revolution. The endless expansion of a racialized bureaucracy into every aspect of life continues. So does baiting the base with talk of ‘elites’ and ‘corporations’ while quietly maintaining a duplicitous intimacy with Big Tech. So do the energy policies that have already failed in Europe: shutting down mining and fracking, stigmatizing nuclear energy and talking up the Great Leap Forward into a green economy that, for all the wind power emitted by its enthusiasts, has yet to work anywhere.

In April, the Germans closed 11 coal-fired power plants as part of their green energy ‘transition’. They had to fire them up again within weeks to avoid mass blackouts. Their domestic heating now depends on the strategic risk of importing liquified natural gas from Russia. To its credit, the Obama administration didn’t spurn the strategic benefits of the George W. Bush-era shift to fracking and shale technologies. By 2016, the United States was about 90 percent self-sufficient in energy, and by 2019, the US was a net energy exporter.

The Biden administration is committed, however, to net-zero energy emissions by 2035 and producing half of America’s energy from solar power by 2050. This is much more ambitious than the energy plans of the inhabitants of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels, who gamble their strategic autonomy on an eight-year research project into ‘extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers’. On precedent, and on current technological form, Biden’s plans are about as likely to succeed.

Back in the real world, China defers its carbon-neutral deadline to 2060 — a point so far in the future as to be meaningless — while proceeding with plans to build 43 new coal-fired power stations. Beijing also launched a carbon emissions-trading market last summer. The New York Times naturally praised this as ‘a long-awaited step at fighting climate change’, but even the Times had to admit that ‘most experts expect it will take years’ before this program might mature into ‘an effective tool for curbing emissions’. Meanwhile, the program offers ‘free pollution permits’ to power plants ‘to get them used to reporting data and trading’.

Again, anyone who is fully awake can see what is happening here. The Democrats are genuflecting to a base obsessed with apocalyptic visions of planetary disaster and green socialism; and to Wall Street, which takes a more sanguine view of the End Times and is more than happy to soak Washington for green subsidies. While we slow growth, stifle innovation and watch the skies for signs of ecological redemption, America’s biggest competitor marches on, economically, politically and militarily.

The United States does not look serious. Its leaders, even in the senior echelons of the military, look dazed and confused. We should not be surprised, then, that in early October the US and Chinese militaries faced off over Taiwan. The Pentagon has wargamed this scenario for years. It has only ever come to one prediction: if it comes to conflict, the US will lose. Nevertheless, we continue on the path to confrontation out of habit and grandeur.

The historian Christopher Clark titled his study of how Europe slid into World War One The Sleepwalkers. The somnambulists are in charge in America today. They are slow-walking us to failure — and perhaps disaster too.

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