Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism
“America is an idea,” Joe Biden gravely intoned, as he threw the 21st hat onto the overcrowded hat rack of the Democrat primaries already groaning under the weight of all the trilbys, clown caps and hijabs.
Biden is a compulsive plagiarist and the idea that America is an idea, like his hair, isn’t his own.
It’s also wrong.
America as an idea has lately been bandied about by John Kasich, Senator Chris Coons, Senator Lindsey Graham, and even Bono. Biden not only showed up late to the primaries, but late to the idea of an idea.
America isn’t an idea. It’s a place. The name of our nation comes from a 15th century Italian named Amerigo Vespucci who didn’t visit an ideal, but a real continent. Amerigo’s name doesn’t even represent an ideal. It means master workman, or, more crudely, boss. A pragmatic name for a pragmatic nation.
Even our national anthem is grounded by being set in the present of an actual battle. The “rockets” and “bombs”, even the “twilight’s last gleaming”, poetic though it is, are actual realities seen by the author. Its only intangible ideas are “land of the free and home of the brave” and “in God is our trust”. And the anthem insists on forcing us to see how these convictions played out in reality and at what great cost.
Much of our greatness does come from an idea. It’s not, as Joe Biden claims, “bigger than an ocean”. It’s as small as the individual. The British Empire that we twice defeated claimed to rule the oceans. America’s pride was that the individual worker, not a king or a president, ruled his nation and himself.
The British had one king. America had millions of kings and queens.
Many nations have had such ideas. What made America unique was not that we had the idea, but that, unlike the rest of the world, we made it a reality. And we didn’t do it through empty theories, but through a system of representative government backed by hard limitations on that government.
The Amerigo or American became his own boss, not through empty ideals, but through his hard work.
Politicians like Biden who talk about America as an idea like that idea; they just hate the reality. That’s why Biden’s video insists that the 2016 election was an “aberration”. It wasn’t, as Obama liked to tell us, “who we are”. But the reality of America is that politicians don’t tell us who we are. We tell them who we are. When it works Obama’s way, that idea of America destroys both the reality and the idea.
Since 2016, Democrats and some Republicans have been telling the country that the last election didn’t meet with their expectation for their idea of America. And so they set about trying to restore that idea at the expense of the reality of our system of elections, freedom of speech and the press, attorney-client privilege, the separation of powers, and the entire idea of representative government. That’s their idea.
It’s also Joe Biden’s idea.
There is obviously an idea of America. Just as there is an idea of Joe Biden or of the chair he’s sitting on. But the idea of Joe Biden, a Corvette-driving, woman-groping, foul-mouthed idiot who never met a camera that he wouldn’t wrestle to death with his face, doesn’t preclude the reality of Joe Biden, who doesn’t even own a Corvette. A reality without an idea is bland. An idea without a reality is leftism.
The idea of America is most often invoked by lefties and lefty Republicans because their ideology puts ideas ahead of reality. That’s how you end up with the Green New Deal, a set of ideas in which putting everyone, including Hawaiians, on trains is the perfect solution to a problem that only exists as an idea. It’s also how most lefty economics works and eventually doesn’t work once reality kicks into gear.
Venezuela has an inflation rate that no one can calculate anymore because its finance minister insisted that inflation was only an idea that didn’t exist in real life. Inflation is very real. Venezuela’s money isn’t.
Like the protagonist of the Twilight Zone’s A Stop At Willoughby, when you begin believing in imaginary things, you eventually cease to be real. That’s what happened to so many of the Marxist regimes that once dotted the planet. Most weren’t invaded and overthrown. Their ideas just ran out of reality.
The idea of America, as invoked by Biden, Coons, Graham, and Bono, is also running out of reality. If you doubt that, look toward the border where hordes of migrants are breaking through in unprecedented numbers. The idea of America demands open borders, but the reality requires border security.
Politicians can’t spend enough time talking about the idea of America, but neglect its reality.
The “idea of America”, as Biden puts it, “is stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean.” Talking like this is lots of fun for people who like hearing themselves talk. And the only people more prone to falling in love with their sounds of their own voices than politicians are celebrities. But the “idea of America” is constrained by the existence of America, which is not bigger than an ocean or than Biden’s ego.
The idea and reality of America collided on the campaign trail in the last election when Donald Trump demolished numerous GOP candidates who passionately invoked America as an idea. Joe Biden is on very shaky ground when he tries to resurrect an argument that was soundly rejected by Americans.
The idea of America, and there is more than one, can be soaring and visionary. But it must be built on a reality. When the idea of America loses touch with the real needs of the national body, then, like a fanatic starving to death to attain enlightenment, the physical country begins to wither and die.
America is an idea only to the extent that it is a reality. When it ceases to be a reality because we run out of people, money and future, then the idea dies with it. And even if it didn’t, what good would it be?
We had an idea of Rome, of Greece and of Egypt. But an idea without a people to inhabit it is mere myth. An idea of America without any Americans would be Camelot. A painted mockery of a vanished past. It might entertain or uplift some future people. But those people would not be us.
They would not be Americans.
And the question of whether there will even be Americans is what the 2020 election will be about.
Biden’s campaign launch video depicts the idea of America as endangered. Trump ran on the reality of America being endangered.
The most obsessive Trump haters view him as an attack on an idea while his supporters fear that their reality is in peril. Trump delivered the reality of economic benefits, but his opponents claim that he threatens their idea of America as an evil nation, born in genocide, redeemed by the right side of history. Biden is invoking that promise to return to Obama’s right side of history, JFK’s Camelot, and William Morris’ Nowhere, sacrificing our reality and our future to someone else’s idea of an idea.
Trump is making America stronger. Biden is promising to make Americans feel better. One has built his campaign on the real world and the other has announced a campaign based on hurt feelings.
The safe space election is here.
Both men understand their bases and their impulses. Trump promises a return to a booming and powerful nation. Biden frightens aging lefty Boomers with the specter of the pre-civil rights era.
In 2020, Americans will choose between reality and an idea.
Trump has become the candidate of reality. The reality of an economic boom, of military victory and domestic security. Biden has emerged to campaign as the candidate of an idea. If only he had one.