In my new book I argue that in the new ruling political dispensation in America the fundamental right is a safe word or a kill switch allowing us to stop the game or experience. “Like malware authors, we need to include a kill switch in case we lose control over our own creation, in case things get too real. Provided this switch is available, the game itself may well be dangerous or offensive.”
The idea here is that American political life is now dominated by deeply experienced fictions. They provide space for experimentation and meaning while preserving citizens and the republic from harm or danger. As I put it, “these are experiments, adventures, storylines. They are not real life. They can be switched on and off.
Donald Trump offered Americans the virtual experience of a nationalist regime without its real world consequences. The far left may one day be in a similar position. In both cases, as immersive as the experience is supposed to be, the existence of a kill switch is just as valuable. Without a kill switch, the myth could become too real, or the participants might lose the sense that it is meant to remain a myth.
Trump now runs the serious risk of being switched off. His brand of politics failed in the clash with the pandemic. The pull of reality became too strong and Trump offers little promise of keeping it at bay. At the same time, many voters may have become concerned that what was meant as virtual nationalism could acquire a more literal character if Trump was allowed to consolidate his power during a second term.
What Biden understood before everyone else was that Trump was vulnerable because his fantasy world was falling apart. With the pandemic, the whole experience started to buckle under the relentless attack of a physical threat. Like Napoleon with the yellow fever outbreak in Haiti, Trump seems to have taken the virus as a personal insult. If only he could wish it away, reelection would be assured.
Today, as we watch Fox News clips from February and March, the dominant impression is that those pundits and anchors were playing by a different set of rules. Where reality is infinitely malleable, you never have anything to lose by being extreme and definitive in your views. It is more entertaining to be extreme, and unshakable conviction can quickly gain you a large following. Being proven wrong is not a risk, at least not for those who understand that every point of view can be endlessly argued and the argument itself ends up shaping our perceptions of what the facts are. But the virus had a hard logic of its own.
Where many in his party wanted to launch a project of social transformation, Biden never stopped pouring cold water on the risky venture to change America. Where the young socialists on the left wanted to continue dreaming, he heralded a resigned return to reality.
The main binary in American politics is not between left and right, but between fiction and reality. One experiences particular fictions, but at some point they must be revealed as no more than fictions. They must be switched off, in anticipation of new stories.
In this context, Biden is the kill switch. In all my years of following American politics, I have never seen a presidential character so devoid of a positive program. His whole appeal was that he could remove Trump, he could switch the channel. It is not a coincidence that his first decisions after taking office on January 20 will surely be the reversal of several highly controversial Trump administration policies, from the travel ban to the withdrawal from the Paris climate accords.