American politics is now the land of make-believe. Democrats make believe that President Joe Biden’s daily lapses are mere gaffes and not signs of a steadily worsening condition. His trip to Maui was notable for a series of awkward blunders, tall tales, and cognitive glitches, and the press takeaway is that Republicans have mischaracterized it all for partisan gain.
Liberals continue to make believe that the Hunter Biden/Vice President Biden/Justice Department/IRS scandal is small-fry family drama or right-wing hysteria. No matter that every day brings a new development or corroborative detail pointing to alleged misconduct. A recent headline in New York magazine claims that “Actually, Hunter Biden Is Getting It Worse.” The subhead explains: “A Bumbling Justice Department and GOP pressure make this prosecution anything but a ‘sweetheart deal.’” Pure reality inversion.
But like most of our current woes, the make-believe disease is bipartisan. On the right, trailing Republican presidential candidates make believe that they’re not running against Donald Trump. Except for Chris Christie, they’re running as Trump understudies and supporters who dare not criticize the man in plain language. That game requires even moderate Republicans to make believe that January 6 was something short of a historic travesty and that all Trump’s indictments are nothing but naked persecution. It could be that those of us who criticize this tack are also making believe—pretending that going after Trump head-on wouldn’t cost his opponents just as dearly. And maybe we’re all making believe that this is a real race and that Trump’s competition is, in fact, competition.
What’s most striking, however, is that the disconnect between American politics and American life couldn’t be more apparent. While politics has become make-believe, Americans have moved into a period of very real crises. The Covid pandemic was a calamity on a scale that the U.S. hadn’t experienced since the attacks of 9/11. And we’re still treading in the virus’s wake: Inflation is real; the crime spike is real; the breakdown in education and child mental health is real. None of it has gone away. We just live with it now.
Beyond the pandemic, there’s a ballooning migrant crisis that the current administration pretends is under control. And there’s the war in Ukraine—it’s real, and its outcome is as uncertain as it ever was. The Biden approach of “as long as it takes” is make-believe assurance when Ukrainians need weapons, aircraft, and materiel right now. And the Trump promise of a peace deal in “one day” is science fiction. Despite Americans’ increasing distaste for helping Ukraine, a victorious Vladimir Putin would make the world a much more frightening place for the United States and its allies. This is to say nothing of other real crises on the horizon—a potential economic collapse in China possibly foremost among them.
What’s too real for partisans to handle—what they’ve papered over with political fantasy—is the crackup in our leadership and institutions. Democrats can’t countenance the true meaning of Joe Biden’s shortcomings and misdeeds. And Republicans can’t cop to the unprecedented transgressions of Donald Trump. And so both sides proceed as if their standard-bearer were not facing serious trouble. We muddle on in a political season that seems unreal because it is unreal. The 2024 election is 439 days away. That’s a lot of make-believe still to go. Will reality assert itself before then? It may seem impossible at the moment, but the safe bet is yes. It has a historical tendency to do so.