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By Stephen Rainey

Joe Biden won the recent US election. As yet, the normal concession speech from the losing candidate has not been forthcoming. Donald Trump’s actions since losing the presidency have been, well, Trumpian, prompting Biden to label them an ‘embarrassment.’ He also suggested that The Donald was endangering his legacy in not reacting more gracefully. But what use is talk of ‘legacy’? What matters most about it?

It would be easy to ‘Goldwater’ Trump, that is, diagnose some mental incapacity from afar. One could suggest he was ill-equipped to absorb his defeat. He has behaved in ways that could be seen as pathological. Maybe, we might continue, he really doesn’t believe this is the end. If that were the case, there would be no need to consider legacy. It would also be easy to have suspected that, far from sticking around, 45 would flounce out of the White House, his pride wounded. Legacy wouldn’t matter in that case, because the electorate, the people, would have shown themselves to be unworthy, having voted the wrong way. Sad.

At the time of writing, at any rate, it seems Team Trump’s attention has shifted, from Total Landscaping to local locksmiths, with a view to hanging around. That’s a third way to avoid contemplating legacy, besides not believing or not caring. Just ignore the eviction notice.

Part of legacy involves perception. And no one can have complete control over how they seem. But then, seeming some way often depends on being some way. The list of things Donald Trump has done that are reprehensible is long and well documented. But his legacy, no matter how he feels about that, might end up relating to how he seemed. Whether that’s as unwavering in his convictions, or a thin-skinned authoritarian; a no-nonsense speaker, or an ignoramus; a proud patriot, or a white-supremacist is likely to depend on whether you would have been among the roughly 70,590,524 Americans who voted for him.

Legacy-building is about seeming a certain way. Less about doing things to be remembered, more doing things that draw focus. Biden mentions legacy as that’s in his comfort zone. He already has a lot to draw on, having been a politician for a long time, well before becoming Obama’s VP. What’s more, his legacy for presidency is likely already sketched out. For some, before things are even underway, he’s always already going to be the guy who tidied up the mess that Trump left.

For many, their feeling now is one of relief. Their biggest hope is for a return to normal. But it’s all too easy to forget that ‘normal’ gave the world Trump. It’s easy to forget that Biden has been a part of building that normal for decades, at almost every level of government. From the perspective of the roughly 74,846,612 Americans who voted for Biden, they should hope for a world where Trump 2.0 is not possible. Everyone should be hoping that a future re-builder is not required. That means waving goodbye to ‘normal’.

Normal includes longstanding socio-political narratives centring public life upon the acquisitive success of the individual. J.G. Ballard, in his novel Kingdom Come, writes:

“The consumer society is a kind of soft police state. We think we have choice, but everything is compulsory. We have to keep buying or we fail as citizens. Consumerism creates huge unconscious needs that only fascism can satisfy.”

The notion that the Joneses might get too far ahead to catch makes suspicion easy. And suspicion is easy to vent by voting for the guy who points out some enemy and promises not to let them shine. Whose legacy is the flourishing of a damaging consumerism? Whose suspicion? It’s a bit like the 2010 advertisement for satnav, erected on a busy road: you’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.

Our leaders are made, not born, from the contours of the lives we the people lead. Our expectations, our joys, our fears, our stresses, prepare the ground for platforms that emerge. Civic virtue isn’t a matter of voting the right way among these offerings every few years. It includes every judgement made about what constitutes a life worth living – what we accept and what we refuse. It’s not enough that a slogan says ‘build back better’. Regression should not be so easy in the first place.

The legacies of electorates ought to figure higher in our minds. We shouldn’t let our legacies be defined by acquiescence in what’s normal, or by the CV-boosting manoeuvres of outgoing leaders. For things to seem better, we have to be better. That includes judging our leaders for what they are, not how they (want to) seem. We need to make a legacy not just of making better choices, but of insisting on better options too.

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