Donald Trump had hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson near his desk in the Oval Office. It’s quite likely that he didn´t know very well who the seventh president of the US was, until his advisor Steve Bannon paired him with Jackson. It was a good choice of a mirror: the southern military man became the first populist to occupy the White House, a brawler who was accustomed to duels, conflict, and gambling, a defender of the man in the street, but also a pioneer in corrupting the Administration. Jackson stepped out of the catalogue of enlightened presidents, from George Washington to John Quincy Adams, and his strategy for gaining power was to exalt forgotten America over the East Coast elites. After he left office, the Know-Nothing Party emerged, which was opposed to immigration and defended at gunpoint authentic Americanism, a legacy comparable to the rise of the Trump mob that assaulted the Capitol on January 6th and is today still prepared to ride roughshod over the rules of democracy.
As soon as he got to the Oval Office Joe Biden ordered the portrait of Andrew Jackson, which Trump had chosen, to be taken down and replaced by a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. This great scientist, journalist, educator, diplomat, philanthropist and Founding Father of the United States seemed to him to be a more appropriate inspiration, clearly a more enlightened one, for the new challenges he faced. In the Democratic narrative, Biden assumes the role of restoring democracy after four years of darkness. A light that brings a long night to an end. Rationality after irrationality. With half a century of service behind him, the new president does not stand out for his attachment to the world of ideas or ideological debates. He is a professional politician, toughened by decades in the Senate, followed by eight years as Vice-President. But as we could hear in his inaugural address, Biden is a profound believer in the moral legacy of American democracy; “my whole soul is in it”, he said, quoting Lincoln, at the most moving moment of his inaugural speech. The figure of the multifaceted Benjamin Franklin could serve him as an example for the development of initiatives in at least three areas, in which the United States, more than ever, needs a leadership inspired in values.
Faced with the conspiratorial and paranoid mentality that has spread through part of the population, which rejects science and even vaccines, Biden must carry on investing in research —a clear competitive advantage for his country- and make the US a magnet again when it comes to attracting the best scientists and academics in the world, that is to say, the next Benjamin Franklins. It is equally important to strengthen global networks for scientific cooperation, the results of which have been so impressive in the stepped-up search for vaccines against Covid-19. One of Biden’s great challenges in connection with scientific development is to find better rules of the game for the big technological firms who are leading actors in the digital revolution, a prospect which these giants now seem more amenable to.
Franklin may also serve as an inspiration to the new president to hammer out a new international politics based on alliances, instead of on the bravado and improvisations which have weakened the United States, especially vis-a-vis China. As a diplomat in France and at the Court of St James, the great inventor worked tirelessly and promoted the Independence of his country, at the same time that he exercised a power of attraction toward the colonies of North America, as they were transformed into the first democracy. This soft power, based on culture, communication, a way of life and civic values, is something that the United States has lost in these last four years. If it is not recovered, the country will not manage to defend its global interests effectively.
But the area in which Biden can learn the most from the enlightenment master who is his point of reference is in his defense of democracy. Walter Isaacson, former president of the Aspen Institute, explains that Franklin’s chief virtue was tolerance. He was a pragmatist, capable of finding common ground, “the most complete American of his time and the most influential when it came to inventing the model of society toward which we should aspire”.
With the passing of years, the founding father of the United States learned to take part in polemics without losing his sense of humor. For some time, he was intent on learning all the virtues and he drew up very specific rules about how to achieve this. At the end of the experiment he confessed that “I have learned all the virtues but humility, but this I have learned to feign.” Biden shares this capacity not to take himself so seriously all the time and his not infrequent mistakes during public appearances have made him more popular with voters.
We know that the new president wants to unite a profoundly divided country, without failing to affirm concepts that were forgotten in the Trump period, such as dignity, honor, decency, and truth. Franklin would have gone along with Biden in defending the idea that political disagreements do not turn the other into an enemy. But he would have agreed also on the need to take a firm stand before the authoritarian tendencies of Trump’s heirs, who have grown apace in the Republican Party and are not allowing that venerable political formation to reinvent itself.
In that sense, Franklin was a man who forged lasting agreements. Consensus, he explained, is not reached by great leaders but, rather, by great democracies. When at the end of the negotiations in Philadelphia that brought forth the Constitution of 1787, he asked for the floor to speak, everyone listened in silence. Too old to read his speech, a spokesman explained in his name that, during the proceedings, Franklin had wondered if the star carved in the seat of the president of the assembly was a sunset or a sunrise. On seeing the results that the Convention could reach, he was certain that the solar ornament represented the dawn of a new day.