Joe Biden and the Great Man Theory of History


In his three-and-a-half years in the White House, Donald Trump has illustrated both the basic truth and the contradiction that underpins the Great Man Theory of History. It is as follows: you do not need to be a great man – in the sense of being wise, honourable, good and kind – to greatly affect the course of history. All you need to do is to be elected president of the richest, most militarily powerful country in the world and to set an unusual course.

Mr Trump has done all of that in spades. He set an unusual course for an American president, displaying traits that mark out leaders in other parts of  the world. For instance, he shares with Charles de Gaulle the tendency to nationalism and protectionism; with Chairman Mao the instinct to be uniquely self-regarding and controlling and with Kemal Ataturk, a desire to re-make the system.

It’s fair to say, Mr Trump has made history rather than simply managed it.

Now, Joe Biden is preparing for the only election America has ever held in a full-fledged pandemic in its 244 years as an independent nation. It is not too much to think that if he won the White House, Mr Biden may buttress the inherent contradiction of the Great Man Theory: you don’t have to be a great man to greatly affect the course of history.

By all accounts, Mr Biden is a good but not a great man. He’s certainly a fairly dull politician, an old-school type with a tendency to tell family stories of staggering tedium. But he is a kind, decent and empathetic man. Mr Biden, even more than Mr Trump, may come to epitomise the Great Man Theory of History. An American president does not have to be a great man to be of great consequence and therefore, a “Great Man” of history.

Unique circumstances will obtain in January 2021, when a new US president takes office (be it a re-elected Mr Trump or a newly elected President Biden).

There will be a great hunger for someone who recognises the need for a new way of doing things. That is hardly surprising. The pandemic – a once-in-a-century global event – is the largest disruption since WWII and therefore, for three generations. Were there to be a President Biden, he would have the task of creating multi-lateral institutions of global health governance, among other things.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. So the cliché goes. Circumstances could make Joe Biden a “great man” for the history books.