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There will be no debate over the size of the crowd at the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States, because there wasn’t one.
There will be no inaugural balls, no boozed-up crowds dancing and singing. Those festivities of a healthy democracy were replaced by a capital city under military occupation, a National Mall empty of almost anyone but soldiers.
Newly inaugurated President Joe Biden addressed the nation and called for unity.
“My whole soul is in this: bringing America together,” he said. “Without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury ... Unity is the path forward.”
Yet he stood in front of the U.S. Capitol, a building that was sacked by a mob just two weeks prior. That building now represents, in part, the depths of division and sickness that haunt America. The images of the Jan. 6 insurrection stain our memories, and further troubles likely lie around the corner.
Biden’s words echoed out into the cold, met with applause by a small live audience, which was encircled by thousands of armed soldiers and police.
We have taken that peaceful transfer of power for granted for much of our 244 years as a nation. Today it needed to be enforced with barbed wire, layer upon layer of security perimeters, and investigations into whether some of the soldiers and police charged with keeping the peace could actually be sympathetic to those who would commit terrorist violence against the new Biden administration.
Four years ago, the incoming president took the reins of government at a time when the U.S. economy had enjoyed several years of steady growth, and the biggest challenge facing the country was the inability of its political system to produce bipartisan solutions for major issues such as immigration, health care and trade.
That new president, Donald J. Trump, spoke of “American carnage” as something that had existed in the country for some time, and promised to rid the nation of it.
“We are one nation,” he said then.
Four years later, the nation is on its knees. There are few words that describe the past year better than “carnage.” We have lost over 400,000 human lives to a pandemic that the president has tried to wish away or ignore, which continues to kill over 3,000 people a day, all amid a bungled vaccine rollout.
The economy, which had continued to grow under Trump as it did under President Barack Obama, is buckling, and tens of millions of Americans are relying on government aid, and each other, to get them through the coronavirus pandemic, which has been going on for almost a year.
America’s standing in the world has taken a massive hit, emboldening its rivals and enemies and weakening many of its friends. Our nation’s ability to lead longstanding international alliances has been severely undercut.
But most significantly of all, America is more deeply divided than at any time since the Civil War. Trump’s incitement of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol demonstrated what is at the core of the nation’s most pressing problem: The president has led many millions of his supporters into a delusionary world of unreality. In the process, he has torn the nation apart, separating fathers from sons, sisters from brothers, and friends from friends.
This is the carnage that will mark the Trump era: that he acted throughout his presidency in a way to inflame divisions in the country and did little to bring unity or peace.
And now, after an election he clearly lost, and which in some ways went as smoothly as any presidential election in the modern era, Trump was surrounded over the last few days of his presidency by 25,000 or so National Guard soldiers — under the control of the governors in their home states and reporting to a patchwork of federal agencies — who were there to prevent another mob from attacking the inauguration, possibly at Trump’s own bidding.
Eerily, this situation was predicted by columnist Andrew Sullivan in an interview with Yahoo News two years ago.
“At some point he’s going to so refuse to leave that there’s going to have to be military force to get him out of there,” Sullivan predicted in December 2018, calling this a “nightmare scenario.” He envisioned a time in which Trump would claim “millions voted illegally and he isn’t leaving and this is a coup by the ‘deep state’ and the people need to come out on the streets to support their president.”
Last week Sullivan predicted that Jan. 6 was “the beginning of an ongoing, armed insurgency, denying the legitimacy of the democratically elected government of the United States, backed by a hefty chunk of one of the two major parties.”
“Like other words I’ve written these past few years, I look at that sentence and cannot quite believe it. But how is it not true? All we don’t know is the extent of it, whether it will grow and intensify, or fizzle and die away,” Sullivan wrote.
And so America now uneasily turns to the task of trying to move forward. Do we heal? How? How does the nation try to reincorporate millions of citizens back into civic life if they have decided they do not believe anything relayed to them by professional journalists? The promotion of conspiracies and lies by fortune-seeking grifters in conservative media and by demagogic politicians will not cease.
Biden spoke of bringing the country together. But his best shot for doing so is in showing rather than telling, in particular showing clear results on issues of immediate concern to all Americans. It’s clear that progress on dealing with COVID-19 is his top priority — in particular, getting the vaccine rollout back on track — and this is an issue that transcends partisan politics.
Healing the deeper political rifts in the nation is a staggering challenge. Millions of Americans are disconnected from objective reality after the Trump era and dismiss anything in mainstream media as fake. The political system itself is terribly disfigured and in need of reform. The incentives for politicians are mostly bad.
But at the very least, the departure of Trump from the presidency, and the arrival of Biden, give the country a much-needed chance to catch its breath. Never have so many Americans wanted politics to be boring again. They have seen that entertaining politics does not mean better outcomes for what Trump called his base: the “noble, everyday citizens of America.”
And while the cable TV hosts and the publicity hounds online and in Congress will continue to rage, many other Americans will be able to use the days ahead to think seriously about how to rebuild, restore and preserve what President Abraham Lincoln called a “just and lasting peace.”
“Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost,” wrote James Baldwin years ago as he sought to stave off despair about the nation’s future. “If one refuses abdication, one begins again.”
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