No one alive to the acute danger Donald Trump has posed to the American body politic over the past four years — continually demonstrating and rewarding corruption and incompetence, ceaselessly spewing political toxins into the civic air we all breathe — could have been anything other than hugely delighted and relieved by the events of Jan. 20, 2021.
Two weeks to the day after he incited the most potent insurrectionary act against the federal government since the Civil War, Trump was gone, fleeing the White House by helicopter hours before the grandest ritual in our public life got underway. His successor took the oath of office in front of a small crowd of political dignitaries, while National Guard troops stood watch, assuring that the presidential transition would take place peacefully. It was a moment of gravity, an occasion for counting ourselves lucky. We gave the most important job in the country to a pathologically narcissistic imbecile, endured it for four years, and managed to get out alive (or at least most of us have). What a relief.
Given that backdrop, President Biden’s task on Wednesday afternoon was an easy one. He merely needed to sound normal, likable, decent, well-meaning, and marginally aware of the existence and dignity of other human beings. That was the bare minimum required to surpass the man he succeeded as president. But Biden did much better than that — delivering a speech that was fairly pedestrian as rhetoric but filled with empathy and heart, as well as calls to turn down the temperature and stop shouting at each other. That was welcome.
Less welcome was the overriding theme of the speech, which was the need for national “unity.” If this was a fleeting gesture toward healing that will soon be set aside in favor of the rigors of governing and getting things done, then there may be nothing to object to. Every American loves a little sentimentality at such moments, and maybe especially this time around, after the endless rancor and divisiveness of the last four years.
But if the speech gave us a glimpse of what Biden really thinks, how he really plans to conceive of his presidency, then we’re going to be in for a rough ride. Because the way Biden spoke about the country in his remarks betrays an attachment to one of our oldest and most foolish myths — the idea, most famously expressed by Thomas Paine in Common Sense, that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
Americans love the idea of starting over from scratch, leaving the past behind, setting out across wide-open spaces under vast blue skies toward a boundless horizon in search of something new — hitting the road, being born again, getting a new life. Ronald Reagan was especially fond of the idea, showing that his style of conservatism was anything but.
Biden certainly acknowledged our divisions, the anger and hatreds coursing through the country. It’s admirable to talk about the need to overcome them; Biden can and should strive to be president to all Americans. But it’s naïve and foolish to think the sentiment will be reciprocated by very many on the other side of those divisions and hatreds.
Twenty-eight years ago, decades before Trump made everything orders of magnitude worse, a moderate Democrat took the oath of office and almost immediately faced scorched-earth opposition from Republicans. And through all eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, despite his support for a crime bill now universally reviled on the left, the enactment of welfare reform that drew on conservative ideas, and the overtly Reaganite proclamation that “the era of big government is over,” that opposition never let up one bit.
Likewise with Barack Obama, whose first inaugural address, delivered at another moment of national crisis, touched on similar themes of unity and working together to overcome hardship and conquer adversity. Much of Obama’s presidency was marked by an effort to situate himself beyond — beyond division, beyond partisanship, beyond the grubby realities of politics itself. That’s another form of the fantasy — that we can start over, fresh, purified, sinless.
And what did Obama get for his efforts? Eight years of furious Republican opposition to almost everything he did or said, along with feverish accusations of haughtiness, arrogance, superiority, and, most of all, hypocrisy — for deigning to practice politics after rhetorically positioning himself above it.
Biden may well be able to get additional pandemic relief through Congress with some Republican support. He will likely enjoy some bipartisan good will on efforts to speed up vaccine distribution. Foreign policy may be an area where the new president can find common ground with the opposition party. But immigration? Large expansions of the Affordable Care Act? Anything touching on the multiple dimensions of the culture war? Forget about it. On these and surely many other issues, Biden and his party are going to have to go it alone in the face of savage opposition.
That’s because our divisions are real and deep, and they can’t be waved away by gestures of good will. In some cases, the differences go all the way down, to the bedrock of our national story. Progressives affirm the civic catechism expressed in the poem recited by Amanda Gorman at the inauguration, in which the country is constantly working to purify itself of its egregious past and present sins as it strives for an ever-more-morally-sanctified tomorrow.
Conservatives, by contrast, look back to what they hold to be a nearly perfect past from which we have fallen away but can always recapture if we reconnect with our original greatness. As one could see from the report of the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, published earlier this week to nearly universal scorn by academic historians and now removed from the White House website, many conservatives view the moral offenses of slavery and racism as peripheral errors of the distant past that clearly diverged from the eternal verities undergirding American self-government, which also deserve credit for inspiring their extirpation from the country long ago.
Our leaders can talk of unity all they want, but there is likely no way — and certainly no easy way — to synthesize these divergent understandings of who we are as a country, or the policy implications that each party’s voters firmly believe follow from each. This doesn’t mean we’re destined to descend into violence over our differences. But it does mean that governing in our era is bound to be a struggle, no matter which party stands at the helm.
If Joe Biden hopes to successfully steer the ship of state through these choppy waters, he will need to temper his idealistic invocation of unity with something tougher and, at times, more ruthless. What America needs most of all is for Biden to prove himself a realist.
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