January 20, 2021
The American Prospect
Joe Biden’s call for unity is a stretch, but that doesn’t mean progress is off the table.
Joseph R. Biden’s presidential inauguration came as a golden oldie, a restoration of the familiar even as it broke new ground by also inaugurating Kamala Harris as his veep.
But January 20th was a day when new ground was broken simply by the necessity of invoking values so old that merely to affirm them is, in normal conditions, boilerplate, lip service, cliché upon cliché. Yes, we value democracy. Yes, we need and value truth.
Affirming those values today, however, wasn’t lip service. That’s how grotesque things had become during the misrule of Donald Trump.
“There is truth and there are lies,” the new president said. The right-wing “intellectuals” who’ve been bemoaning postmodernism for years finally had a president who refuted its central creed. That president, however, was unmistakably referring to the postmodern (or premodern, pre-Enlightenment, pre-empiricism) demagoguery routinely spouted by the Goebbels-esque combine of his predecessor, senators like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, congressmembers like Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, Rupert Murdoch’s many henchmen, and the whole of the counterfactual American right.
Biden’s was far from the most eloquent of inaugural addresses, but it surely was among the most heartfelt. It didn’t soar, but it movingly beseeched, calling for an end to the demonization of political differences, to the scourge of white supremacism, to the “uncivil war” that has defined our times. That he personally felt these missions, and the need to mount an effective federal response to the pandemic and the economic havoc it has wrought, was made clear, however inadvertently, by his lapsing into his own Bidenesque forms of sincerity. I can’t recall an inaugural address (and I’m old enough to have heard a whole lot) so punctuated by a new president’s use of the word “folks” as a form of direct address. It’s Biden’s way of suggesting that we’re all in this together—a reflexive, rather than a strategic, word choice; a word that prefaces his appeals to all of us to get serious, a word that signals he thinks of himself as one of us and hopes that we’re part of that “us,” too.
There was a more eloquent statement of Biden’s themes in today’s ceremony; to my surprise and, I suspect, that of virtually everyone, it came from the inaugural’s designated poet, performing what is usually a pro forma part of the services. There was nothing pro forma, though, about 22-year-old Amanda Gorman and her poem, which sounded Biden’s calls for inclusiveness, justice, and democratic norms in a rap-like tempo, making a hoped-for history rhyme. As Biden spoke as the “folksy” grandpa trying to bring the nation around to a more commonly shared sense, so Gorman spoke as the quicksilver street kid demanding a better tomorrow—but both, somehow, sounding the same message and affirming the same values.
Donald Trump, of course, was absent from the ceremony. He had begun the day by rescinding his own executive order that had forbidden former members of his administration from quickly going to work as lobbyists, particularly as lobbyists for foreign powers. This recission followed hard upon his pardoning of Steve Bannon, who now, freed from the looming threat of justice, can go to work directly for Vladimir Putin, or, perhaps, Putin, the Mercer family, Rupert Murdoch, and My Pillow simultaneously.
The transition from Trump to Biden signals many changes, not least of which is a refocusing of government away from the personal needs, hates, and fears of the president himself. During Trump’s term, the Republican Party essentially became the action arm of the president’s psychological deficiencies—in the past several months, of his inability to see himself as a loser, his rejection by the American electorate notwithstanding. By the time he left office, the base of his party had itself embraced that inability.
If that’s not a prime example of mass psychosis, I don’t know what is. When coupled with the party’s failure to produce a platform in 2020, what the nation is left with is a party defined by raging resentments, fear of our multiracial future, and the hungry swallowing of lies that reinforce those fears and resentments. And precious little else.
That puts Biden’s hoped-for unity well out of reach, though some more temperate Republicans have fled or are now fleeing their former political home. What it doesn’t put out of reach is progress—toward a more efficient distribution of vaccines; toward greater racial, gender, and economic equity; toward a political system less dominated by big money. Getting there will require scrapping the ability of a Senate minority to block a Senate majority, which is to say that one of the democratic norms this nation has yet to realize is real majority rule. That’s one more value to which we’ve given lip service but never actualized, one of those old values to which old Joe Biden must give new meaning if his presidency, if his nation, is going to succeed.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect.