NEVER HAVE consecutive presidential inaugurations been so different. And the fact that Joe Biden’s swearing-in on January 20th was held in plague conditions was only the half of it.
Donald Trump was inaugurated outside the Capitol Building four years ago in front of a big, not massive, crowd. But only a lucky few were permitted to witness Mr Biden’s induction in person. The ceremony resembled more a state-of-the-union address, with the 46th president surrounded by a few hundred members of Congress and their guests, as well as dignitaries including three former presidents, but not Mr Trump.
In place of the usual crowd stretching down the National Mall, Mr Biden’s inaugural committee had planted almost 200,000 national and state flags. Such poignant symbolism, and strange emptiness outside the Capitol Building, also recall the violent insurrection by Mr Trump’s supporters that had taken place there just two weeks before. “We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,” intoned Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old youth poet laureate, reciting a poem on national unity she had written for the inauguration.
That honoured a custom which has dated back to Abraham Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” and beyond. American elections have always been a grind, the country has generally been divided, but on inauguration days the incoming president and his supporters are expected to declare the discord over, in celebration of the nation and democracy, as well as the fictional unity that Ms Gorman’s poem described.
Four years ago Mr Trump instead offered the same dystopian image of a crime-ridden, fearful and divided country that he had described during his election campaign. And also his familiar boastful promise to bring it to heel. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he said. (“That was some weird shit,” was George W. Bush’s response.)
Mr Biden reverted to the usual custom; but gravely. “On this hallowed ground, where just days ago violence sought to shake this Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible,” he said, referring to the actual carnage Mr Trump brought.
He also set the insurrectionist mob in its proper place, in the history of bigotry and reactionary violence that America has often seen and overcome. “I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real, but I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal, and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear and demonisation have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial. Victory is never assured.”
It was a good inauguration speech, more tempered than the usual patriotic homily, and somehow suited to Mr Biden’s modest rhetorical gifts. It was at the same time as optimistic as the new president could reasonably be—surrounded, as he was, by the same Republican lawmakers who had spent weeks declaring his election a fraud and seeking to overthrow it. America has been through this before, was Mr Biden’s message. “Will we rise to the occasion?” was his question.
“Will we master this rare and difficult hour? Will we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world for our children? I believe we must and I believe we will.” That was just enough equivocation; it was nicely done.
How quickly America emerges from the political disaster of the past few weeks will depend, first of all, on whether its politics remain haunted by Mr Trump. Most Republican lawmakers leaders follow him in fear, not admiration. Many were appalled by the riot he incited—especially, in the days that followed it, as the details of Mr Trump’s incendiary words to the rioters, initial alleged enthusiasm for their efforts, and apparent lack of concern for the victims became clear. His second impeachment trial is probably forthcoming—once the legal arguments are done. There is a chance that enough Republican senators might vote with the Democrats to convict him of “incitement of insurrection”, to ensure he could never hold office again.
On January 19th Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, again hinted that he considered Mr Trump’s impeachment warranted. He said the insurrectionist mob had been “fed lies” and “provoked by the president”. Yet whether he and the requisite 16 other Republicans might vote to convict and bar Mr Trump will probably depend as much on his perceived popularity on the right, once his trial is held, as on the evidence against him.
He is still popular with Republicans. Mr Trump has left office as the most unpopular president nationally since modern polling began—but with an 80% approval among Republican voters. The question is whether that will survive his recent exile from Twitter and the White House and now, back home in Florida, the reality of his defeat.
At a hastily convened leave-taking ceremony on January 20th, held at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, Mr Trump boasted to a few hundred of his aides, former aides and their relatives of his claimed achievements. “Elements of our economy,” he predicted, are “set to be a rocket ship up”, provided Mr Biden’s administration does not trash them. (“I hope they don’t raise your taxes. But if they do, I told you so.”). It was a small crowd for such an occasion. Mr McConnell and his Republican counterpart in the House, Kevin McCarthy, had elected not to join it, but to attend a pre-inauguration Mass with Mr Biden and his family instead.
Then Mr Trump bade his hangers-on and the presidency farewell. “We will be back in some form… Have a nice life,” he said, as one of his cherished disco songs began to blare. It was “YMCA”, the great homage to gay cruising by the Village People. And so the president and first lady boarded their flight home to Mar-a-Lago and quit the public stage, until they next return, “in some form”. As so often in the past four years, it was tempting to wonder whether what had just happened was not real, but a strange dream.
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