Words matter. Just two weeks ago, Donald Trump’s words—his lies—were powerful enough to send a crazed mob into the Capitol, seeking to overturn the democratic will of the American electorate. Shortly before noon on Wednesday, when Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., was sworn in as the forty-sixth President of the United States, he offered a very different vision of the power of language to remake political reality. His bet was that, if words can divide us, they can bring us together, too. Biden spoke of unity, of national reconciliation, and also—and perhaps most important of all—of the need for leaders “to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
Only after four years of the Trump Presidency would the mention of “truth” in an Inaugural Address become an applause line. But we are where we are. The country has had so much lying. Much will be made of Biden’s plea to “end this uncivil war,” and of his stirring language about democracy prevailing. But it was his love letter to the role of truth in a free society that rang loudest to me during his twenty-minute speech, which took place under a sunny Washington sky, amid a crisis like no other in our modern history.
Biden did not shrink from the unpleasant facts of the moment; he embraced them. “We must reject the culture,” he said, “in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.” He did not say Trump’s name; he did not need to. The contrast was all there. Unlike his predecessor, Biden began his tenure by levelling with the American people. He spoke of a “winter of peril,” as well as one of “significant possibilities,” that awaits America, and bluntly said what Trump never could: that as many Americans have now died in the pandemic as in all of the Second World War, and that we must mourn them. He spoke of the threat of “white supremacy”—surely a first in an Inaugural Address—and also pledged to vanquish this new “domestic terrorism.” He spoke of jobs lost and racial injustice. This, after the past four years, is something new and important in and of itself—a strategy of truth-telling, not truth-denying. The road to reconciliation, if there is such a road, must run through it.
Will those words of truth carry the same political force as the Trump insults and epithets, conspiracy theories and falsehoods, that so ripped the country apart for the past four years? Wednesday was not a day for answering that question, or even for dwelling too much on it. After Trump, it was enough that this Inaugural celebration was happening at all, right there in the open air on the West Front of the Capitol, for all the world to see. Biden’s mere presence where pro-Trump rioters had so recently smashed and looted was both a victory for American democracy and a devastating rebuke of his disgraced predecessor.
Inauguration Day began, as we knew it would, with the last few Trumpian outrages: his overnight pardons of a rogues’ gallery of corrupt politicians and his former adviser Steve Bannon, arrested last summer for allegedly swindling Trump’s own supporters, and a churlish, typically untruthful goodbye speech that failed, once again, even to mention Biden’s name. Trump’s early-morning departure ceremony, at Joint Base Andrews, was in as much poor taste as the rest of his Administration: “YMCA” blaring on the loudspeakers, an excess of American flags and Trump family members. As Air Force One took off, soon before 9 a.m., bearing Trump for the last time—because he could not bring himself to attend Biden’s swearing-in, as all previous Presidents for the past hundred and fifty-two years have done—“My Way,” from Frank Sinatra, played to the crowd. The historian Michael Beschloss quickly noted that Sinatra was on the record as having hated Trump.
At that very moment, the split screen on the television showed Biden at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, the historic church in downtown Washington where the funeral mass for John F. Kennedy—the only Catholic President other than Biden, all these decades later—was held. Biden was there at a mass with congressional leaders of both parties. Had the new President choreographed it, he could not have hit on a better image of what America is leaving behind, and what it is getting.
And this is the best-case scenario for Biden. Because, for all the troubles he inherits, all the hate and division fostered by his predecessor, it is always a good thing to take a new job when the previous holder of that job is widely seen to have failed in it. The nowhere-to-go-but-up principle should not be discounted here. Trump left office with the lowest average approval ratings of any President in the history of modern polling (as his wife, Melania, did for First Ladies). Biden, in contrast, is currently looked upon favorably by close to sixty per cent of Americans.
Once proceedings began at the Capitol, the absence of the Great Divider already seemed to be making a difference, even if purely an atmospheric one. Republican congressional leaders and Democratic congressional leaders said the expected things, which seemed a newsworthy relief. (Was it even worth putting aside, at least for a minute, the sheer hypocrisy of hearing soothing platitudes of unity from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who, two weeks ago, voted to refuse to certify Biden’s Electoral College win? Biden looked like he was ready to, even if many others are not.)
“This is the day when our democracy picks itself up,” Senator Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic head of the inaugural committee, said.
“This is not a moment of division—this is a moment of unification,” Senator Roy Blunt, the Republican head of the inaugural committee said. It was, Blunt added, “a new beginning.”
Never have the old patriotic clichés about America sounded so good.
May their words matter and their aspirations turn into reality. Is this what optimism feels like?
Read More About the Presidential Transition
- Donald Trump has survived impeachment, twenty-six sexual-misconduct accusations, and thousands of lawsuits. His luck may well end now that Joe Biden is the next President.
- With litigation unlikely to change the outcome of the election, Republicans are looking to strategies that might remain even after rebuffs both at the polls and in court.
- With the Trump Presidency ending, we need to talk about how to prevent the moral injuries of the past four years from happening again.
- If 2020 has demonstrated anything, it is the need to rebalance the economy to benefit the working class. There are many ways a Biden Administration can start.
- Trump is being forced to give up his attempt to overturn the election. But his efforts to build an alternative reality around himself will continue.
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