Two weeks after barbarians stormed the People’s House with Confederate and Trump flags, Nazi slogans and guns, on the hunt for the vice president, speaker of the House and other officials in a violent attempt to overthrow the incoming government, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took their oaths of office.
After watching the National Guard fortify the U.S. Capitol, as well as similar attempts right here at Michigan’s Capitol amid further threats from right-wing extremists, I was exceedingly nervous about the outdoor events Wednesday. But it turns out that a bit of old-fashioned pomp and circumstance, even with COVID-19 protocols, was exactly what America needed at this moment.
We have been battered by the pandemic, by insurrectionists, by the Trump agenda that sought one set of rights and benefits for his supporters and dystopian inequality, discrimination and neglect for those he deemed lesser: immigrants, BIPOC, women, LGBTQs, disabled people and more.
He was never a president for all America. He was never expected to be or hectored to be by pundits.
Like the fable he was so fond of telling on the campaign trail before his surprise 2016 win, we knew he was a snake. But, even though a majority of Americans didn’t vote for him, we let him in. By winning over enough voters in key states like Michigan, he pretended he had a mandate to destroy longstanding relationships with our allies, show a compulsive fealty to Russia, install his unqualified children in key roles, funnel taxpayer dollars to his properties and and repeatedly try to interfere in the 2020 election.
But it was Trump’s racist immigration policy with which he kicked off his singular term, from the Muslim ban to attempting to destroy DACA, to ripping babies away from their parents at the border to his stupid, misconstructed wall, that best encapsulated his vision of America, one of savage inequality, propped up by brute force.
The Trump era was an attempt, as writer Adam Serwer presciently told us more than four years ago — when few people wanted to hear Cassandra talk — at a Second Redemption after the first Black president he had deemed illegitimate with the birther lie. The first Redemption, of course, came after the Civil War and the brief experiment of Radical Reconstruction, when Black men were able to exercise some rights of citizenship as the country haltingly attempted to piece itself together. In the end, a white counterrevolution triumphed, leading to Jim Crow and African Americans didn’t win basic human rights until the 1950s and 1960s.
Since then, we have seen slow and often unsatisfying progress for BIPOC, women, LGBTQs and more. Those rights have often been threatened in recent decades and sometimes rolled back. But under Trump, it was a full-on assault, all day, every day. And not just in policy, but in his diarrhea-like insults and tweets that some privileged pundits smugly lectured us not to take literally.
There is a reason why so many people felt they could never fully relax and fell asleep doomscrolling for four years. To add insult to injury, we had to read a constant stream of diner safari stories to try and understand why poor Trump supporters were still so angry even though their hero was the leader of the free world. Marginalized people were told in so many ways that we simply did not matter.
But in November 2018, we showed up to vote anyway. With Democratic wins in the U.S. House, governorships and attorney general posts across the country, there was finally some accountability for Trump. He was impeached the first time. He was sued for his health, environmental and immigration orders and lost many times. The blue wave was the beginning of the end, even if pundits who insisted on covering 2020 as a mere continuation of the 2016 election assiduously decided to ignore that.
And in November 2020, Biden won by more than 7 million votes — a crushing defeat for an incumbent president.
What followed was predictable and not just because of Trump. Republicans have long baselessly claimed voter fraud in Democratic, heavily African American cities, so Trump’s two months of weird conspiracy theories mushroomed in fertile territory. And as we’ve seen in Michigan and other states — despite, again, the insistence of well-off pundits to the contrary — Republicans simply do not recognize the authority of Democrats to govern. Heavily armed rallies were organized across the country long before Jan. 6.
So it was never going to be a traditional or even peaceful transfer of power from Trump to Biden. And while thousands of bloodthirsty traitors trashing our nation’s Capitol was one of the worst-case scenarios, the violence was unsurprising. And, you could argue, it was as American as apple pie.
We should all be grateful that they did not succeed and that the swift arrest of key figures appears to have provided a huge deterrent for the pro-Trump insurrectionists not to try anything since, especially on Inauguration Day.
But there is no moving on from this sordid period without accountability from those congressional Republicans who voted to overturn the election even after a coup that left five people dead. And that goes for state lawmakers who signed letters and onto court cases in solidarity (which basically argued their own elections were invalid).
Those are traitorous acts and should not be treated as standard partisan games. I would suggest that any commentators who can’t tell the difference take up knitting, as Hillary Clinton supporters were sneeringly told four years ago.
There must be justice. This is the only way to heal our nation. At 78 years old and a proud creature of the old-guard Senate, Biden would seem to be an unlikely warrior, but he is being pushed by progressives, by his Black and Indian-American female VP, by history. And so his inaugural address was an unmistakable rebuke of white supremacy, denouncing the “racism, nativism, fear, demonization” of the insurrection.
“A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us,” Biden said. “A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear. And now a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) January 20, 2021
Denial is a strong force in American politics — as strong a force as any — but it cannot triumph now. As I listened to Biden’s speech, I felt an unfamiliar twinge of hope. Later that night, I saw former President Obama post a photo in the Oval Office with his former vice president, writing, “Congratulations to my friend, President @JoeBiden! This is your time.”
That broke me.
That return of normalcy, of camaraderie, of decency to the White House was overwhelming. But it is so necessary. And right now, just for a moment, it is everything.