At a little past noon on Wednesday, January 20, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. Donald Trump is expected to quietly slip out of Washington shortly before the event for his last flight on Air Force One. As a final presidential wish, Trump asked for a departure ceremony, complete with military honor guard, a red carpet, and a 21-gun salute. His critics may feel that he deserves something closer to a firing squad.
In contrast to past inaugurations, Biden’s ceremony is expected to be attended by only around 2,000 carefully selected guests, mostly people who have a direct connection to the US government. The rest of Washington has been turned into an armed camp with 25,000 National Guard troops brought in to protect against a ragtag assortment of white extremist groups and psychologically unstable hangers-on who appear to have swallowed an array of astonishingly outlandish conspiracy theories.
The greatest conspiracy theory of all, of course, is Donald Trump’s bizarre contention that the 2020 election, regarded by most experts as one of the most honest in history and certainly the one in which more Americans voted than ever before, was somehow fraudulent. Having lost by more than 7 million votes, Trump insisted against all logic and reason that he had, in fact, won. He hadn’t. According to CNN’s count on December 4, the final tally was roughly 74.6 million votes for Trump and 81.2 million for Biden, who is the first presidential candidate in history to win more than 80 million votes. The fairness of the election was proven to anyone who bothered to think about it by the fact that, although Trump lost, the same ballots that elected Biden also registered substantial wins for Republican candidates running in congressional races. The major loser, in short, was Trump, but not the rest of the GOP.
None of that appeared to make an impression on Trump, who inexplicably continued to promote the fiction that he had actually won despite all evidence to the contrary. While Trump’s insistence appeared unhinged, it is worth recalling that in the 1930s, Adolph Hitler’s chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels bragged that it is easy to defeat democracy. All you have to do is lie and keep repeating the lie until the public finally believes you. In Trump’s case, the effort was apparently enough to convince three out of four Republicans that something might have gone wrong, although no one could say exactly what it was. While the lie comforted Trump’s true believers, it nevertheless failed to convince the rest of the country to disenfranchise millions of American voters or to overturn America’s democratic system. What it did accomplish was to stir up an angry mob. Trump’s last desperate resort may have been the slender hope that overrunning the Capitol might prevent the certification of the Electoral College results and leave him in office.
A surge in threatening extremist chatter on social media networks has convinced law enforcement and intelligence agencies that the assault on the Capitol may have been a preview for an attack on the inauguration itself.
On January 6, Brian Philips, the executive vice president of Cumulus Media, which controls a nationwide network of conservative talk shows, issued orders to all of its stations telling morning conservative talk show hosts to stop repeating Trump’s false allegations that the election had been fraudulent.
Philips’s warning came too late. A mob of thousands of angry Trump supporters attacked the Capitol. The more vociferous leaders of the mob shouted that they wanted to find and kill members of Congress and hang Vice President Mike Pence. To illustrate the point, they rigged a makeshift gallows just outside the Capitol building. By then Trump had retreated to the White House to watch the pandemonium on television. Although clearly aware of what was happening, he made no effort to stop it. With no commander in chief in the chain of command, the Pentagon hesitated to deploy the National Guard. Finally, as the mob closed in on Pence, the Secret Service and the Pentagon decided that it was time to move.
A surge in threatening extremist chatter on social media networks has convinced law enforcement and intelligence agencies that the assault on the Capitol may have been a preview for an attack on the inauguration itself. With more than enough experience dealing with Islamic terrorists, US security agencies have now begun to realize that they have a domestic terrorist problem that may be more immediate. They not only have several hundred self-styled “militia” movements to deal with, but they also have to contend with the occasional lunatic. Last December, in Nashville, TN, a recluse triggered a massive bomb concealed in a recreational vehicle destroying an entire block in the city’s historic downtown. The apparent motive was that the bomber’s personal life was spinning out of control, and he wanted to exit life by making some headlines. Whether personal or political, the damage is the same.
What makes hardened anti-terrorism experts particularly nervous right now is the fact that it is difficult to know if any of Trump’s unhinged supporters have infiltrated the ranks of the heavily armed troops protecting the inauguration. During the assault against the Capitol, several Capitol Police officers were spotted fraternizing with and helping the mob carry out the assault, and even a few members of Congress are suspected of aiding and abetting the attack.
All of that constitutes a powerful distraction as Joe Biden considers the challenges that will be facing his administration from day one. Barack Obama had to deal with the financial meltdown of 2008, which at the time was the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. The multiple crises that Biden now faces make that disaster almost pale in comparison.
The coronavirus pandemic is currently killing more Americans on a daily basis than the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center. In less than a year, the virus has cost over 400,000 American lives — roughly the equivalent of the population of New Orleans. The virus, which the Trump administration initially dismissed as not particularly threatening, is now mutating and is likely to spread even faster, causing more deaths and economic damage. Operation Warp Speed, the Trump plan to vaccinate the population, has turned into a nightmare of disorganization. Vaccine reserves that were supposed to be on hand turned out to be non-existent. It may be summer before vaccination programs take off in earnest.
Besides killing millions of people, the pandemic has shut down large segments of both the US and the world economy. Not only are millions of Americans jobless, but the kind of economic resurgence needed to provide new jobs can’t be counted on simply because everything, everywhere, has been frozen in place. The question everyone has on their mind is how long can we wait? The answer, of course, is that we don’t have any choice.
Biden’s first days as president will be further complicated by the fact that an evenly divided US Senate will be asked to deal with the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump. While Republicans in the Senate voted in a block to acquit Trump during his first impeachment, this time may be different. There is no question that Trump’s incitement of the mob justifies the charge of encouraging insurrection, but some Republicans argue that since Trump will soon be gone, convicting him will be superfluous and will only accentuate a partisan divide.
The fact is that America needs the GOP, if only as an intelligent opposition to elucidate the inevitable drawbacks in Democratic policies.
The problem is that even after leaving office, Trump may not be gone. Like Napoleon, banished to the island of Elba only to escape and again threaten Europe, Trump may already be planning to run for the presidency again in 2024. Convicting him now would enable a simple Senate majority to bar Trump from holding any future office; this would also potentially lessen his influence on the Republicans in Congress who fear that failing to submit to Trump risks retaliation from core supporters in future primary elections. The fact is that America, like all democracies, needs what used to be called “a loyal opposition” to point out the inevitable drawbacks in the policies of the governing party. What the country needs, however, is a rational GOP that acts in the best interests of the country, not an opposition that accommodates a group of crazed extremists determined to overthrow the government.
Historians will doubtless note that Donald Trump’s approach to government was politically doomed from the start. His path to victory pitted underpopulated, largely rural states with a majority in the US Senate, against the country’s heavily populated urban centers that constitute the nation’s nerve center for its future economic growth. Trump’s special target for attack was California, whose $3.2 trillion gross production currently ranks the state as the world’s fifth most powerful economy. Had Trump continued, he would have led the country into a downward economic spiral that would ultimately have created another depression.
Much of Trump’s hardcore support during the 2016 election resulted from insights and initiatives from his then-master strategist, Steve Bannon. Bannon realized that, since the country is nearly equally divided between right and left, a major effort to energize ultra-rightwing groups, which were previously ignored as part of a lunatic fringe, just might be enough to tip the balance in the key swing states that could determine the election. The strategy worked. Bannon eventually left the White House and went on to promote his own brand of fascism in Europe. With Bannon gone, Trump, with the help of Stephen Miller, continued to draw his support from the base that Bannon had previously identified. When members of that base laid siege to the Capitol, they sealed Trump’s political doom.
All of that is in the past. The key problems today are the pandemic and the economy. The pandemic hit just as Trump was doing everything in his power to reduce government support for health care. As the virus spread, millions of Americans risked losing their medical coverage along with their jobs. It soon became apparent that the virus made no distinction between rich and poor. To stop it, everyone needs to be part of the campaign.
Even if the pandemic ended tomorrow, the US economy would still be in serious trouble. Unemployment has stripped the states and municipalities of the tax funds they need to function. That is because, after shifting the primary responsibility for dealing with the pandemic to the states, Trump refused to release the funds that the states needed to do the job. Trump’s tax cuts to the wealthy and major corporations, which squandered the nation’s available resources, did not help. The early days of the Trump administration created the illusion of an economic boom, but it was just that — an illusion. Biden faces the task of restoring a sense of reality, and that will very likely result in some economic pain.
The United States has often responded well in times of crisis, but here again Trump confused the nation by heightening ethnic and racial differences and then using his position as president to spread patently false information. As a result, it is now more difficult than ever to know whom to trust.
And none of this takes into account that sooner or later the US will have to get back to competing in the global marketplace. That will depend on rebuilding confidence in the US, no easy task after four years in which Trump alienated most of our traditional allies and partners. Along with rebuilding confidence, Biden will also have to deal with the country’s seriously disintegrating infrastructure. For the US to have a hope of remaining competitive in the global market, he will need to invest substantially in public education and universal health care. Most of all, he will have to convince all Americans of the need to pull together.
Biden, in short, will have to deal with multiple fronts of intense, pent-up demand from day one. On the positive side, he has had 40 years of government experience to prepare himself; he is no stranger to personal tragedy and, at the age of 78, he doesn’t have that much left to lose. As with every inauguration, this celebration will in a sense be a ceremonial expression of hope for a fresh future under new leadership. We have more to gain than even Joe Biden himself in ensuring that he succeeds.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Joe Biden / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).