If presidential inaugurations are all about symbolism, what to make of this one?
There was no grace present as Trump slunk off early in the morning, an embittered use of Air Force One while he still controlled it taking him to Florida. No reports of Downton Abbey-like farewells with the White House staff. No first lady tea ceremony. Hell, it’s not like the Biden’s haven’t seen the place. The Trump’s left the White House the way most people leave a hotel, might as well get an early start on it.
If a city could cry it’d be Washington DC. DC certainly did not look like the capital of the World’s Greatest Democracy, or even a mediocre one. For those who fetishized Nuremburg imagery for the last four years, the Mall covered in flags should ring a bell. As might the 26,000 troops who lined the closed streets, quartered in the Capitol itself, more boots on the ground than currently in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria combined. The U.S. military failed to establish democracy via two decades of nation building over there. Perhaps they’ll have better luck in DC.
But even the Guardsmen sent a mixed signal — somebody was worried enough about their loyalty to have the FBI vet the lot, and send 12 home for whatever “ties to right wing groups” actually means. Actually they made “inappropriate comments or sent inappropriate texts,” thought crimes once protected by the 1A.
Ironically after all the fuss over crowd size four years ago, we can say Joe Biden probably had the smallest inauguration crowd — roughly a bus load — in American history. But don’t worry. Mimicking the tone of North Korean State Media the NYT assured us because of COVID Biden’s “team has become adept at political set dressing aimed at making empty, unpopulated spaces appear welcoming, warm and patriotic.”
Then there was Trump 2017, when the media symbolically marked the beginning of four years of playground taunting, calling him a liar by challenging the crowd size. Trump was not legitimately elected, they said, because no one showed up to cheer him into office. For the younger folks reading this, the narrative about half of America approached inauguration day 2017 with was Trump did not win the popular vote and thus the Electoral College was a sham and Trump was as illegitimate as one of Snoop’s kids. It was a different time, when questioning the results of an election was considered patriotic not seditious.
But as symbols go what didn’t happen at Biden’s inauguration is most noteworthy. For four years we had been told today was never going to happen. Trump was going to declare himself dictator, cancel the election because of COVID, start a war with Iran, start a nuclear war with someone, or declare martial law. Yet the only tanks on the streets were put there by Democrats.
The Charge of the Rednecks on January 6 was whipped into another 9/11 but worse by the Dems/MSM. Though the crowd arrived with pipe bombs made and zip ties in their pockets, strong indicators of preplanned trouble, Trump was impeached with about as much debate as usually given to naming a new Post Office for inciting them. Though the mob had absolutely no method to stop Biden from becoming president, they were called seditious. Despite them staying inside the velvet ropes in the Capitol’s statuary hall and taking more selfies than chances, they were credited with complex assassination and kidnap plots.
In the end absent some tragic deaths (one unarmed mobster was killed by aimed shots from a cop but since she was white and conservative she was quickly written out of the story; a cop killed was glorified as a defender of the people’s sacred house temple of democracy, an odd twist on this summer’s BLM view of the police) the mob didn’t even prove to be effective vandals. Our sacred Heartland state houses were not bum rushed by Big Gulp-sized guys in camo, each carrying enough supply to keep a squad in the field for a week in Iraq. Trump didn’t even pardon himself or his kids. Giuliani still at large!
So on Inauguration Day everyone was left wondering what just happened and what it means. Joe Biden is the first president to achieve office without campaigning. His record was enough to have him not win twice before when he did campaign, so alongside his non-inauguration a pattern might be emerging. He’ll sign some symbolic executive orders undoing Trump’s symbolic orders and then remember he forgot a few things in the basement in Delaware and leave a note himself on the Resolute Desk saying he’ll keep in touch. And the question pends — can Kamala really play the Garfunkel role Biden himself excelled at?
Inaugurations used to be fun. They were the last time a candidate, warm and of the people, got to mingle with those people before becoming aloof and over-protected. The same guy who shook greasy hands at county fairs all summer would “spontaneously” stop the limo on Pennsylvania Avenue and walk a few blocks, waving and pointing like he recognized people who owed him money. High school bands would play, and at night the city would be filled with drunken fat donors and drunken political operatives and drunken young people who would giggle at old people trying to dance to the “popular” musical groups included in the festivities. This year, no. We got America’s blandest man, Tom Hanks, and the safe brown guy white people love, Lin Manuel Miranda. The Biden’s meanwhile likely went to bed early after a little TV.
And so Trump is gone not with a whimper, nor a bang, just mostly silence. Next? The inauguration offered few clues. Biden mumbled about unity, but was quite short on specifics on what that meant when 70 million Americans voted for Trump in the November referendum. Nearly every speaker invoked the language of the Civil War, and nearly every one referenced the Capitol mob in dire terms. The Capitol cop who acted with courage on the day was feted as if he had just saved Private Ryan.
Biden’s speech gave no clue how he might unify American on immigration, for example. Apparently you don’t, as Biden seeks to rewind everything Trump did, set a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegals, and re-welcome the faux asylum seeking caravans steaming up from Central America. Not much unity there, and likely the same for America’s long list of hot button issues.
Meanwhile, shadows loom. Dark forces around Biden will seek to turn America’s fears 1/6 is the new 9/11 into a new War on Terror, the domestic kind. The tools are already in place from the last War on Terror — surveillance, unconstitutional searches, the secretive FISA court, a politicized FBI, and an intelligence community which made its bones in internal politics pimping Russiagate and serving as a Greek chorus to CNN and MSNBC’s flood of warnings about democracy in danger.
The Defense Department already announced stepped up monitoring of service members’ social media in much the way companies do with their employees. Avril Haines, Biden’s pick for national intelligence director, says she’ll help with a public threat assessment of QAnon, America’s Greatest Threat. She also vows the intelligence agencies will “look at connections between folks in the U.S. and externally and foreign.” You just know it’ll be the Russkies again. CNN’s Don Lemon says if you voted for Trump, you’re with the Klan, the Nazis and the Rioters. AOC demands Congress rein in the media environment, a happy euphemism for censorship. The endearing Rick Wilson writes “Trumpists, here are your Terms of Surrender. Also, F*ck You.”
Will America see blacklists, purges of ideologically disloyal cops and soldiers, democratic elected officials canceled, impeached, shunned, or shamed? Hearings to see who in Congress now is or has ever been a QAnon retweeter? Though he namechecked domestic terrorism in his speech, Biden lacks the strength to do this himself. But the ability of a new Cheney or Rumsfeld to manipulate a weak president cannot be discounted lightly.
Or will it be four years (or less…) of Calvin Coolidge (Harding, Pierce, Fillmore) with Biden little more than a placeholder while both parties, free of Trump, reconfigure themselves? Biden might just reset the clocks to 2016 and be done with it. Maybe that’s the symbolism of the non-inauguration, with no crowd, and no sense of a torch being past.
Is it morning in America? Will we try and make America great again? Are we a nation of hope and change? Are we going to be called to bear any burden for liberty? The emptiness of the inauguration says not only do I not know, but I’m not sure Joe Biden does either.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.