Did you hear Biden’s inaugural speech? It was good. And despite what you’ve heard, that’s the first nice thing I’ve ever said about Joe Biden.
As perhaps you know, I rejected Trump and his ideology from the moment he slouched onto the national stage. Before he was elected, I predicted that he had to power not only to hurt us, but to make us tear ourselves apart, and I was right.
But even so, when he took office in 2017, I was still unprepared to hear from his own lips just how much he hates our country. His dark, cataclysmic view of the United States was startling and horrifying. Listen to the words he chose to read on the day he became president:
Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge. And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
He always thought place was a shithole. His whole platform was patriotism, but the things he claimed to admire about our country were always garish cartoons, and he actively worked to destroy the things that really do make us great: Truth, justice, our constitution, with its checks against tyranny; our freedom of speech, our freedom of religion, our freedom of the press, our generosity, our diversity. He admired none of that. What he loved was our clout, our dazzle, our machines and weapons, and our noise. These are the things he thought made America great, and he sought every day to heap these things up for himself, like a personal hoard for himself to crouch upon.
And here we are in 2021, still reeling. Everything Trump said about the country at his inauguration, Biden could have said at his. He could have legitimately spent his speech reminding the country of all the monstrous depredations of the last four years. And he did acknowledge them: he spoke of “the foes we face: anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness.” He said:
Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we’re in now. Once-in-a-century virus that silently stalks the country. It’s taken as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War II. Millions of jobs have been lost. Hundreds of thousands of businesses closed. A cry for racial justice, some four hundred years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.
The cry for survival comes from planet itself, 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.
Why, then, with this list of horrors, did his speech land so differently than Trump’s? Because even as he spoke frankly of the horrors we’ve endured, he spoke with sorrow, not with disgust. It was an acknowledgement that we’ve suffered, and also that we’re in a strange place, and that the future is up in the air.
I’m not the only one to say it: This is the first time our national anthem sounded perfectly appropriate. Most country’s anthems are full of pride, but ours is not. It takes place at the dawn of a new day, but it isn’t a song of triumph. Instead, it asks what can we see in this early light. The sounds of the battle that we heard aren’t the sounds of the end of a nation; those are proof that we’re still fighting back, still in the process of struggling to defend and define what is precious. And of course the anthem ends with a question.
Today, that question is: What comes next? What will a Biden presidency look like?
Despite what you may have heard, I never supported Joe Biden. I voted for him because I felt I had to, but I never looked to him as the man who can solve our national problems. I still don’t. The man says he’s a pro-choice Catholic, and he’s vowed to overturn religious conscience protections. Democrats like him and Harris champion some ideas I believe in, but also some that frighten and repel me. These aren’t small issues.
Well, Trump always told the country that he would save it. That he was the one who could lead us into prosperity; that he would rescue us from our enemies; that he would crush the ones who threaten our way of life. For reasons I will never understand, so many people believed him, and trained their eyes to see in this weak and bloated criminal a man of strength, courage, and nobility.
He said he would save us, and of course he did nothing of the kind. He tried his best to ruin us for his own personal gain, and then, when his fevered fantasy of lion-like domination failed, he deserted his true believers and slunk out a side door to strains of YMCA, leaving nothing in his wake but unpaid bills and some stains that may never come clean.
So now we have President Biden.
Will Biden save us? No indeed. But let’s note that he never said he would. Instead, he told us that we could save ourselves, if we wanted to.
[T]he American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us, on we the people who seek a more perfect union.
This is a great nation. We are good people. And over the centuries, through storm and strife, in peace and in war, we’ve come so far. But we still have far to go. We’ll press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities, much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain.
To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity, unity.
In another January, on New Year’s Day in 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When he put pen to paper, the president said, and I quote, “if my name ever goes down into history, it’ll be for this act. And my whole soul is in it.”
My whole soul was in it today. On this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.
Biden’s speech was no rally or battle cry to come and follow him. Instead, it was an invitation. He acknowledged that calls for unity may sound like “a foolish fantasy,” but he explained how it could come about: By making it personal.
It’s a strange thing: Trump always made politics personal. He always wanted to punish disloyalty, and always made it clear that to defy him was to be un-American.
But Biden is making it personal in a different way. He called for unity not as something that legislators can do or that political parties can bring about, but as something that literally every American has the opportunity to do:
“We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.”
Can I do this? I don’t know. The last four years have been so hard. Sometimes the best I could do was simply to keep silent, because the outrages I saw made me want to respond outrageously, to respond to monstrosities by becoming a monster myself. I can’t pretend that the lines haven’t been drawn, and I can’t forget the things I now know about people I used to respect. I’ve seen friends defend literal Nazis. I have seen clearly that my family is not safe. I don’t know how we’re supposed to climb down from that precipice.
Even though the pipe bombs in capitol were discovered and disarmed, and the mobs were thwarted before they could gas congress or hang Nancy Pelosi, this is still a perilous moment. The people who think Trump was right, but who aren’t outrageous buffoons, and who know how to express themselves with nuance and sophistication — they’re still there. They haven’t gone away, and neither has the threat they pose. And those who saw the Trump presidency as the crisis it was, and who have been waiting to take advantage of that crisis — those who think violence is always justified, those who really do want to suppress free speech and criminalize dissent — they’re still there, too.
We are still on a precipice. But in the light of dawn on January 20, 2021, I see that we haven’t yet thrown ourselves over, either. We are still fighting, and the flag is still there. I will take this day to thank God for that blessing. I love my country and I want it to be better. Eyes wide open, everybody. The battle isn’t over, and that’s a good thing.
It doesn’t have to be about one man. What a Biden presidency will look like is largely up to us.