The empty inauguration of Joe Biden
President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden will arrive in Washington, DC on January 20, 2021 for his inauguration on the Western Front of the United States Capitol. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool / Getty Images)
If the inaugurations of the President are all about symbolism, what to do with that?
There was no mercy when Trump crept away early that morning, a fierce operation by Air Force One while he was still in control. No reports of Downton Abbey-like goodbyes with White House staff. No first lady tea ceremony. Hell, it’s not that the Bidens have never seen the place. The Trumps left the White House the way most people leave a hotel: they might as well start early.
If any city could cry, it would be Washington DC on Wednesday, which certainly didn’t look like the capital of the world’s largest democracy, or even a mediocre one. For those who have fetishized Nuremberg images over the past four years, the flag-covered mall should ring a bell. Just like the 26,000 troops that lined the blocked streets and were housed in the Capitol itself, more boots on the ground than currently in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria combined. The US military was unable to establish democracy there after two decades of nation building. Maybe you have better luck here.
But even the guardsmen sent a mixed signal – someone was concerned enough about their loyalty to take the FBI to the vet and send 12 home, whatever “right-wing group links” actually means. In fact, they made “inappropriate comments or sent inappropriate texts,” thought crimes once protected by the 1A.
Ironically, after all the crowd excitement four years ago, Joe Biden probably had the smallest housewarming in American history – roughly a busload. But do not worry. Mimics the tone of the North Korean state media, the New York Times assured us that because of COVID, Biden’s “team has become adept at dressing politically to make empty, uninhabited spaces welcoming, warm and patriotic”.
Then there was Trump in 2017 when the media symbolically marked the beginning of four years of taunting the playground, calling him a liar by challenging his crowd. 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 approaching inauguration day 2017 was that Trump didn’t win the referendum and therefore the electoral college was a sham and Trump was as illegitimate as one of Snoop’s children . It was a different time when questioning the election results was seen as patriotic rather than seditious.
But as for symbols, the most notable thing is what didn’t happen when Biden was inaugurated. For four years we were told that nothing would ever happen today. Trump would declare himself dictator, cancel the election because of COVID, start a war with Iran, start a nuclear war with someone or declare martial law. But the only tanks on the streets were erected there by Democrats.
The January 6th indictment of the rednecks was whipped into another September 11th but worse from the Dems / MSM. Although the crowd arrived with pipe bombs and zip ties in their pockets, strong signs of pre-planned problems, Trump was charged for inciting them. Although the mob had absolutely no way of stopping Biden from becoming president, they were labeled as seditious.
With no tragic deaths, the mob didn’t even turn out to be effective vandals in the end. Our holy heartland state houses were not showered by big gulp-sized men in camouflage, each with enough supplies to keep a squad in the field for a week in Iraq. Trump hasn’t even forgiven himself or his children. Giuliani still at large!
On the day of inauguration, everyone wondered what had just happened and what it meant. Joe Biden is the first president to win an office without a campaign. His record was enough to deny him a win twice when he was campaigning. In addition to his non-initiation, a pattern could emerge. He will sign some token executive orders to reverse Trump’s token executive orders and then remember that he forgot some things in the Delaware basement and left a message on the Resolute Desk saying he will keep in touch. And the question depends on it: Can Kamala really play the Garfunkel role in which Biden excelled himself?
Initiations used to be fun. They were the last time a candidate, warm and of the people, mingled with those people before distancing himself and overly protecting himself. The same guy who shook greasy hands at fairs all summer “spontaneously” stopped the limo on Pennsylvania Avenue and walked a few blocks, waving and pointing as if he recognized people who owed him money. High school bands would play. At night the city was full of drunk donors and drunken political activists, as well as drunk young people giggling at old people trying to dance to the “popular” musical groups that went with the celebration. This year no. We have America’s mildest man, Tom Hanks, and the safe brown guy the whites love, Lin Manuel Miranda. The Bidens, meanwhile, probably went to bed early after watching a little television.
And so Trump is not gone with a whimper or a bang, but mostly with silence. Next? The initiation offered few clues. Biden muttered about the unity but wasn’t sure what it meant when 70 million Americans voted for Trump in the November referendum. Almost every speaker used the language of the Civil War, and almost everyone referred terribly to the Capitol mob. The Capitol Policeman who acted bravely that day was celebrated.
Biden’s speech gave no indication of how, for example, he might unite America on immigration. Apparently you don’t, as Biden is trying to rewind everything Trump did, find a way to citizenship for millions of illegals, and welcome back the faux asylum-seeking caravans from Central America. There’s not much unity there, and probably the same for America’s long list of hot button problems.
Meanwhile, shadows appear. Dark forces around Biden will try to turn America’s fear that 1/6 was next 9/11 into a new war on terror, the domestic one. The tools have been in place since the last war on terror – surveillance, unconstitutional searches, the secret FISA court, a politicized FBI, and a domestic policy community to pimp Russiagate and CNNs and MSNBCs as Greek choir to serve flood of warnings of democracy in danger.
The Department of Defense has already announced increased monitoring of service members’ social media, much like companies do with their employees. Avril Haines, Biden’s election as National Intelligence Director, says she will assist with a public threat assessment of QAnon, America’s greatest threat. She also vows that intelligence agencies “will investigate the links between people in the US and at home and abroad.” They only know that it will be the Russians again. CNN’s Don Lemon says if you voted for Trump, you’re with the Klan, the Nazis and the rioters. AOC calls for Congress to rein in the media environment, a happy euphemism for censorship. The lovable Rick Wilson writes: “Trumpists, here are your terms for the surrender. Fuck you too. “
Will America see blacklists, purges of ideologically disloyal cops and soldiers, democratically elected officials who are canceled, indicted, shunned, or shamed? Hearings to see who is or was a QAnon retweeter in Congress now? Although he reviewed domestic terrorism by name in his speech, Biden lacks the strength to do so himself. But the ability of a new Cheney or Rumsfeld to manipulate a weak president cannot be lightly ruled out.
Or will it be four years (or less …) of Calvin Coolidge (Harding, Pierce, Fillmore) with Biden, little more than a placeholder, while both parties reconfigure themselves, free from Trump? Biden could just reset the clocks to 2016 and be done with it. Perhaps that’s the symbolism of non-initiation, with no crowd and no feeling that a torch is over.
Is it morning in america? Are we going to try to make America great again? Are we a nation of hope and change? Are we called to encumber freedom? The emptiness of initiation not only says I don’t know, but I’m also not sure Joe Biden does.
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, Hoopers War: A World War II novel in Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A 99 percent story.