January 20 is Joe Biden’s first day as president. And Donald Trump’s last.
It is a measure of Trump’s corruption of the Zeitgeist that while more than 3000 Americans are dying each day from the pandemic, with 500,000 dead by April, the number one story is Trump, the insurrection and the militarisation of Washington. Covid – more Americans dead in one year than US troops killed in the four years of World War II – is number two.
Washington’s political tragics are obsessed that Trump will invoke the Insurrection Act and declare martial law and that the domestic terrorists will strike in state capitals across the county. And they are awaiting shock Trump pardons on his way out.
Are these the darkest days since Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated, provoking Southern states to secede from the United States and commence the Civil War? Is America coming apart?
Ken Burns, the superb documentarian and historian of America, from the Civil War to Vietnam, and its culture, from jazz to baseball, reminds us what Barbara Fields said about the legacy of the Civil War, which remains the greatest crisis in the country’s history: "It’s still to be fought, and regrettably it can still be lost."
Yes, even after Barack Obama was elected – twice – as president.
Yes, even after that man carrying the Confederate flag in the Capitol Rotunda and his cohorts failed to kill the Vice President and the Speaker of the House and stop the final constitutional act of certifying Biden’s election and Trump’s defeat.
Among Trump’s greatest pathologies in power was that he consistently sought to divide Americans from each other and capitalise on the seething tensions. On his watch, it was not Islamic terrorists that attacked the Capitol on 1/6. It was Americans. It was Americans who have murdered Jews in synagogues. It was American White Supremacist Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. It is the Proud Boys who stand by.
A year after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly shredded the text of Trump’s State of the Union message in the House chamber, she shredded Trump’s presidency by impeaching him even in his final days in a profound act of urgency to remove the man she termed "unhinged", "deranged" and a "clear and present danger" to the American people. Trump leaves office in disgrace, his approval plummeting, most believing he should be barred from future office.
As reminiscent as this day is of what Lincoln confronted on his inauguration – a capital in lockdown, a nation on the abyss, the president-elect smuggled into Washington via Baltimore – this is not 1861. It is much closer to 1933, when the country was devastated, hollowed out from the Depression and a Republican president incapable of acting. On Wall Street, when markets finally surrender to a cataclysmic collapse in confidence and prices, it is called "capitulation". In this pandemic, because of Trump’s utter failure to put in place anything close to the public health measures we have in Australia, America has now capitulated to the virus, and now looks to much of the world like a failed state. Covid is everywhere; its killing is ceaseless; it cannot be managed. The only hope now is the vaccines.
The pandemic has induced a depression in employment and income security. The rescue packages to date have been little more than palliative. The economy cannot recover until the pandemic is beaten.
In his inaugural address, after asserting that, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," Franklin Roosevelt declared: "The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership."
FDR’s moment is now Biden’s. The agenda is straightforward and pragmatic: Cap the pandemic and vaccinate all Americans. Revive the economy, rebuild infrastructure and create jobs. Fix Obamacare and ensure affordable health insurance. Racial justice and voting rights. Humane immigration policy. Global warming.
The tone will change immediately. Biden is a president who speaks clearly and directly on issues and values. Who draws on common sense and evokes trust. Who talks to all Americans, not just his voters. Whose presidency is not about him, but about them. Who projects optimism and certainty that the country can repair, heal and prevail.
Biden will need Republican support but if recent history is a guide, he will be spurned. With only a six vote margin in the House, and a 50-50 Senate, many Republicans are calculating: Trump is now off-stage. Stop Biden cold, and we regain the House and Senate in two years. Render Biden a do-nothing president and he is a one-term president too.
For the Republicans, if you were all-in with Trump in 2020, you are out of power in 2021. Trump lost the House to the Democrats in 2018. He lost the presidency in November. He lost the Senate for Republicans in January.
This is why it is 1861 for their party. Their civil war is between the old Republican Party and the Trump Republican party. Trump is so potent with his base. Is it a party of longtime Republican principles – conservatism at home, American leadership abroad – or is it the party of Trump populism: nationalism, nativism, isolationism, protectionism? This fight will be titanic, and bloody.
But January 20 is Biden’s day, and his belief that hope and unity will trump fear and hate, and that this is what Americans want right now.