Credit where it’s due: The president’s repeated calls for unity were a tonic. After an extraordinarily contentious election that his opponent to this day insists on baselessly calling illegitimate, our new chief executive poured soothing oil on roiling waters and patriotically reminded us of how much we all have in common. As many worry about the nation’s place in the world, the new president said he would “reinforce old alliances and build new ones.” As unease poisons the land, it was invigorating to hear him vow to “rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people,” and gutsy, in a time of secularism, for him to mention that “the Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” He spoke passionately about suffering Americans beset by poverty, hopelessness, and lack of opportunity, proclaiming, “We are one nation and their pain is our pain.” He contended, movingly, that “we must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear.”
Yes, all of that is actually from President Trump’s inaugural address. And yes, the “totally unstoppable” gives it away. (And yes, four years later, his vanquished opponent Hillary Clinton still claims the election “was basically stolen” from her.) So it’s unfortunate that his successor Joe Biden had to give an inaugural address that was so dark and divisive, so full of bleak apocalyptic imagery and dire warnings about “white supremacy,” the first-ever mention of this scourge in an inaugural address. Though Barack Obama didn’t even mention racism in his two inaugural speeches, Biden repeatedly brought it up as part of our “ugly reality.” He also said the very earth we live on is so endangered that it is making a “cry for survival . . . that can’t be any more desperate,” that we are stalked by “anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, hopelessness . . . bitterness, and fury” and that politics has become “a raging fire destroying everything in its path.”
Instead of saying, “This American carnage ends now,” as Trump did, Biden said very nearly the same thing: “We must end this uncivil war.” And though Trump may be a legendary egoist, it was nevertheless Biden who, in his first remarks as president, compared himself to Abraham Lincoln.
But, one week after the inauguration, the rough draft of history has been written, and it will probably stick. We’ve been told that Biden offered an olive branch to those who didn’t vote for him while Trump rained hellfire. Biden was irenic; Trump was chthonic. “Biden’s speech was a 180-degree turn from Trump’s ‘American carnage’ address four years ago,” claimed NPR. It was “a marked contrast to Trump’s inaugural,” said the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake. “The two U.S. presidents’ inauguration speeches could hardly have been more different,” noted Politico. Biden’s scaremongering imagery has been memory-holed together with Trump’s promises of unity and healing.
Like the Krusty the Clown doll’s evil/good switch, the media’s cynicism indicator simply clicks back and forth depending on which party is in power. But bipartisan cynicism about politics is useful. Here’s some of mine: Inaugural addresses, with minor variations, hew to the same template. The variability largely derives from the one Big Idea put out for the intelligentsia to ponder (e.g., “America First,” “Ask what you can do for your country”), though Biden, despite giving the longest such speech since 1985, didn’t offer one. Otherwise, for incoming presidents, the formula is this one:
- Whew, things are really bad out there, huh? Way worse than they are telling you.
- Luckily, I have all the answers. (Details TK.)
- It’s too bad we’re always quarreling. It would be better if we could all unite. Er, behind me.
- Now pardon me as I wield the cross* like Father Merrin and wrap myself in the flag like Rocky IV. (*Some Democrats omit this part.)
The major difference between Trump’s speech and Biden’s was not that the former was “hopeful,” and the latter “unifying.” Both of them struck a balance between hellish imagery describing the present and promises of better days to come. Whereas Biden spoke about grappling with the coronavirus, a problem that didn’t exist in 2017, Trump talked about eradicating Islamist terror, a problem that isn’t much on people’s minds in 2021 because it did indeed fizzle on Trump’s watch. (To be sure, it’s debatable whether Trump had anything much to do with that, just as it will be hotly debated whether Biden’s actions will have much to do with the coming defeat of COVID-19.)
Trump’s two-part big idea was to present America as an economic competitor to the rest of the world that had nevertheless been tricked into subsidizing other nations and to describe its people as being left behind by its federal government: “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth.”
Those ideas remain under discussion, but they’re hardly outside the normal parameters of debate. They’re not extreme or inflammatory. In their place, Biden offered no bold framework, which is fine with me: I ask not that presidents provide a sweeping vision. Moreover, platitudes about comity and the American way are also fine with me, and Biden offered a great many of those: “We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors.” Fine. “We can treat each other with dignity and respect.” Lovely. “I will be a President for all Americans” and “fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.” Groovy.
Will Biden be able to deliver on any of this, though? Of course not. Which reminds us of the limits of inaugural addresses.
When it comes to living up to our ideals, “The battle is perennial,” Biden said. “Victory is never assured.” Yet a few sentences later, he claimed, “I guarantee you, we will not fail” and also that “we have never, ever failed in America when we have acted together.” That’s a no-true-Scotsman assertion. Or would Biden say that we didn’t “act together” when we passed mammoth social programs that nevertheless left us falling short of where he thinks we should be? “We still have far to go,” he said, and “we have much to do . . . to restore . . . to repair.” We are plagued by “growing inequity,” “systemic racism,” and “political extremism.” So which is it: We have never failed before, or we have often failed before?
Yet despite all other presidents having been unable to provide this, Biden jauntily promised, “We can deliver racial justice.” Really? At what point would Biden, or any other Democrat, declare that this goal has been reached? There will be colonies on Saturn before that happens. Vowing to deliver racial justice is the equivalent of Trump’s vowing to bring about “winning like never before” — inoffensive, impossible to measure and, ultimately, vacuous. Here’s an idea we can all unify behind: Inaugural addresses are largely about empty promises.