In a scene reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s departure, Donald Trump walked out of the White House on a red carpet, waved goodbye, and floated away for the final time on the Marine One helicopter. Trump leaves DC as a disgraced twice-impeached president; indeed, perhaps the worst president in American history. And along with a legacy of personal infamy, he leaves behind a country in tatters, a country that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have just vowed to mend.
The inauguration imagery itself wordlessly depicted America turning the page on an era of depravity. The Capitol building under siege just two weeks ago, draped in Trump flags and consumed in chants of “Hang Mike Pence!”, was today covered in American flags and echoing with triumphant trumpets. The contrast highlighted how close we were to the brink of authoritarianism, and how much further we have to go.
After the VIPs were announced – from the Clintons to the Bushes to the Obamas, and then, of course, Mike Pence rather than Trump, who had elected not to attend the inauguration ceremony – Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican Senator Roy Blunt both delivered remarks, preaching unity. Lady Gaga performed the national anthem with power and emotion. The sun peered briefly out of the clouds just as Jennifer Lopez sang her rendition of “This Land Is Your Land” (lest we forget, it began raining during Trump's inauguration speech, which he, of course, denied at the time, in one of his first of over 30,000 lies as president).
After the singing, history was made when Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first female, Black, and Asian American vice president in American history. It was followed by a speech Joe Biden was seemingly born to deliver to a grieving and divided nation. At the top of his remarks, Biden proclaimed that “democracy is precious and democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
Biden's speech was the polar opposite of Trump’s divisive “American Carnage” speech four years ago. The broad theme was one of hope and unity, but the remarks were clear-eyed about the challenges we face. A deadly pandemic has taken over 400,000 lives in America. Unemployment hovers at 6.7 per cent. Climate change remains the greatest threat facing humanity. Urgent calls for racial justice abound. Domestic terrorism from right-wing extremists runs rampant. In his speech, Biden pledged to tackle all of it.
Biden led a silent prayer for those who have died from Covid-19 and highlighted his plan to take on the pandemic. He called for racial justice that has long alluded us. He declared that we should “defend the truth, and defeat the lies”. Continuing a tradition from his campaign, he promised that he will be a president for all Americans and fight as hard for those who did not support him as those who did.
Once again, a Democratic president is set to inherit a mess from a Republican president. Biden will have to channel the resolve of Abraham Lincoln to try and heal the greatest divides since the civil war and learn from FDR in tackling the deepest recession since the Great Depression. Aside from these broader challenges, there is another thing on the Biden-Harris administration's to-do list.
The man who dedicated his entire presidency to undoing the Obama administration’s legacy was defeated by the vice president of the Obama administration. Now, it's President Biden's turn to undo the Trump legacy. Biden is set to sign a flurry of immediate executive actions undoing some of Trump’s most regressive policies. According to the man himself in the weeks since he won the election, he will end Trump’s Muslim immigration plan, rejoin the Paris climate accord, reverse Trump's executive order on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca), extend the federal eviction moratorium, extend the moratorium on student loan payments, halt funding for Trump’s border wall, and more.
These actions serve as a cathartic cleanse of Trump’s governing approach and offer substantive relief for millions of Americans. This marks a new day in America. But of course, there are also genuine challenges to Biden’s central theme of unity. The personification of this was Senator Ted Cruz’s presence at the inauguration, which served as a looming reminder that 147 Republican lawmakers voted to object to Biden’s election win and supported the Big Lie that incited the insurrection at this very site of the inauguration.
Biden will also have to grapple with a media environment where right-wing outlets are shamelessly competing for the attention of Trump’s radicalised supporters. This poses challenges for his agenda. Even with a Democratic Senate, he will have to try and move major pieces of legislation that require 60 votes. We’ll see if Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell chooses to be just as obstructive as he was in the Obama era or if his steep losses in the Trump era have shaken him awake.
In the hours before Biden was sworn in, QAnon message boards were teeming with predictions that Trump was still set to declare martial law and arrest his political opponents. As Biden was speaking, these conspiracies began to crumble under the weight of reality as many QAnon adherents realised it was all a con.
Why am I mentioning the fact that QAnon conspiracy theorists are slowly coming to terms with the truth? Because this is an opportunity for all Americans who have been gaslit by disinformation to come back into objective reality. While accountability is certainly necessary for those who participated in and spread the lies that led up to the insurrection, Trump voters should seize this olive branch of unity being extended by President Biden.
We did it. We beat back authoritarianism. We won the day, but the fight is far from over. Let’s make this the beginning of an era of profound progress. If Trump’s defeat has proven anything, it’s that our destiny is truly in our own hands.