Biden’s Inauguration Kicked Off an Era of Restoration, Whatever That Means
It might be difficult to tell with 25,000 National Guard troops warding off violent rioters or DC being declared a “Green Zone” or the FBI warnings of “armed protests” at every state capitol, but America is officially ready to be United. The hours building up to Joe Biden’s solemn swearing of the oath were mostly banal theatrical pomp about bipartisanship and healing — as if dozens of elected Republicans never abetted Donald Trump’s blowzy fixations and low-effort fascism until it incited a braindead siege. Biden has a pretty narrow and facile way of looking at a luridly busted society. If Trump is deemed fit to be impeached in disgrace, all the Republicans who thought they stood to gain from honoring his bleary and incoherent orders should be ostracized or jettisoned from office. But the damage that led Trump to treat the presidency as a slow-rolling malicious marathon of Entertainment Tonight gossip also proved it was jarringly easy to convince Blue America that our national politics isn’t really about anything other than the singular and obliterating dampness of a strange, petty man. At this moment, erring on the side of reconciliation without any reckoning is not just infuriating in the trademark Democratic ways, but devastating and damning in essential ones.
The distance and defeat in this is awful to behold, even if it’s somewhat refreshing to hear a competent leader deliver a stilted but acceptably skillful norm-craft that gestures towards empathy and civility. Ultimately though, Sleepy Joe’s inaugural speech was a slow bore skein of bland buzzword dribble that could’ve been uttered by any Democrat — but four years of superimposed ramblings from a glib, vengeful huckster plopped any standard of presidenting straight into a bottomless crater. Biden has spent his five-decade career being a whipped-dog in a Republican-dominated political scene, and this made him, ideologically, Homer Simpson’s dream sequence where a cow plays a song on a jug.
Biden insisted that we end this “uncivil war” that’s been mainly waged by a right-wing anti-democratic insurgency that spent this past year flirting with fascism and encouraging American workers to consider an openly Malthusian response to a plague that Trump alternately ignored and denied. Garth Brooks performed as a sort of olive branch to MAGA chuds, but by now, his name has been added to the deep_state_pedophile.xlsx spreadsheet. During the NBC recap coverage, Chuck Todd gushed over our new Chief Executive, calling him the “better angel president.” Once you parse through Biden’s ornate filigreed, it’s unclear what America will be uniting around or what our common cause is or which disagreements we should set aside. According to a recent YouGov poll, 45% of Republicans “actively support the actions of those [who stormed] the Capitol,” so I guess the goal is to bridge the yawning chasm between those who support democracy and those who make furious spurious demands for More Trump. American history unfolds as a continual, contentious contest to determine which mutually exclusive vision of this nation will prevail; this tense moment feels heightened because this trendline now manifests through two ideologically coherent parties and interest coalitions butting heads in an inherently adversarial system.
Squishy “respectable” Republicans like Mitt Romney and Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski all praised Biden’s calls for unity, even as ostensibly “progressive” cabinet appointments like Janet Yellen, John Kerry, and Neera Tanden feel like an elaborate endzone dance over the left. It is considered verboten in liberal circles to question the valence of unity or compromise, though it’s strange to see the Democrats herald these abstractions after marshaling all of what passes as its brainpower to crate-train Bernie Sanders’s basic decency agenda. They never allowed themselves to view progressives as anything but a threat that needed squashing. The rest of Biden’s cabinet is an absolute continuity with the last three decades of Wall Street-friendly Democratic politics. It’s a who’s who of influence peddlers, highlighted by Rahm Emanuel (who covered up the murder of a Black teenager for the Chicago PD) and Meg Whitman (whose resume includes running Quibi and Hewlett-Packard into the ground and spending $30 million of her own money eating shit in a gubernatorial election). The only other group of people who are allowed to serially botch their jobs, leave with golden parachutes, and fail upward is college football coaches.
At this moment of critical systemic failure, the only things America can produce are ostentatious culture wars and bombs that can specifically track down Afghani preschools. Nothing says a lack of progress like an Inauguration lineup featuring will.i.am, Jennifer Lopez, and a ’90s one-hit-wonder performing songs that are basically self-hypnosis about having a good time.
Right-wing commentators and voters are turning into what Democrats were culturally over the past four years, whining about their shameful humiliation and Lib America’s gloating victory. They’re already demanding Democrats show deference to MAGA-brained suburbanites who are sad because their god-emperor can no longer beat up on minority groups they don’t like, who now face the dread of replacing the Don’t Tread On Me and Blue Lives Matter stickers on their F-150 with an Ohio State Football decal. Deep down, these culture warrior Red Staters mostly just want to watch a late-night show with Trump drearily litigating feuds and betrayals in front of a hooting crowd of slathering dipshits before jabbering at guests like Scott Baio. It will be fascinating to see who becomes the Republican Sarah Cooper.
Orange Man Bad was the specter that haunted political commentary for what seems like forever, trapping America in this discursive bubble where rent-a-quote pundits contributed to this endless flow of banal liberal commentary by analyzing how not normal Trump is in reflexive horror. Now there will be this hilarious contradiction between that same liberal media apparatus and their attempts to convince Americans that Biden is not a degenerating mummy whose dementia explosions turn him into Betty Draper’s dad. They’ll grasp for new and creative ways to argue how making fun of his drooling senility is ableist against neuro-atypical people. The Dr. Jill Biden isn’t a doctor kerfuffle is a preview of the decadent woke clap backs to come. The mainstream press will be unaware of how absurd and out-of-touch they are because they’re the type of people who would show up to a Halloween party wearing a hoodie that says ad hominem while snarking, “I’m Donald Trump’s campaign.”
Biden is losing his teeth in the glass of water while coding his presidency in lame peans about restoration and undoing, but we wouldn’t be in this long low moment if these institutions haven’t been co-opted to actively do the exact opposite of their purported job. The Most Important Election Ever was a limp duel between an obese blowhard who tweets 80 hours a week and acts like a sassy Broadway producer and a doddering goof who wants to make every day National Mustang Day after giving himself a perma-concussion in 1960-something during a chain-fight accident with Corn Pop. The rot is so profound and it’s difficult to place unwavering faith in the stubborn belief in turning the clock back four years is an ideal course forward. Following the newly-minted president, gracious 22-year-old speaker Amanda Gorman called America, “A nation not broken, but unfinished.” It’s a lovely sentiment, but the federal government has forgotten to do anything besides exercise brute force and retroactively justify suffering; America’s triumphal soul has been gnawed to bits by a frantically denied shame and a raw fear of confronting our bloody history and similarly bloody present. This nation is both broken and unfinished. Any argument to the contrary has the feel and shape of what is developing into Liberal MAGA.
The Democratic Party is enthralled with incrementalism, which takes people’s base desires for hope and improving the world and turns them into nothing, then convinces its voters that believing in nothing makes them a pragmatist with an enlightened ability to eschew “purity” to “get things done.” Democrats have no picture of the world they want to create — they have a template on how to manage various constituencies, dampen expectations, pre-run recrimination monologues about why they lost, coast by on spectacle kayfabe pageantry, and preemptively surrender to Republicans. They confuse process with idealism and view the evils of the world as an inviable, unvanquishable, throbbing force of nature. They are more interested in radical platitudes than any overarching vision. They take popular discontent with this buckling, wheezing, self-perpetuating exploitation machine and smooth it over with a progressive gloss and obfuscate it with a miasma of technocratic gobbledygook. With Republicans, the cruelty is the point. With Democrats, the cruelty is a side-effect.
Biden benefitted from a unique, likely irreplicable electoral moment that allowed him to overcome gerrymandering, Senate malapportionment, and a warped Electoral College: a backlash to the Ruth Bader Ginsberg vacancy and a crazed, Cheeto-stained wannabe-dictator whose stupendous incompetence unleashed a devastating plague upon the land. The Republicans don’t need the presidency to enact their agenda; if anything, Mitch McConnell has proven a Senate Majority leader can assert more control over domestic policy than the President. The GOP has secured the Supreme Court for an indefinite amount of time, and by 2040, 30% of Americans will have the capacity to elect 70 Senators — meaning they can secure two crucial veto points in the system and halt any progressive agenda for the foreseeable future.
Ironically, if Democrats want Republicans to moderate, they’ll have to enact sweeping changes to a system that produced Trump and encourages conservatives to pander to an increasingly minoritarian, white, rural, Christian, reactionary base: curb partisan gerrymandering, grant statehood to DC and Puerto Rico, dole out term limits for Supreme Court justices, pack the courts, eliminate the filibuster, and implement a national automatic voter registration. Republicans took the L this election, but wild animals are most dangerous when given time to lick their wounds.
There’s a certain glum liberation within this fractured present, where a new possibility can rise beyond the dim and constrained imaginations of the New York Times op-ed page. A fraction of the Democratic base still clings to this sad boomer fantasy about their relationship to this party, a degree of delusional denial almost as psychically twisted as any kind of QAnon cosmology. The rest of Blue America is free to transcend the ubiquitous acceptance of a variety of multitudinous bogus propaganda narratives that have plummeted the Democrats into such a hapless, detached state. There’s no such thing as “electability” in the conventional sense when the last two presidents have been a grifty pussy-grabber and a gibbering senile maniac whose brain is egg yolk running out of his ears. In an era of negative partisanship where the prevailing standard is being preferable to the other guys, there’s no difference in running a progressive and a moderate if it all boils down to the same socialist fearmongering: In the presidential debates, Biden had to remind Trump that he beat Bernie specifically because he was a moderate.
This marks the beginning of America inch towards something good, even if it’s a band-aid. As Cornel West says, “there’s a difference between a neo-fascist catastrophe and a neoliberal disaster.” While celebrations are in order, I’ll be taking the Zen Master we shall see approach to this business, apprehensively applauding, remaining cautiously optimistic. Biden did sign a spate of unambiguously good executive orders, unveil a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that is at the very least significantly better than the CARES Act, and placed Bernie as chair of the Senate Budget Committee. But when Biden’s team wheeled out his carcass for some Weekend at Bernie’s-style appearances prior to the Inauguration, he notably yelled at civil rights leaders, semi-coherently berating them for expecting him to do anything else besides beat Trump — or maybe he wants the NAACP to give him the Best White Boy Dancer Award. There will be a tension between bold action and cautious apprehension, but if the Democrats aren’t aggressive, we could be looking at four queasy years of good enough when they can and should be better.