The first day of the Biden administration brought a sensation somewhere between satisfaction and joy. Watching the day’s ceremonies felt like a kind of cleansing, as if the patriotic emblems, rituals, and all the rest on display had had an exorcism, as if things were back to something like normal.
Biden’s address, meanwhile, was strong. In style, it contained no effort at reaching for a memorable line, which was a mercy. Had he tried, it would have flopped. Instead, the new president spoke in his own voice, direct, familiar, with an attractive plainness.
The address’s substance was reassuring. Most important, Biden stated clearly the magnitude of the current crisis, and touched all of the bases: Covid-19, the economic collapse, the racial reckoning, climate change, and the threats to democracy. His major themes, unity and hope, matched the severity of the situation. But he did not fall into the trap of appealing only for unity, for reconciliation, for coming together, for finding common ground. He made clear that there can be no unity without accountability and justice, no reconciliation unless we address the extremism, racism, and other poisons that led to the assault on the Capitol on January 6th. He said that democracy had prevailed, but he didn’t say that the war against it is over. He didn’t pretend that the toxins can be removed altogether, but he said they could be contained.
Talk of unity in a vacuum only tempts the wicked and worsens polarization. This is something that Abraham Lincoln always understood. There is a lot of talk just now about moving on, laying to rest our deep divisions. People have been citing Lincoln’s first inaugural address, with its appeal to “the better angels of our nature,” as well as his second inaugural address, when he talked about binding up the nation’s wounds, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” But most of those quoting Lincoln wrench his words out of their context and get him wrong. In fact, Lincoln made it clear in 1861, as the slaveholders were commencing their rebellion, that heeding our “better angels” required repudiating the treason of secession. And he made it clear four years later that binding the wounds of a brutal war could come only after the destruction of slavery, even if it meant that all of the blood drawn with the sword would be equal to all of the blood drawn with the lash.
I heard distant echoes of that in Biden’s address. Yes, by all means, let us have unity. But let’s understand that as long as the extremists and all who collaborate with them are left to do their work, there can be no unity. Let’s understand that democracy can survive only when the collaboration ceases and we unite against the common extremist foe, its aiders, and its abettors.
There was another striking historical echo in Biden’s address. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency after years of bitter political rancor and a presidential campaign that at times looked as if it might veer into civil war. Attempting to reach across the divide and calm the nation’s nerves, Jefferson asserted that disagreement need not signify implacable discord, that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” Biden rephrased that sentiment, observing that “every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
Jefferson learned soon enough, though, that reconciliation did not come easily, and when his embittered Federalist adversaries rejected his olive branch, to the point where some irreconcilables mumbled about disunion, he fought them tooth and nail. This was the unspoken note of disquiet on this day of unity and hope. After decades of scorched-earth politics, dating back to the early 1990s, the Republican Party, under Donald Trump, at last struck fateful bargains with the nether regions of violent political paranoia. After the January 6th assault, it now seems, if only for a moment, that even a supreme cynic like Sen. Mitch McConnell has had enough. But even if the Trumpist scourge gets put to rest, the scourge that the Republican Party has become will sternly test the politics of unity and hope. Beneath his matter-of-fact directness, his unaffected displays of decency, President Biden, we may hope, has been steeling himself for the bruising battles ahead.