WILMINGTON, Delaware — On Wednesday, Joe Biden opened his remarks with an apology about the way things are. He quoted Lincoln at length in short remarks. When he finished, he left the stage, and then returned to answer a shouted question about his own safety and the upcoming inauguration. He wasn’t concerned. Then he added, with some emotion, “Enough is enough is enough.”
This was after the mob of Trump supporters started beating on the locked doors inside Congress, and after reports of a defused bomb at the Republican National Committee headquarters, but before it was made public that a woman died from a gunshot wound she received somewhere inside the Capitol.
Biden will be president in 14 days. If you want to know what it’s like being in the same building as the president-elect on a day like Wednesday, the answer is this: You can be sitting a short distance away from the man who will soon be president, inside one of the most secure perimeters in the United States, in front of the familiar blue screen and American flags, under an old theater’s busted grandeur of the domed ceiling, in a calm city not that far away from Washington, while a mob overtakes the Capitol — and receive information just the same way as anyone else, here and there, through Twitter and text, overhearing a conversation about what someone else saw, trying to make out from a distance what happens to a tightening, tightening situation.
Biden, presumably, had more detailed information, but maybe he felt that same divide.
Between the election and the inauguration, you have the twinned dynamic of the outgoing president and the incoming one, existing at the same time in totally different realities. It’s safe to be near the president-elect, but it’s supposed to be safe inside the US Capitol, too. Wilmington was orderly and quiet, and Washington melting. Biden will be president; Trump pretends otherwise.
On Wednesday, Biden appeared only for a few minutes and spent, as he has this year, a fair portion of his speaking time on Abraham Lincoln and division. This can feel thin, or sort of maybe beside the point to some — because it’s not as though anything Biden (or anyone else) could have said on Wednesday could rewind the day, or rewind the last two months, and undo the events of the afternoon.
Trump spoke forever at a rally in the morning, and then directed attendees to the Capitol, where he never met them. It’s like Trump is a blunt force — free of empathy and care about consequence except for this kind of spiritually sobbing reaction to events — that cracks the Earth. You can trace all the little schisms and fissures that emanate from each blow, and the way people like Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley keep shoving the pieces around because it seems not quite real to them that when a president speaks, people listen, and that when they speak, people listen. The internet means whenever you or I are speaking, too, someone might really be listening — and for Trump, that goes expansively, beyond all belief. A woman died on Wednesday while older lawmakers hid in the Capitol. “This is what you’ve gotten, guys,” Sen. Mitt Romney reportedly yelled to his colleagues as the chaos got rolling.
So here you have our two presidents: Biden quoting Lincoln, and apologizing, and saying enough is enough is enough in this quiet place far from the action, and Trump cheerily saying this will always be a day to remember while everyone sits, minds blank with the overload of emotion. By the time Biden returned to his home, the Capitol was glowing and smoky with tactical gas, filled with police and people hanging off railings, holding Trump flags.
Will there ever be a person who’s moved by both Trump and Biden? That’s a challenging, maybe hopeless question, and a little distant from the central policy megaplex of the next two years (whether the Biden administration can end the pandemic, reopen schools, and restore the economy). But so close to the changeover between them, it’s hard not to consider, in basic terms, the quiet around Biden and the chaos around Trump, and whether the difference in the apology and the provocation will have some sort of meaning.