Joe Biden will take the oath of office to exhalation from Americans desperate for the Trump era to end and bafflement from Americans certain it never will. His inauguration will be lonely because of measures taken to prevent violence and the spread of the coronavirus. His parade will be muted and mostly virtual as it goes through a guarded city. Whatever Biden’s America will become, it will start deep into an exhausted panic.
Biden has spent most of the last two years talking about “the soul of America.” He framed his campaign from the outset as an existential battle, one that if he won will make the Trump years and fixations “an aberrant moment in time.” The battle, he’s said, has been a long-running one, back to the racism embedded in America’s founding, the conflict “a constant push and pull” between ideals and hatred.
It’s not obvious now what any of that means, what America’s soul is in 2021, or what it looks like to win or lose a battle for it. Biden, after nearly five decades in American life, is in the strange place of being responsible for sorting that out and making sure it’s his definition that lasts.
Biden’s idealized American soul as he’s presented it through the decades is intertwined with nostalgia for a country lost by the time he was first elected in 1972 and that was never really here to begin with. But as his campaign went on, though, Biden’s American soul was clearest as a reaction: It was defined as being what Donald Trump’s was not. The American soul was anti-racist and pro-science, welcoming of immigrants (within reason), a willing participant and leader in the global community, and congenial, not radical.
The hang-up here is that America did the things Biden has pitted its soul against. It separated families and chanted “Jews will not replace us” and made “unarmed Black man” a stock phrase. It let a conspiratorial fringe go mainstream and stage an insurrection at the US Capitol. America’s soul elected Trump once and didn’t come too far from doing it again. There may be a constant push and pull, but it’s never certain which forces are winning.
Whenever bad things happen in America, whenever children are killed in classrooms or the government fails to protect its citizens from hurricanes, there’s a cry from some politicians of “We’re Better Than This,” that the country is greater than whatever it has done.
“The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are,” Biden said in his first remarks after this month’s violence.
His promise is that’s true, that America’s soul also elected him to replace Trump, that what he won in November was a chance at redemption, or at least a walkback. His incoming administration, loaded with people from the Obama years, looks on paper like the slight turning back of a hand, a nostalgia only as ambitious as a return to 2009. Maybe right now it’s enough to step back from the current existential crises and not charge into a new American soul, for Biden to just take the place of an instrument for something better, a “bridge,” as he’s put it.
Biden’s first act as president will be to take the oath of office under serious threat, in public, outside of the Capitol, where just days ago security proved to be disastrously insufficient. There’s a reasonable question as to why Biden and Kamala Harris are insisting on doing this. They could easily take their oaths elsewhere, indoors, somewhere without the same sense of history but also without open sight lines. A reporter on Monday asked Harris, the first woman or Black person to be elected vice president, about concerns for her own safety for the ceremony. She didn’t hesitate:
“I will walk there, to that moment, proudly with my head up and my shoulders back.”
That seems to be the point. Even if the battle is never over, or if America isn’t in a position to have a solid working definition of its soul, Biden and Harris plan to impose their idealized country by example. Its starting definition is simple: the soul of a country where someone can safely and calmly take a walk.