During Donald Trump’s four years in office, the mainstream American news media, in a desperate effort to normalize the grotesque and abominable, have groped and searched for moments when he could somehow become “presidential.” These attempts were largely about reassuring the nation, and themselves, that everything would somehow be OK with Trump as president, but such an authentic and real moment never came to be. It was an impossibility. Donald Trump is a fascist authoritarian, a strongman who is simultaneously a coward, a man without gravitas or substance, inflated and lifted up by supplicants and a political cult that exists in a knot of collective narcissism and other shared pathologies.
Last Saturday, Joe Biden, who will not become president until Jan. 20, showed himself to be more “presidential” than Donald Trump could ever be — and made it look effortless.
The American people rejoiced in Biden’s ascendance. Throughout that day and evening the American people danced and cheered in the streets because Joe Biden had secured an insurmountable lead over Donald Trump in the electoral vote.
The celebration was cleansing, something akin to what one sees in developing countries when an autocrat or other authoritarian is removed from office by a people’s revolution. Unfortunately, there was no Trump statue to be pulled down, beaten with shoes and spat upon.
That evening, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris made their first public appearances as president-elect and vice president-elect at an outdoor rally in Biden’s hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.
Kamala Harris, who will become the first woman, the first black person and the first person of South Asian descent to be vice president, spoke first. She reflected upon what being an American means to her, her personal journey and family life story as the child of immigrants, Joe Biden’s character and their relationship, and the work that will need to be done to rehabilitate America from the Age of Trump. Wearing a white pantsuit (the unofficial color of the suffragist movement), Harris also located herself within a long struggle for women’s human rights and equality on both sides of the color line.
President-elect Joe Biden then delivered his acceptance speech, where he too talked about the hard work that needed to be done to defeat the pandemic and restore the country’s greatness in the world. Biden also spoke of the honor, privilege and responsibility of becoming president of the United States. He acknowledged the hard work of the diverse coalition which elected him. Biden also singled out Black Americans for special thanks, given their long-term loyalty to the Democratic Party and particular role in helping him with the election. Biden is also the first president-elect to acknowledge the humanity of transgender people in a presidential acceptance speech.
Biden also spoke of the need for unity and an end to political “demonization”:
For all those of you who voted for President Trump, I understand the disappointment tonight. I’ve lost a couple of times myself. But now let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again. To make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies. They’re Americans. They’re Americans.
Biden observed that while he was “a proud Democrat,” he would “govern as an American president,” and promised, “I’ll work as hard for those who didn’t vote for me as those who did. Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end here and now.”
With those words Joe Biden almost lost the audience. Cheers suddenly became muted. The energy among the crowd dissipated. Attendees at the rally and those people watching from likely said to themselves, “I am not so sure about that.”
Biden’s supporters and people of conscience more generally have suffered great and deep wounds from Donald Trump’s cruelty. The Trump regime’s machinery of cruelty has been especially focused on hurting Black and brown people, women, LGBTQ people, Muslims, Jews, migrants and refugees, poor people, working-class people, the disabled and other vulnerable communities.
Joe Biden wants forgiveness, comity, and a type of civic reunion and healing. But such things cannot properly occur without a true accounting, which includes sincere contrition, punishment for crimes, and ownership of what deeds have been done by the victimizers to the victims, the abuser to the abused.
Letting “bygones be bygones” and bland words about unity and healing are not a sufficient remedy for a society where some 71 million people who voted for Donald Trump apparently reject the premise that the United States is a multiracial democracy where nonwhite people are full and equal members. By doing so, they embrace fascism, whether they see it that way or not.
In so many ways, and to his credit, Joe Biden’s comments during Saturday’s acceptance speech were reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln, recalling what one of America’s greatest presidents said in his 1861 inaugural address:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
The Confederacy responded to Abraham Lincoln’s words with a war of secession, waged by the South against the North in defense of owning Black people as human property in perpetuity. The Confederacy’s commitment to white supremacy would kill 750,000 Americans. Trumpism and today’s Republican Party are the 21st-century heirs to that ignominious cause.
Biden’s hope that the American people can heal after Donald Trump’s destruction faces many basic challenges.
Donald Trump and his movement have declared that liberals, Democrats, and anyone else who disagrees with them are their enemies, not “real Americans,” people literally to be dominated and crushed.
For Joe Biden, these threats are personal. Trump supporters and other members of the American far right have repeatedly threatened Biden, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and other leading Democrats with imprisonment or lethal violence.
For more than five years, from the beginning of Trump’s presidential campaign to the end of his term in office, Trump’s followers have acted on his suggestions.
The examples include mass shootings, an attempted bombing, a kidnapping plot and other acts of terrorism and political violence. The Age of Trump has also seen a record increase in hate crimes and other violence against nonwhite people, Jews, Muslims, journalists and reporters, and other individuals and groups who have been deemed the enemy by Trump and his followers.
As a group, Donald Trump and his supporters have declared themselves to be the enemies of multiracial democracy, civil society, secular society, the rule of law, and an America where white people share substantive power with nonwhite people. As political scientists and other researchers have shown, Trump’s supporters are racial authoritarians who would jettison democracy if it means they can maintain their special place of superiority in American society.
What of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party’s obligation to their own voters, who want nothing to do with anyone who supports Donald Trump and his American fascist movement?
In an interview with Salon last June, novelist and screenwriter Aleksandar Hemon told me this:
Trump’s supporters are participating in a project that directly impacts my life, my family and the people I love in a very negative and dangerous way. We are past the point of understanding with Trump and his supporters. That moment was gone a long time ago. Any intelligent, active citizen understands the consequences of their actions. The whole idea that somehow these white people voted for Donald Trump while not meaning to be racist is just nonsense. If they somehow did not know that Donald Trump is a racist, then it is their responsibility to find out.
Now it is evident because Trump is a rabid white supremacist who is aligned with the worst racist elements in the country. To support Donald Trump is to be complicit with white supremacy. It is to actively support a white supremacist project.
I do not talk to Donald Trump’s supporters. They are my enemies. I want them to go away and not be anywhere near me. I do not want to “unite” with such people in this country. I do not care if they live in the same country as me. Donald Trump’s supporters are my enemies and I want them gone from my life. And that’s a hard thing to say. Countries break up over such things. This is imaginable in this country now. And what is imaginable is possible.
Joe Biden’s generosity of spirit must confront what appears to be an insurmountable challenge: Trump received 8 million more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. Contrary to the hopes of Democrats, white supremacy and neofascism hav not been repudiated.
How does a person make peace with those who willingly want to stay in TrumpWorld? Who choose and prefer a malignant reality — and who even want the madness of Trump’s realm to engulf the rest of American society?
For a recent feature story in the New York Times, Ellen Barry profiled one such die-hard Trumpist:
Casting his mind into the future, past this election, he could imagine any number of outcomes.
He could imagine the United States splitting into two countries, one governed by Mr. Trump and one not. He could imagine suspending elections so Mr. Trump and his family could rule without interruption for 20 years.
“I guarantee you, Trump supporters would not care,” he said. “I guarantee you, if you got 69 million Trump supporters, and you said, ‘Would you be good with Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump as president?’ a lot of people would be 100 percent behind that.”
He was gathering his things — he had a shift at the salon — and his tone was calm. He is only 26. There is plenty of time. He was waiting for cues from his leader.
“In Trump we trust, and as far as everything else, it’s all going to fall into place,” he said. “It’s not happening today, and it’s not happening tomorrow.”
Given the level of enthusiasm for Donald Trump among his base, such sentiments are not uncommon.
For Biden to heal a country stained and infected by Trumpism and other forms of American fascism and social injustice, he must become what political consultant and longtime Democratic insider David Rothkopf describes as a “scorched-earth Democrat” — a leader willing to burn down the Republican Party and its policies in order to save America’s democracy.
It is the obligation of liberals, progressives, and other good Americans to force Biden’s hand in that direction if he wavers or resists.
Ultimately, when Republicans and their propaganda media begin to spout lies about wanting to “move forward,” find areas of “compromise” to serve the interests of all Americans and “put the past behind us,” President Biden must tell them the great truth of politics: Elections have consequences.