The inauguration of Joe Biden can be understood as the Solemn High Mass of democracy’s civil religion after Trump had tried to destroy it.
This week, Joe Biden finally took over. Everything went well. There were no attacks or riots, and many felt that with Trump leaving the White House, one of the blackest pages in the history of the United States has been left behind. The Trump era will not fade away, and certainly not in the minds of analysts who will try to explain how it was possible that a charlatan was on the point of putting an end to the Constitution, truth and decency in the most powerful country in the world.
There are many hypotheses about the Trump era. This is mine.
Auguste Comte, a 19th-century French thinker, predicted that countries would become increasingly secular and that eventually people would stop believing in gods and religions. But when that moment comes, he said, it will be necessary to create a “civil religion” that instils the essential values that society needs to stay together.
Comte was wrong about the death of religions, at least for now. But he was right in thinking that faith has become a more intimate and personal matter, and the idea of a civil religion that instils the essential values of public life (tolerance, dissent, respect, legality, participation, etc.) is still valid. That is why current thinkers like Martha Nussbaum encourage it.
What does this have to do with my hypothesis? Well, Donald Trump, with his party, became an apostate from that civil religion. Instead of defending the Constitution, its values and its morality, he governed for his followers (the racist whites, the rich, the evangelicals, and the politically disenchanted naive) and, above all, to feed his ego as a fleeting hero of the television screen.
The four years that ended last Wednesday in the United States did not witness a political confrontation between two polarised parties, but an illegal attempt by a group of extremists led by a lunatic, and supported by a shameless party, to seize control of the country’s institutions, their meaning and the values of its civil religion.
According to Paul Krugman, a radical party was in government during those years, and it acted contrary to the law, against democracy and against the truth. This is not the first time this has happened in the US. Our history, Biden said in his speech, has been a constant struggle between the ideal that we are all equal and the terrible reality of racism.
The inauguration, with its typically American kitsch pastors and singers, is best understood as the celebration of the Solemn High Mass of that civil religion after Trump was on the point of destroying it.
Important lessons remain from all this, and one of them is that democracies also die, that justice does not always triumph, that political legitimacy goes beyond electoral results, that the public good must be defended, that the education and culture of citizens are important and that, in democracies, we always have to be careful to expose the apostates of our civil religion.
This article appeared in El Espectador on 23 January, 2021, and was translated by Kieran Tapsell.