Racism was the core of Trump’s politics. The country divided along the lines of the Civil War and of post-reconstruction America. In his inaugural address, Biden acknowledged this reality. His Administration will prioritise tackling the pandemic but success with that and other key policy areas will depend on winding down the “uncivil war”.
Biden spoke of the crises occurring simultaneously: “an attack on democracy and truth” and “a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world”. He said that these circumstances present the US with “the gravest responsibilities we’ve had”.
Following the inaugural oaths and ceremonies, Biden went to the White House and began signing major executive orders, beginning with Covid-19, an expanded program of vaccinations, and overturning a number of Trump’s orders, such as those withdrawing the US from the Paris Accord on climate and denying status to the children of refugees.
Biden will send to the Congress, immediately, a massive economic stimulus and support package in response to the pandemic.
Such urgent concrete action reveals the character of the new Administration. It is determined to use government to address the concerns and needs of the bulk of the people.
The ability of the Biden/Harris team to implement its agenda will depend, however, on the politics of the circumstances they have been handed.
The climate of lies generated by Trump and some media has not evaporated. For example, a majority of Republican voters continue to believe Trump’s claim that the election was stolen from him; 70+ million people voted for Trump.
Biden spoke directly of this in his address: “There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility…especially as leaders…to defend the truth and defeat lies.”
Clearly their task will be formidable, but help may be coming from the most unpredicted of quarters – Republican leader in the Senate Mitch McConnell.
He stated in the Senate, the day before the inauguration, that he has now come to the view that the attack on the Capitol on January 6 was directed by President Trump, that it was right he was impeached. Shortly before those remarks, he also said he favoured Republican senators being allowed a free vote in the impeachment trial of Trump.
It appears the scene is being set for a sufficient number of Republican senators to join the Democrats in finding Trump guilty of the charges for which the House impeached him, following the January 6 insurrection.
This would prevent Trump from ever again holding any official office within government; and that would appear to be McConnell’s objective – to free the party from Trump. This might help settle the other civil war taking place – that within the Republican party.
The central reality of all this, including the cult-like support of Trump, is the underlying tension and dysfunction that persists within the US polity.
Biden recognized this in his address, calling on people “not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like you or worship the way you do, or don’t get their news from the same sources you do. We must end this uncivil war”.
Biden’s address contained echoes of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, in particular, Lincoln’s characterization of the motivation of those remarks: “With malice towards none, with charity for all.”
The Civil War ended 165 years ago but has never been laid to rest. Biden seems to recognize the dreadful extent to which Trump had revived, massaged and exploited its continuing fault lines and, the need for them, particularly systemic racism, to be defeated.
He has a massive job on his hands. Vice President Kamala Harris will help.