January 6, 2021 became a watershed year in American history when a mob of insurrectionists tried to carry out a coup d’état. On the first anniversary of that event, President Joe Biden decided it was time to clear the air and call out those responsible for having violated the US Capitol and American democracy.
The person named—finally, one might say–is former President Donald Trump. Of course, everyone except rabid Trumpists already knew this; and maybe even some of them know it deep down but refuse to admit it.
President Biden today made a solemn speech recalling specific moments and acts of that day: the police who were viciously attacked, the 140 police officers injured, the mob erecting a gallows to hang the Vice President of the United States. He evoked an image of Trump cozily ensconced in the private dining room off the Oval Office watching on television the violence taking place at the Capitol. And choosing not to stop it, knowing full well that he had given life to the lies that led up to that violence. Trump’s lies, Biden told us, were “conceived and spread for profit and power”. The web of lies about the 2020 election were created and spread because “he values power over principle. Because he sees his own interest as more important than his country’s”.
The events evoked are powerful, the words more than adequate, but are they too long overdue to be effective? Is anyone’s mind going to change as a result of this palaver? Is it just a gesture to try to bring the country together?
It’s refreshing that President Biden has finally and bluntly said that Trump “can’t accept that he lost.” For sure the fact that Vice President Kamala Harris introduced him and spoke for almost twenty minutes is puzzling. Why have her steal his thunder by speaking first? This is not some comedy club where the second banana warms the audience up for the main attraction. Especially since Harris has shown herself to be not only a political lightweight, but singularly uncharismatic and ineffective as a speaker. Her monotone is almost soporific. Joe Biden himself seems to have lost whatever charm and verve he may have had before he became president. This is the kind of event where personality is as important as the message. And both Harris and Biden were lacking in that department. Especially since this particular message is one that’s hard to sell. The nation is at breaking point not only out of political fatigue induced by the Trump presidency and its ceaseless tension and drama, but because of two years of Covid and the sacrifices it has—and is—asking of us.
In today’s edition of the New York Times Frank Bruni speaks of “the degradation of the country’s civic spirit and the foulness of its mood.”
It’s highly unlikely that Biden’s speech can have any effect on bringing the American people together. There are those who believe that Biden should have given this speech at the start of his Presidency, shortly after the insurrection, but at a time when emotions were running so high and the nation was on the brink of a civil war, do we honestly think that such a speech would have smoothed over the division? I can only imagine how it would have added to the rage and bitterness already at fever pitch at that crucial time.
The Republicans and Democrats are now separated by what might as well be an ocean. The division and animosity that initially was only between the political parties has now trickled down to the public, to individual communities, even to families.
The recent instance of cordiality between President Biden and former President Trump was a delight—but it only made us wish that it could happen more often. Trump encouraging his audience at a recent rally to get vaccinated and boosted was a responsible act that gave us a glimmer of the kind of leader he could have been, had he chosen to take the welfare of his people as the top priority. Biden complimenting Trump for Operation Warp Speed and for getting a booster shot was gracious and at one time would have been completely unremarkable. Trump reciprocated by saying “I think he did something very good,” Trump said. “You know, it has to be a process of healing in this country, and that will help a lot.”
Yet of course the anger and the bitterness dividing this country is not only a question of the mood of the American people. There are bigger questions at stake, and the most important is the threat to democracy. This won’t be solved with a speech calling out the guilty and pleading for togetherness. The Republican party is amassing legal weapons like nominating friendly electoral delegates, gerrymandering and voter suppression laws to fight the Democrats, in order to make it possible to overturn elections when they don’t like the result. In other words, a January 6 insurrection fought not on the steps of the Capitol, but in the law courts. This is not going to be changed by a speech, even if the speech had been convincing and the speakers brilliant.