It’s been a long four years since this time in January 2017 when Barack Obama was succeeded by the 45th President.
In the past four years we have become aware, if we didn’t already know it, that our country is seriously–may even dangerously–divided. If we didn’t know it before, we certainly did after January 6 of this year when a mob of insurrectionists invaded the Capitol. We could hope that the attack was an aberration, but unfortunately there’s too much evidence to the contrary. We can look back now and see warning signs going back more than a decade that were either ignored or failed to provoke an adequate response. Beyond those failures, we can see that the mayhem floated on a sea of lies, misinformation and misrepresentation supported or at least tolerated by 74 million of our fellow citizens.
Before the election had even been held, the Republican incumbent was laying the foundation for his post-election claim that he had been the victim of a massive, conspiratorial fraud, and that rather than winning the election by a landslide, he had lost it by a significant amount. There’s a certain irony here. The 2020 election, by the outgoing administration’s own estimation, was the safest, most secure election in American history. Part of that election saw African-American voters in at least one state—Georgia—turn out in record numbers to vote for Biden and help him win the state’s 16 electoral votes. And that activity, along with other states where the African American vote was decisive, no doubt triggered the bogus charge of fraud.
We’re at a decisive moment in our history, one of those turning points we read about. Now we’re experiencing it. But it’s a grim moment. Our country is ravaged by a deadly disease that’s out of control. Our institutions have lost respect. We’ve lost our sense of community. Many—too many—of our representatives have lost their sense of institutional role and responsibility. We are divided in our views, in our perception of reality and perhaps in our allegiance. The bond that united us has been weakened over the past four years.
Ordinarily the inauguration of a new President is an occasion for celebration. This time, however, we feel more a sense of relief and hope that the worst in many ways may be behind us, and that men and women of goodwill and dedication once again are taking their places in government. The moment is too somber for joy. We were reminded two weeks ago that we can’t take our democracy for granted, just as we can’t take our civil rights and civil liberties for granted. We are shielded from anarchy and autocracy by a thin veneer of civility that obligates us all to meet our civic responsibilities. January 6 was a reminder: We live in dangerous times.
And we have to stop deluding ourselves about our being exceptional. Our aspirations may be exceptional. Our performance, too often, not so much—not when the right to vote of 13 percent of our population is under a continuing threat. Not when roving bands of white nationalists roam at will, enabled by all too tolerant law “enforcement” officials who shirk their duty. Not when we single out followers of one religion—Islam—for exclusion from our country.
We can’t escape our past. William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” We should remember the past as a caution. As President Biden said the day before he took office, we have to remember if we are to heal.
We can’t forget these past four years, and before we move on, those who are culpable for the attempted insurrection—both outside and inside of government—have to be exposed and brought to justice. Nor can we overlook the criminal actions of the person who occupied the White House for the past four years. He continues to be a national security threat. Were he a private citizen applying for any sensitive government position, he could not be hired because of his liabilities. And yet he could be elected President again, and he did receive 74 million votes despite his ineptitude, incompetence and indifference to his responsibilities.
We can hope that that’s behind us. Joe Biden is now our President. We’ve had crises and challenges before, and we’ve prevailed.
We’ve also been put on notice. We have a lot of work to do.