Barring a successful far-right coup, Joe Biden will take the oath of office on Wednesday at noon, becoming the 46th president of the United States. The theme of the inauguration will be “America United,” and the ties that bind the country together will doubtless make up the core of his remarks. Yet if Biden leans too hard on that message of unity, if he mistakes aspiration for reality, if he fails to adapt his political instincts to present-day conditions, then his presidency will be over before it begins.
Throughout American history, the rhetoric of unity has been used to prop up an unequal, unjust, and altogether unsustainable status quo. The insistence on peace at any cost seems most politically useful when that cost is borne by the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised citizens. Consider the end of Reconstruction. By 1875, it was becoming clear that Northern whites in the Republican Party had begun to tire of supporting beleaguered multiracial governments in the former Confederate states. President Ulysses S. Grant adopted a “let-alone policy,” all but inviting white Democrats to reclaim power in the Southern states. Former Confederate troops were hailed on a tour of Northern cities. Frederick Douglass warned what the new emphasis on unity would mean for Black people only a few years removed from chattel bondage. The withdrawal of federal forces, he argued, would undo the outcome of the Civil War. “If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to Blacks,” Douglass observed, “what will peace among the whites bring?”
Supporters of Biden’s candidacy might well ask a similar question now. Pursuing “unity” with those deluded hordes that descended on Washington, D.C., on January 6 can only mean betraying the pledges that Biden made to those targeted by this latest recrudescence of far-right racist violence. Speaking to “the African American community” in his victory address in November, Biden pointedly said, “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.” Seeking to placate the mob that attacked and screamed obscenities at Black police officers at the Capitol and carried the Confederate banner through the halls of Congress does not fulfill that promise.
Pledging yourself to “unity” as some kind of a priori ideal hands a weapon to your opponents who can accuse you of violating your word for partisan interest. Already, Senator Rick Scott of Florida, a top-ranking Senate Republican and participant in the attempt to deny the certification of Biden’s victory, called the president-elect a hypocrite for promoting national unity while failing to condemn congressional Democrats’ move to impeach Trump.
The lesson of Barack Obama’s presidency, as his recent memoir painfully reminds us, is that staking one’s political appeal on the attractive but ultimately insubstantial rhetorical tradition of compromise and unity, in the face of an irate, intractable opposition, amounts to preemptive surrender. Obama entered office vowing to “put childish things” aside, to focus Americans’ attention on how much more united than divided them. But he was wrong, and he failed to bring the country together. Every gesture of frustration with Republican obstruction, every expression of even milquetoast sympathy with the victims of police brutality, invited criticism from conservatives that he had betrayed his conciliatory message. Democrats should neither live in fear of playing into Republican talking points, nor should they stake their strategy on supposedly pragmatic calculations that have never added up to political success.
Long before the attempted insurrection, Republicans gave up any pretense of playing by the rules. And yet the man most responsible has been busy since January 6 trying to cleanse his reputation by publicly breaking with Trump. Mitch McConnell shouldn’t be allowed to get off so easy. His obstruction of Obama began the moment he took the oath of office, but a clear turning point, in hindsight, was his refusal to let the Senate consider Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court on the blatantly vacuous reasoning that it was an election year. Denying a vote, much less hearings, on the nomination amounted to an egregious a breach of the constitutional mandate. Other major landmarks: McConnell’s subsequent refusal, that fall, to join Obama in condemning Russian interference in the 2016 election. His insistence that no witnesses be called at Trump’s trial on impeachment charges a year ago. Then, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died weeks before the 2020 election, McConnell reversed himself and rushed a replacement through the confirmation process in record time. Future homilies from McConnell on the themes of democracy, comity, and the rule of law should be met with guffaws.
In her 2017 book Secession on Trial: The Treason Prosecution of Jefferson Davis, legal historian Cynthia Nicoletti argued that the failure to prosecute leading Confederates after the Civil War shaped the nation’s inability to put the war fully in the past. The same is true today, with respect not only to Trump but also the hundreds of Republican senators and representatives who endorsed and abetted his attempt to thwart the peaceful transfer of power—even after the MAGA mob sacked the Capitol. If they are permitted to retain their seats and face no official consequences for their role in the attempted coup, Trumpism will become, as historian David Blight recently predicted in The New York Times, another “lethal Lost Cause,” the course of American politics for decades to come. Only swift and remorseless justice for the rebels will make it possible for the country to move on.
Clinging to decency, competence, and sanity, Biden seems ill-equipped for the task at hand—indeed, he may even be an obstacle to national healing, to the grueling and delicate work of reckoning with and recovering from the trauma of the Trump presidency. He appears incapable of realizing that his increasingly desperate pleas for reconciliation have been met with a deafening negative from the other side. With his paeans to American unity and his track record as an eager appeaser of segregationists, he may feel the need to do whatever it takes to strike a deal that will keep Republicans from embracing outright sedition again.
On November 7, 2020, when leading news organizations finally called the election in his favor, Biden declared it was “time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again. Listen to each other again. And to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies.” In the two months since, hundreds of Republican representatives and senators signed on to an effort to throw out Electoral College votes certified by Republican leaders in several states. They barely blinked at the leaked recording in which Trump threatened the Georgia secretary of state with criminal prosecution if he failed to help overturn the state’s election result. Now, they refuse to hold the president accountable for inciting an attack on the Capitol that, as bad as it was, could easily have been much worse. And yet there was Biden, the afternoon of the attack, calling on Trump to give a national televised address denouncing the violence and calling off his goons, relying on the same stale rhetoric. “This is the United States of America,” he solemnly intoned with all the customary gestures, eyes closed at first, hands chopping the air with quiet emphasis.
As if the name of the country is itself an argument.
Well, isn’t it? The awkward name seems to have been applied by Pennsylvania lawyer and wordsmith John Dickinson, an early leader of the colonial revolt tasked by the Continental Congress in the summer of 1776 with drawing up a constitution for the new nation. “The name of this Confederacy shall be the united states of america,” Dickinson’s first draft of the Articles of Confederation began. Maybe he meant the name to be ironic: Days before submitting his draft, Dickinson had abstained from the vote to issue the Declaration of Independence, precisely because he thought the colonies were not united, and that if they separated from England without first solving their own internal differences, the country would break apart. As the chair of the committee tasked with ironing out those differences, Dickinson knew some issues would never entirely be resolved. “Some of Us totally despair of any reasonable Terms of Confederation,” Dickinson warned.
Many of us still despair. The unpleasantness is not about to dissipate. Biden will not guide the country back to normalcy. Unless we face up to the fractures and fault lines that Trump took advantage of in his ascent to power, an even more vicious—and possibly less feckless—version of his authoritarianism will return, and unity will be enforced at the point of a gun.