Rarely, if ever, in US political history has an inauguration felt more like an exorcism. Joe Biden’s acceptance of the mantle of power, coming just hours after a petulant, grumpy Trump exited D.C., was stunning in its cultural and emotional pivot.
Four years after Donald J. Trump ushered in a period of unrelenting “American carnage,” braggadocio, and white nationalism, Biden and Kamala Harris brought to Inauguration Day pluralism, calm, dignity, and humility. The inauguration cast they welcomed to the Capitol, from Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga to the astonishing young poet Amanda Gorman, was a wondrous homage not just to diversity of appearance but also, and more fundamentally, to a broad and tolerant understanding of what American culture is and of who Americans are.
Where Trump spewed venom and rage in 2017, Biden, coming into office at perhaps the most perilous moment in American history since at least World War II, and possibly since the Civil War, radiated a sense of quiet but intense purpose. He spoke of morality and mortality, of the vast sense of responsibility that he felt to do right by all Americans and to anchor the United States firmly within a global community. He talked of the magnitude of the “cascading crises” facing the country, but also of the opportunity to remake the country in a better, fairer mold.
By Wednesday evening, as world leaders sent congratulations and pointedly tweeted out criticisms of Trump and his governing priorities these past four long years, Biden—hard at work in a city locked down against the violent extremists Trump tried to unleash against democracy—had begun the process of erasing the grifter in chief’s toxic legacy. He was busy signing executive orders rolling back everything from the Muslim travel ban to attacks on environmental regulation. He was re-enrolling the United States in the Paris climate accord and was rushing to send comprehensive immigration reform legislation to Congress.
There was, by day’s end, something of a magic-show quality to it all, a “now you see it, now you don’t” vanishing act designed to comprehensively scrub clean the Trumpian stain.
It won’t, of course, all be easy sailing. Sure, the Republicans—so desperate to reclaim at least the appearance of being serious and responsible partners in government after four years in which they greased the pole for Trump and his minions and helped light wildfires throughout the body politic—are, temporarily, issuing platitudinous statements about coming together for the common good. But that lurch toward bipartisanship will likely last only until it comes time to debate major Biden legislative initiatives in Congress over the coming weeks. From then on, partisan rancor will likely become the norm again.
That notwithstanding, the shift in tone is stunning. These past four years have been a continuous assault on decency. Trump surrounded himself with advisers like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, people with not an ounce of empathy or human decency, who traffic in conspiracy theories and believe cruelty is not an unfortunate and occasional byproduct of some government policies but a modus operandi, a central organizing principle, in its own right.
Trump put foxes inside the henhouse at every opportunity, installing virulently anti-union people, such as Eugene Scalia, in the Labor Department, obsessively anti-environmental figures such as Scott Pruitt in the EPA, education-wreckers into the Education Department, science skeptics into oversight positions at the CDC, and so on. Now, in one fell swoop, these men and women, these venal, small-minded hoodlums and sycophants, are gone. Now, instead of a president who blathers on about being a “very stable genius” and who boasts about his ability to avoid paying taxes, America has a president who talks about walking in other people’s shoes and being able to see the world through other people’s eyes. Instead of a cabinet skewed toward plutocrats, America has one that looks and feels as diverse as this incredibly complex country.
That doesn’t mean that Biden’s administration will do everything right; nor does it mean that journalists ought to withhold criticism if criticism is merited. But it does mean that much of the nonsense that has these past four years passed for political discourse—the tweets-as-official-policy, the bullying, the boasting, the racist rallies, the manic verbal assaults by the president against his own cabinet officials—all of that will now be gone.
Which brings me to “Signal:Noise.” This, my 124th “Signal:Noise” column, is my last. It was always intended as a bullshit-detector for the Trump era, and as Trump goes grumpily into his political night, so it is time for me to reinvent my column and turn my attention to less noxious and irrational parts of America’s political drama.
I will soon be back with a new weekly column, “Left Coast,” that will focus primarily on West Coast politics and ideas and explore how they influence the national political scene. In the meantime, good readers, stay well, stay safe, and luxuriate in the fact that we no longer have to wake up each morning wondering what thuggery has been unleashed overnight by a narcissistic and ignorant president’s twitchy Twitter fingers.