Cleaning up Trump's American carnage: Biden turns from resistance to rebuilding

We've come to an inflection point in our history. Can Joe Biden meet the challenge of these times and speak truth?

By Heather Digby Parton

Published January 20, 2021 9:35AM (EST)

Joe Biden | Trump Supporters (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden | Trump Supporters (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

One of the great ironies of life is that as you get older time seems to pass much more quickly. But I have found that the last four years have been an exception. I can hardly remember a time before Donald Trump dominated our political culture. But it's over now. Today Trump flies off to Mar-a-Lago to plot his next comeback and Joe Biden moves into the White House to plot a comeback for America.

Four years ago today, Donald Trump proclaimed, "American Carnage stops right here and stops right now." He should have said, "American carnage starts right here, right now." There isn't room here to list it all. And Lord knows, we don't want to relive it anyway. But it's important to remember that Trump's crimes in office go beyond "norm busting" and being a pathological liar. He was corrupt on an unprecedented level and he abused the power of the presidency repeatedly putting his own needs ahead of the national interest time and again. He showed reckless disregard for the greatest public health crisis in over a century and the ensuing economic crisis. And he promulgated an egregious disinformation campaign to overturn the results of the 2020 election, incited his supporters to sack the US Capitol and then stood by and did nothing as they stormed the halls of Congress chanting "hang Mike Pence!" 

As historian Tim Naftali writes in The Atlantic, compared to the worst presidents in American history, from James Buchanan to Warren Harding to Herbert Hoover or Richard Nixon, Trump is at the bottom on every measurable scale. Others have done bad things — many of which Trump did as well — but none of them attempted a coup to stay in power.

But he didn't do it alone. He was aided and abetted by the Republican collaborators who backed him every step of the way, some even helping to incite those same insurrectionists. They excused his ignorant, crude behavior and his abuse of power and closed their eyes to the blatant corruption that had him pocketing vast sums from taxpayers and those seeking favors. They protected him from legitimate oversight and allowed him to repeatedly put himself before the country. They were in it with him all the way and Trump's ecstatic voters rewarded them for it. That he has turned on so many in his last days is further proof that no good deed goes unpunished.

CNN's Ron Brownstein writes that Trump is leaving America at its most divided since the Civil War. It's not that it wasn't polarized before he took office, but Trump accelerated it and took it into new territory:

Trump relentlessly stoked the nation's divisions and simultaneously provided oxygen for the growth of White nationalist extremism through his open embrace of racist language and conspiracy theories. In the process, Trump has not only shattered the barriers between the Republican Party and far-right extremists but also enormously intensified a trend that predated him: a growing willingness inside the GOP's mainstream to employ anti-small-d-democratic means to maintain power in a country demographically evolving away from the party.

That anti-democratic means to maintain power has been with us through all the years of Jim Crow voter suppression and beyond, of course, but Trump gave it new life with the introduction of the violent anti-government faction, bizarre conspiracy theories and a sophisticated propaganda operation that came together to define the mainstream right during the Trump era. It tore the country apart and we are still in shock. It's going to take a while to come out of it. 

On the eve of his inauguration, Joe Biden, his vice president, Kamala Harris, and their spouses oversaw an elegant, spiritual memorial at the National Mall to commemorate the 400,000 people who have died in the pandemic in this country. It was a moving ceremony and our first national observance, a fitting beginning to Biden's stated goal to restore the soul of America. He is obviously quite serious about trying to bring people together and it's what any decent president has to at least try to do.

But what happened over the past four years wasn't an anomaly and a quick fix isn't going to work. It's been slowly dawning on Americans just how badly we've failed to live up to our ideals for a very long time and this great clash between those who refuse to admit it and those who want to face it and fix it was inevitable. What's needed now is not just a restoration of norms and regular order. And neither can we simply hold Trump and the Republicans who acted as his accomplices accountable, although all of that is vital. We've come to an inflection point in our history in which we must admit our nation's failures and challenge ourselves to be better. Can Joe Biden do that?

This piece by Finan O'Toole in The Guardian makes the case that Biden's life experience with pain and suffering makes him uniquely qualified to pick up the pieces and begin the process of rebuilding from a different place than where we started. It's an interesting view of Biden's "dark Irishness" that I haven't seen before. He begins with a story that Biden likes to tell about a house in Nantucket which he and his family used to take pictures in front of every summer. One year it was gone, having been washed away by the tide. This story apparently serves as a sort of life metaphor for Biden and O'Toole sees it as a metaphor for America that he might relate to: a house slowly crumbling and "no longer able to hold its ground." He points out that just as you cannot rebuild a house on "land that has been washed away" you also have to rebuild the country somewhere else, "away from the hollow promises of the American dream and towards a new awakening of real equality." He writes:

[H]is familiarity with the dark can be Biden's great strength. In his own life, he has been there and come back. He knows that it cannot be denied, but that it can be transcended. He can invite America to encounter its own darknesses – the legacy of slavery, the persistence of official and unofficial white supremacist violence, the failure to provide the access to education and healthcare necessary for the equal dignity of citizens – while reassuring its people that after such acknowledgement can come real change for the better.

That is an optimistic scenario. And it doesn't account for the challenges of a right-wing faction determined to wage war on its fellow citizens. Still, Biden seems to be planning to go big and so far, hasn't seemed to be afraid to challenge the previous orthodoxy. We'll see how that goes. But who knows? Maybe out of Biden's transcendence of suffering and the ashes of Trump's American Carnage will rise a better country with a soul that all Americans can claim as their own.

Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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