Problem: America doesn’t want to unify, and it may in fact be impossible to unify.
Two weeks after rioters egged on by President Trump ransacked the U.S. Capitol, Biden acknowledged the fraught political environment he’s stepping into amid pandemic, insurrection and economic crisis. “Much to repair,” he said. “Much to restore. Much to heal. Much to build.”
As he did as a candidate, Biden laid out his overarching goal of restoring order and calm after the vitriolic years of the Trump presidency: “My whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.”
Biden has the temperament to be a unifying force in Washington, with many deep friendships in both parties and an affable personality resistant to grudges. He won’t be attacking everybody who disagrees with him or criticizes him, as Trump did. And it’s important to start his term with a civil tone that might calm frayed nerves in many corners of the country.
But come on. The United States is deeply divided for reasons that go far beyond Trump, and much of it involves willful self-deception by Americans clinging to illusions they prefer over reality. Biden can’t change that and it would be a waste of effort to try.
Much of that alienation afflicts working-class whites—the core of Trump’s base—who feel the country is moving on without them. This is a decades-long trend in which globalization and digitization devalue manual labor, with no easy alternatives for blue-collar workers seeing jobs disappear and living standards fall. Biden does have some plans to address the root problems, but they’re entrenched and it would be foolish to expect much progress in two or three or four years.
Political culture warriors like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and much of the right-wing media will keep stoking these resentments, giving voters bogus bogeymen to blame their problems on and facile solutions like banning immigration or keeping trans folks out of restrooms. It’s obviously lucrative business for the likes of Fox News, and there’s a long line of cynical Republicans hoping to inherit Trump voters. Trump himself will no doubt return as some sort of sith culture lord.
Biden won’t pick fights with everybody hoping to see him fail. But he should go further by ignoring them completely. It will be enough for Biden to focus on the four challenges he has outlined repeatedly: the coronavirus pandemic, the stalled economy, racial injustice and climate change. That’s a heap of priorities right there, and Biden doesn’t need help from the fringe, even a sizable fringe, to pursue what ought to be mainstream goals in the nation’s interest. Restoring competence to government and in fact taking government out of the daily scandal sheets will be far more effective at unifying truculent Americans than pandering to anarchists for fear of enraging them further.
Biden, meanwhile, should encourage his Justice Department and professional prosecutors to pursue everybody who committed a crime associated with the Capitol riots, and go beyond that with the steady dismantling of extremist and white nationalist groups. There needs to be accountability for Trump and any crimes he may have committed in office. Biden’s incoming attorney general, Merrick Garland, should quietly convene a group of legal experts to assess the best way to hold Trump accountable, free of political meddling. Excusing Trump’s abuses of power would merely encourage the next tyrant to improve on Trump.
Biden will probably woo some Republicans in Congress to get their support for climate legislation, modest health care reform and other policy priorities. It might work, or not. It’s worth a try, but Biden is probably shrewd enough to assure sly Republicans don’t lead him on just to stall or water down Biden’s legislative plans. In that sense, Biden can perhaps tame the partisan warfare on Capitol Hill, but only if Republicans go along.
In his inaugural speech, Biden referred to prior moments of crisis in the United States, such as wars, depression and the 2001 terrorist attacks. “In each of these moments,” Biden said, “enough of us came together to carry all of us forward.” Unity might be the theme of Biden’s presidency, but to succeed as an executive, Biden can only lead those willing to go somewhere. Those who want to stay behind, he should leave there.