By Martin Vogel
Sometimes, when you watch an event, it is only when you sleep on it that its significance lands. Last week, I watched with shock but not surprise as America’s Capitol was invaded by seditionists. Even as I watched, and despite the delay in police and security forces containing the uprising, the insurrection looked unlikely to succeed. But, the next morning, the deeper significance sunk in. This was an event that shouldn’t have happened in a mature democracy. Given the connivance of an uncomfortably large number of elected representatives in Congress, with a more competent seditionist than Donald Trump in office, the coup might have prevailed. America, and the cause of democracy around the world, was stained by the insurrection but also saved by an ethos that held when tested.
Yesterday, as Joe Biden took office, the rituals of inauguration seemed familiar but their significance was overwhelming. The words of the presidential oath carried unusual meaning as Biden, with evident decency and determination, promised to uphold the constitution. After dealing with the urgent crisis of Covid, this is his most important task. It’s not yet clear whether the mediation of differences in the United States can be contained within democratic norms. But everything about the inauguration signalled that an attempted restoration is under way.
As Trump slinked away, his undignified refusal to attend seemed fitting. His presence would have muddied the message of discontinuity. The participation in the inauguration of former allies such as Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell, who played no small part in facing down the sedition, underlined his pariah status.
Beyond all that, the visuals, the choreography, the mise-en-scène, carefully but consistently communicated an inclusive and progressive view of the American project. The historic ascendance of Kamala Harris – the first female vice president, the highest-ranking female elected official in US history, the first African American vice president and the first Asian American vice president – was underscored by her choice of purple for her outfit. This was, apparently, a nod to Shirley Chisholm, who also wore purple when she became the first African American to stand for president in 1972. She is an inspiration to Harris. The choice of purple – also the colour of the women’s suffrage movement – by many of the other prominent women present was surely by design.
Perhaps the greatest symbolism of the day and, for me, certainly the most resonant moment, was the poetry performance by Amanda Gorman. Not just her words, but the joy and hope of her expression, the fluidity and grace of her gestures, the colours and elegance of her style, all denoted a break with the rancour and carnage of the preceding years. Her slight figure delivered a stirring paean for democracy where, just a week before, an ugly and angry mob had held sway. If you haven’t already, watch the video and read the text in full.
Biden’s speech, in comparison not just to Gorman but to the inaugural addresses of earlier presidents, may have lacked soaring rhetoric. But it was nonetheless an address for our time. While he acknowledged the multiplicity of complex challenges ahead – the pandemic, inequity, racism, climate change – his focus was mainly on the minimal standards necessary for democracy to prevail. His advocacy of truth-telling and rejection of lies, delineated a moral ground for politics that until a few years ago seemed none too demanding. Hopefully, it will be noticed by the charlatans in Whitehall who were drawn to Trump’s playbook like flies to excrement.
He also acknowledged that politics did not demand suppression of dissent:
“The right to dissent peaceably, within the guardrails of our republic, is perhaps this nation’s greatest strength. Yet hear me clearly: disagreement must not lead to disunion.”
As Michael Ignatieff has noted, politics is inevitably an arena of conflict. The point of democracy is to conflict peaceably. The task for America is great. The commentator Anne Applebaum estimates, conservatively, that 10 to 15 per cent of Americans are committed seditionists. They are in Congress and by 2024 could be the officials in charge of elections in some states. She says moderates and progressives need to learn to co-exist with them – learning from places such as Northern Ireland and Colombia which have overcome civil strife by changing the subject away from divisive obsessions and involving opponents in joint community endeavour. There is also the hard graft of repairing the fabric of the federal institutions that Trump has systematically subverted over four years and putting in place safeguards against future assault.
Watching the proceedings, even as a non-American, I felt moved and relieved to see decent people taking office. The story of the United States since 2016 has shone a light on the fragility of democracy, liberty and the rule of law – values we have complacently taken for granted. I also watched with sadness that the return of simply decent and competent people to office in this country seems a distant prospect. As Biden, in his first act as president, led his country in a silent commemoration of the 400,000 people who have died of Covid in America, we recorded our highest daily number of dead since the pandemic began. Boris Johnson can barely bring himself to acknowledge the casualties of Britain’s mishandling of the pandemic, still less honour them.
Still, what resonates from yesterday is the rekindling of hope and the question posed to all of us by Amanda Gorman’s last word:
There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.