President Joe Biden said all the right things about American unity after taking the oath of office and in the early moments of his administration. Unfortunately, there were little tells that suggested he might not really mean it.
An uneasy tension existed throughout an inaugural address that summoned us to our “better angels” and to “be better than this,” the last four years. Biden spoke as if we are all one, with perhaps one giant orange exception, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that his thinly veiled critique of former President Trump and his approach to politics extended to a nontrivial number of his supporters, who still number in the tens of millions.
Coming so soon after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, an event that shaped the opening of Biden’s presidency even more than the pandemic and was driven by baseless assertions about his own election, it is understandable that there would be limits to his charity toward all. A “riotous mob,” he said, “thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground.”
There is no question that Trump told an unusual number of lies even by political standards and encouraged the truest MAGA believers to live in a fantasy world of their own creation. But when you yield to the temptation to reduce political debate to truth versus lies—“There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit, and each of us has a duty and a responsibility as citizens, as Americans and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies” —things can go awry rather quickly.
Perhaps this characterization of Biden’s remarks is itself uncharitable. “To all of those who did not support us, let me say this: hear me out as we move forward, take a measure of me and my heart,” the new president assured Trump voters and others. “If you still disagree, so be it, that’s democracy, that’s America.” He later said “we can still disagree” and elsewhere spoke of disagreement not needing to lead to rancor or “total war.”
But we’ve seen this movie before, when Biden was vice president. Ending the “uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban or rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal” is not far removed from the “not red states and blue states” speech that made Barack Obama president. Biden’s paragraph following “defeat the lies” is classic Obama.
“Look, I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future with fear and trepidation. I understand they worry about their jobs. I understand like my dad, they lay in bed staring at the night—staring at the ceiling wondering, ‘Can I keep my healthcare, can I pay my mortgage?’” Biden said, in a nod to the anxieties that drove millions to twice vote for Trump. “Thinking about their families, about what comes next.”
Then Biden, like Obama on the bitter clingers to guns and religion, takes a side. “I promise you I get it, but the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like—look like you or worship the way you do or don’t get their news from the same source as you do,” the president declared.
Fair enough. But does this extend to people who worship in conservative churches or who get their news from Fox News? Or are those lies for power and profit in opposition to the truth? Does the call for unity acknowledge the aggressive partisanship of putatively neutral outlets during the Trump years, certainly not always in the pro-Trump direction?
That is where the rubber meets the taxpayer-funded road. Modern American liberalism has a tendency to preach unity and tolerance, but when faced with real disagreement asserts that its policy preferences reflect settled science. And Biden’s politically formative years were a period of liberal consensus that exceeded anything in Obama’s adult life.
It is undoubtedly tempting to see Trump’s flaws and absorb no lesson from the fact that his rise followed Obama-Biden. That is more challenging than to lament that progress is occasionally interrupted by backlash or backsliding, that “American ideal” remains in “perennial” conflict with the forces of “racism, nativism, fear, demonization.”
But if that is as much reflection as we can expect, following an election that was a little over 40,000 votes in three states away from an Electoral College deadlock with Trump, Biden’s promise of unity will ring false.
W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner.