BARRING unforeseen events, Joseph Robinette Biden, 78, will be inaugurated today as the 46th President of the United States of America in Washington DC amid unprecedented security, division and national trauma. He succeeds the tumultuous, spiteful and divisive Donald J. Trump, whose outrageous behaviour demeaned the country and destabilised the world order. On Biden’s shoulders fall the daunting task of healing a nation split into militantly hostile factions, a battered economy, a pandemic that has killed 400,000 Americans; as well as reviving alliances and weakened institutions. He also faces an arduous task of rebuilding the global system Trump cynically trampled on with his ‘America First’ rhetoric.
Painfully aware of his seemingly Sisyphean task, Biden has chosen ‘America United’ as the theme for his inauguration, reflecting “the beginning of a new national journey that restores the soul of America, brings the country together, and creates a path to a brighter future.”
Events around the inauguration are surreal. There will be no convivial, celebratory crowd. By a combination of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, an insurrection by Trump’s deranged supporters who stormed and occupied the Capitol, seat of the US Congress on January 6 in a bid to upturn the election result, and threats of another armed assault there and in the 50 state capitals, the federal capital is in a lockdown. Apart from the Capitol, DC and neighbouring city and state police forces, US Secret Service and other federal law enforcement agencies, 25,000 National Guard troops have been deployed in the city. The 50 state capitals are similarly militarised to forestall plots uncovered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for violent, simultaneous armed protests by right wing groups, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, white evangelicals and other extremist supporters of the disgraced ex-president.
It is difficult to understand how the US lost its soul within Trump’s four-year presidency. He besmirched the universal values of democracy, the rule of law, justice, equality, truth, fairness, respect for the rights of others, the sanctity of free and fair elections and seamless transfer of power. He was actively enabled by a complicit Republican Party and a large base of supporters, 74.22 million or 46.8 per cent of the 159.63 million of those that voted and worshipped at his altar for different reasons. The assault on justice, truth, institutions, law and decency culminated in the January 6 insurrection, which brought the leading democratic country to the level of dictatorial regimes around the world.
Therefore, healing the divisions, restoring the integrity of institutions, combating the coronavirus pandemic and halting the tailspin in an economy that initially lost almost 40 million jobs are the major challenges on the home front. Rebuilding the American brand abroad is another. Trump tore up treaties without consulting allies, his xenophobic America First slogan saw him exiting global bodies, alienating allies and abandoning US support for democracy and human rights.
More importantly, Biden should pursue the genuine enthronement of justice; confront the entrenched racism that has unfairly mistreated African-Americans, Amerindians and other minorities in a country that prides itself as “a melting pot.” To be clear, justice is the pinnacle of a truly free and democratic society and without justice there can be neither peace nor true democracy. The 18th century French philosopher, Montesquieu, declared: “There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice.”
The US is di vided racially and geographically: Whites claim the country as exclusively theirs and through population, gerrymandering, voter suppression and discriminatory laws, oppress the minorities. Some (mostly southern) states, like the slave-owning Confederacy states that attempted secession 1861-65, cling to a fascist, right wing, gun-loving, anti-immigrant and isolationist tendency. The others favour liberal democracy, equality, social welfare, inclusiveness and globalisation. There is, said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, “no advanced democracy in the world that is more politically divided or politically dysfunctional than the United States today.” It is also the most racist with many in the white majority unwilling to accept that “all men are created equal” as the opening lines of its 233-year-old constitution declares.
Thankfully, Biden has set his sights on addressing the nation’s “four overlapping and compounding crises” through Executive Orders within the first 10 days to roll back the damage done by Trump at home and abroad. These are taming the pandemic that has affected 24.48 million Americans and killed 407,256 (Monday); saving the economy where almost one million recently filed for unemployment benefits; rejoining the Paris Climate Change pact; and addressing racial inequality. He will end the ban on immigration from Muslim majority countries and the callous separation of children from their mothers at the borders. A $1.9 trillion COVID relief stimulus will put money in the hands of the vulnerable and save millions of jobs.
Another is restoring the integrity and independence of state institutions. Biden’s charge to his nominees that their loyalty should be to America is crucial to rebuilding professionalism in the military, departments and the justice system where Trump demanded absolute loyalty to himself over the nation and the constitution. Trump’s rollback of Obamacare that stripped millions of vulnerable persons of health insurance among other domestic policies that hurt the poor, should also be redressed.
The US diplomats, unshackled from the Trump era dysfunction, must work hard to restore the US leadership of the free world, revive the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, free trade deals and respect for international law and agreements. Biden will have to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal, the US, Canada and Mexico trade deal and knock order into the ceaseless trade wars. Trump upended the world order of the post-World War Two era that, despite its imperfections and the grumpiness of the dominant powers, has prevented another global conflagration for 75 years. Working with allies, the US should restore respect for international agreements, resume funding for bodies like the WHO and respect the sovereignty of other countries.
Courageously, Biden has to deal with institutional racism, tyranny against Blacks and police killing. The US has the worst record of racial hatred. Whites have 10 times the wealth of Blacks, the Pew Research Center found; though just 12 per cent of the national adult population. Thirty-three per cent of prisoners are Black compared to 30 per cent of adult whites who make up 64 per cent of the adult population. Between 2014 and 2019, the US police killed 6,557 persons; 25 per cent of the victims were Blacks. Of the 999 persons shot by police in 2020, 226 of them were Black.
Biden should muster a bipartisan resolve to overturn the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights that protects police from investigation and prosecution arising from conduct in the performance of their duties. While 16 states have codified it into law, 11 others are mulling it while many other states have inked similar provisions into their contracts with police unions. Civil rights campaigners say it facilitates impunity by police officers.
Just like Lyndon Johnson, the 36th president and Southern White from Texas was well placed to sign the 1968 Civil Rights Act, Biden, a White, unlike Barack Obama, a Black subjected to white supremacist harassment throughout his two terms in office, can dismantle the racist tendencies of White America and engineer the American dream of a multiracial nation built on equality, justice and genuine inclusion.
But appeasement should be avoided. Healing and unity should not translate to coddling criminals, terrorists, insurrectionists and murderers that still dot the US political space. Those who committed crimes should be punished according to the law, beginning with the insurgents who attempted a coup at Trump’s urging, causing the deaths of five persons and bringing the country into global odium. As experts have warned, Trump’s narcissism and encouragement brought extremists — white supremacists, evangelical fanatics, neo-Nazis and conspiracy theorists — out of the shadows; some have been radicalised into home-grown terrorists. They live an alternative reality that disavows facts and science, believing every word uttered by a president who tweeted or voiced over 23,000 falsehoods in his riotous four years in office. The biggest lie, that he won the election and it was somehow stolen from him, is bizarrely believed by 75 per cent of Republican voters, according to polls, solidifying the wall separating the two Americas. But just as slavery is evil, Nazism is vile, White supremacy is also heinous.
Unfortunately, Trump managed to become an American president through an outdated electoral process. The US Electoral College, which does not guarantee winning the national popular vote as an assurance of winning the presidency, is clearly a blight on democracy. In 2016, the Democratic Party candidate, Hilary Clinton, outpaced Trump by almost 2.9 million, but lost the electoral college vote to Trump who received 306 electoral votes against Clinton’s 232 votes. To be truly democratic, America should overturn a system that legalises the tyranny of the minority over the majority.
When all is said and done, America, with the right leadership, remains a pillar of a free and democratic world, which prefers freedom to servitude; secularity to theocracy; limited government to dictatorship and supremacy of law over the supremacy of individual will. There lies the hope that the “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”