Tom Clyde: The American miracle happened
I spent a good deal of Wednesday watching the inauguration at home with the dogs and a bald eagle perched in the yard. It’s one of those ceremonies that is generally routine and not very interesting. This year, coming only two weeks after the insurrection at the Capitol, it was an anxious time. Twenty-five thousand members of the National Guard had joined the local security forces and Secret Service. While increased security is completely predictable at events like that, this time was a lot bigger, and felt a lot more necessary. Things felt tense.
With the images from the desecration of the Capitol by Trump’s racist, tinfoil-hatted minions still in mind — the guy in the horns, the zip-tie guy (and his mom, who came with him) and the guy marching the Confederate flag through the building — it was a wonderful sight to see things put back to normal, with the proper flags flying and the wheels of our democracy functioning. Instead of the usual audience on the National Mall, there were thousands of flags flying. It was beautiful. It felt good. It was a relief. Nothing untoward happened. The Big Lie was rejected, and while some people will remain true believers in an alternate reality, it felt like it was over. The pus is out of the wound, and maybe we can begin to heal.
The transfer of power following an election is one of the miracles of the American system. It largely functions on faith. The expectation is that the loser of the election will pack up and leave, and the winner will assume power smoothly. That didn’t happen this time. It’s not at all clear what would have happened if Trump’s goons had succeeded in taking over the Capitol. They were chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” and it’s reasonable to assume they meant it. If they had left several congressional leaders and the vice president dead, inauguration day would have looked much different. But it didn’t happen. Normal prevailed.
The most alarming event of the day was Lady Gaga singing the national anthem. That seems like asking for trouble. She carried off with dignity, without the pyrotechnic pasties. Jennifer Lopez went a little rock concerty, and Garth Brooks seemed to be a lot more popular with the crowd, especially the security people, than the president. It was all normal, or at least as normal as we can be these days when a warm embrace is potentially the kiss of death.
Biden’s speech was pure Biden. Normal human emotions delivered in that guy-next-door manner. He gets no points for soaring rhetoric. He’s not inspirational in that sense. He’s inspirational because he feels and responds and acts like a normal human being. We’ve missed that. We’ve missed a lot in the last four years, like dignity, respect, integrity, compassion, competence, analytical thought. If Biden is able to deliver on even a couple of those points, things are looking up.
Ours is a strange system among the other Western democracies. We elect a president for a fixed term, and for better or worse, we are stuck. As we have seen, impeachment as a tool for correcting a mistake doesn’t work very well. In other countries with a parliamentary system, when things go sideways, they decide to have another election and let the voters either stay the course or bring in somebody new. In Italy it seems to happen every six months. In Germany, Merkel has been in office forever. We have that fixed term, making the changeover more dramatic, and the selection process more important.
The transfer of power happened. It happened right there on the steps of the Capitol Building that was constructed in part with slave labor where on Wednesday a Black woman became vice president. It happened in a building that survived the Civil War. Lincoln insisted on completing construction during the war as a symbol that there would be a Union afterwards and a need for the Capitol as a seat of government. A century ago, women could not vote. Now we have elected a woman vice president. About time.
There is a lot of work to be done. Policy issues aside, it will take a long time to repair the structural damage to government functions. It’s almost hard to remember what it was like to wake up in the morning and not learn that some midnight tweet from the president has rattled the entire world for no particular reason. Biden is a kind, decent man. He’s also boring as can be, and that will be a most refreshing change. Re-establishing trust will take some time, and cooperation from both extremes in Congress would help. I don’t know what you do with those members of Congress who voted with the insurrectionists, or the likes of Cruz and Hawley who helped instigate the whole thing. It won’t be easy, but it will be normal.
American democracy is alive and well.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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