It was, for his supporters, a speech that spoke of the normality and return to decency they hoped his election heralded. It was also, as so much is in modern American discourse, a mass of frustratingly non-specific words gloopily trying, and failing, to say something specific.
On Saturday, Joe Biden said, once again, that he wanted “to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify.” That “to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies. They are Americans.” And he declared that this is “the time to heal in America.”
These are laudable aims, but the brutal truth is Donald Trump, his loyal political operators, and his most fervent supporters do not want Joe Biden’s healing. They do not consider themselves to be suffering from any malady. They don’t want Biden’s medicine. They want to ride roughshod over the election result and, if they can, re-install Donald Trump as president.
In their looking glass world, where no election has been lost and where up is down, any “illness” is solely suffered by the other side—and any “healing” best reserved for their ravaged liberal souls. They would tell Joe Biden to shove his “healing.” Right now, they want to make the cuts deeper, the bleeding more extreme, and Trump still to remain as president.
Biden’s words were fine, and also hopelessly inadequate. He is being denied money to build a transition team; he is being denied access to security briefings; he is not being recognized as the president-elect by most Republican lawmakers.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that preparations are underway for a “second Trump administration.” This was then discussed in terms of being a joke, a familiar pattern of “this is what we really meant” in the Trump administration when the outrageous truth is said out loud. Think for a moment: the subject of “the joke” here was the peaceful transfer of power in America, and maintenance of national security.
What is happening in America is not normal, and it is not a joke. America is in a crisis, purely of the making of its lying, petulant, gaslighting president, who will not accept he has lost the election. In his election-stealing, democracy-hijacking endeavors, he has the support of the majority of the Republican Party. Donald Trump may or may not leave power peaceably. Right now, whether this is a joke or not (it does not seem to be one), he says that he is not willing to accept the result of the election and give it up.
Rather than acknowledge the gravity of this crisis, or meaningfully confront it, Joe Biden appears happier to blather on about national “healing” and gaze at us with a folksy smile. On Tuesday, he said the transition process was “moving along in a consistent manner… Nothing’s going to stop that.” It may look good as a meme to be the dude in the dark glasses, keeping his cool while all around others are losing theirs, but this batting away of what is happening in front of our eyes is bafflingly lacking.
The attorney general is backing the president in his baseless charge of mass electoral fraud. The DoJ is engaged in doing Trump’s crazy investigations for him. Some Washington insiders suggest this is all gestural pantomime enacted to please the president. True or not, it seems pretty serious and anxiety-inducing to Americans watching it unfold.
However, Biden said Tuesday it was “not of much consequence” that Trump is unwilling to concede. This is incorrect. It is of huge consequence not to have a president commit to a peaceful transfer of power; to deliberately undermine the president-elect’s ability to form a transition team and do the work necessary to begin his tenure in an effective, smooth manner.
Dealing with what Trump is doing right now is essential to any national “healing.” Asked if it was an embarrassment that Trump had not conceded, Biden paused and said, “How can I say this tactfully? I think it will not help the president’s legacy.”
While many good liberal voters love this kind of soulful Biden reasonableness, it is no match at this moment for the chaos Trump and his compadres are sowing in the country. Biden is still speaking to us as if this were a conventional election moment, as if he had a conventional opponent, and as if the conventions of election winning and losing were being observed. None of this is true.
Donald Trump doesn’t care about his “legacy” in a way Biden imagines. He cares about not losing, and not appearing to lose. He cares about stoking his base of supporters. He has been clear in his mission to only rule for the parts of America who vote for him, and to actively work against the voters and parts of America that do not. That has now extended to his election loss. Biden’s fine words and embedded belief in conventional democracy are hopelessly off-base. Trump and his enablers and his supporters care not a jot for it. All they care about is holding on to power.
Think about four years ago: was Hillary Clinton given time to “process” her loss? Were Democrats? No, quite the opposite. Yet the peaceful transfer of power was fast underway. Trump has wrecked that convention. He doesn’t share the normal-behavior compass.
Biden said Tuesday he thought the world was looking on and imagining American institutions as “strong and enduring.” He could not be more wrong. These institutions presently seem failing, fragile and at the whim of a partisan president keen to ensure some kind of coup d’état, or at least the primacy of his own interests above the maintenance of those institutions and what is best for the country.
Biden is not countering any of this effectively. Instead, he said he hoped that inauguration day would just happen, and then Americans would “understand there has been a transition.” It is local officials in Trump's dangerous line of fire—like Josh Shapiro and Al Schmidt in Pennsylvania—who are doing the arduous work of confronting the scary nuttiness of the result deniers, led by the president.
Whoopi Goldberg on The View Monday surveyed the sense of aggressive denial within Trumpworld and said they should “suck it up.” This is correct. Biden Tuesday said he understood Trump supporters’ “sense of loss,” but that he hoped they understood they “have to come together to unite… I believe we can pull the country out of this bitter politics have seen in the last 5, 6, 7 years.”
To do so would mean confronting directly the lies and conspiracy theories of the Trump era, and the people responsible for them. These “bitter politics” have come from one place, and one person. But Biden is recoiling from stating this, and so it becomes—falsely—all of America’s responsibility to deal with it. And, time-suckingly, his too.
“Healing” first requires a correct diagnosis of an illness, then the right course of treatment. Biden is unwilling to do this. Maybe his focus groups have told him Dems need a hug after four years of Trump, and he—as a person who has faced multiple personal traumas and forged a productive life path through them—can identify with people’s pain because of it. Maybe he thinks that once Trump has gone his spell will be broken, and his national spiritual bandaging program can be extended to Republicans emerging from their own fog.
“Healing” is a lovely word, but a misleading one. “Healing” implies a collective wound that Biden can resolve or salve. But the wounds are more complicated and defined than that. These are wounds created by one person and one administration. There are also wounds, for example, endured by minorities and groups and people targeted by the president in the last four years.
To heal these wounds, people need the correcting of the laws and words that deliberately target them, like Muslims, Black, and LGBTQ people, particularly trans people. Groups targeted by the Trump administration need legislative action—starting with the executive orders Biden has promised—not “healing.”
This “healing” narrative has come from the establishing of a pattern of Republicans smashing everything up, and doing as they please, and Democrats coming in to tidy things up. It is exhausting and unnecessary political and emotional work. So much of Democratic politics is making nice when those who made bad in the first place could not give a shit, and just laugh at those who come along with the mop and bucket afterwards.
To what end is all this empathy and healing? Biden was asked Tuesday how he would deal with Republicans who did not recognize him as president elect. “They will, they will,” he said in that sub-Gary Cooper ambient growl of his. So far very few have. Mostly, they are hitching their wagons to Trump’s efforts to delegitimize his election win. And even if they ultimately accept it, they will do all they can to scupper whatever policy plans Biden has. They will do all they can to neuter his presidency.
Yet Biden continues to look soulfully at America through the camera lens, and hope we all gather round the camp-fire. Quite why he is setting himself up as some kind of all-knowing, Yoda-like empath is anyone’s guess. America doesn’t need Biden the Inspirational Quote Book right now. It needs a president-elect ready to reassert a sense of decency and moral strength, and to call out those who are presently undermining this democracy and decency.
An attempt to steal an election is happening, and the “healing” and “can’t-we-all-just-along” shtick Biden is referring to is inadequate, as is his hokey responses to how to confront the machinations of Trump and his peers.
The problem, and it has been one that politicians and the media have long labored under, is not speaking honestly about the actions and legacy of President Trump.
Instead, this discussion is set around a set of both-sides euphemisms that Trump’s opponents, and the media, regularly invoke, but rarely specifically identify. We read and hear a lot about “division” and “hatred” and “polarization,” as if these things have simply bubbled up out of nowhere. CNN currently has an ad, with its favorite anchors smiling at us, bemoaning “division,” and hoping that “trust” can again return—presumably engendered by its reporting—and then we can all just learn to get along again.
The advert is as hopelessly myopic as Biden’s plan to “heal” us, as if this was an Oprah segment where we all magically learn our lessons and live in beautifully photographed harmony after the unnamed present administration goes.
Biden, and CNN, would be braver and do more good if they identified the demons by name, and identified the crimes (literal, plus the ones against human decency) by name. There can be no “healing” if that healing involves a lot of mushy-eyed staring at the camera and assuring people their pain is being felt. This is not “healing.” This is being patronized. This is spreading blame and responsibility, instead of focusing both on their rightful targets.
When it comes to “healing,” it would be better to make clear to those who oversee and support cruelty that they are wrong, and they need to change, be punished, or be answerable for what they have done. The more sophisticated truth Biden could reach for is to acknowledge that this is a discordantly loud land of difference and disagreement, and that’s OK. We don’t actually need to get along, or make nice, or heal—but we do need to recognize the legitimacy of fairly fought elections, and the importance of the dissemination of truth over lies.
There can be no “healing” while Trump and his cohorts are treated as naughty children, who—their parent hopes—will just eventually go to sleep and stop smashing up the room. It turns out when it comes to atomizing democratic norms that these toddlers have limitless energy and limitless scope to cause chaos and damage. The calm-down wish is not being granted. The days since the election have felt a mix of dumb, absurd, menacing, and dangerous.
Biden and his team need to stop leaking empathy and misty-eyed West Wing script offcuts over our TV screens. They need to stop smirking at how strangely Trump is behaving. Yes it is ridiculous, and it also requires serious engagement. “Healing” is not what we need. Name the acts of democratic sabotage that are happening. Make clear to America what is it at stake. Address America as an adult, not as an infant. That—not feeling America’s pain, not rolling your eyes at Donald Trump, not simply saying, “Meh, it’ll be OK”—would really start the “healing” process.