About halfway through his inauguration speech, President Joe Biden said something very important about the work of Washington – and how he envisions his presidency.
“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path,” Biden insisted. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
If you blinked, you might have missed it. But that line – and the sentiment behind it – functions not only as a rejection of the political worldview of his predecessor in office but also as the core belief that underpins Biden’s entire theory of the presidential case.
Now, Biden didn’t mention Donald Trump, either in that moment or at any other time in his inaugural address.
But he didn’t need to. Because everyone remembers the way that the now ex-president of the United States talked about those – Democrats and Republicans – who disagreed with him.
“It was a disgraceful situation brought about by people that are evil,” Trump said of the politicians who opposed the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Following his impeachment (and acquittal) in 2019 over charges he behaved inappropriately toward Ukraine, Trump denounced the “evil” and “crooked” politicians who had allegedly persecuted him.
In accepting the Republican nomination at the party’s national convention in August, Trump warned: “This election will decide whether we SAVE the American Dream, or whether we allow a socialist agenda to DEMOLISH our cherished destiny.”
And when he addressed a mob of his supporters on January 6, Trump told them: “We fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Trump spoke in those apocalyptic terms because, well, it worked for him. It made his base wild. And he never had any real concern about what his words meant – or what they might occasion. Like, say, the storming of the US Capitol to back up his ridiculous claims of a stolen election.
It wasn’t just Trump, however. Not only has he spawned an entire wing of the Republican Party (Sen. Tommy Tuberville, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, among many others) whose only salient political position appears to be trolling Democrats and the media, but he also used that Manichean view of politics to tide roughshod over everyone else in the GOP, too. Because Republican elected officials lived in fear of a Trump tweet calling them out for some apostasy or other, they found themselves lining up behind his weaponizing of partisanship for pure political gain.
Trump was, to borrow Biden’s line, the “raging fire destroying everything in its path.” And his fellow Republicans, rather than trying to put that fire out, decided to either stand aside or throw on some lighter fluid of their own – because that was the easier path to take, politically speaking.
Biden’s reminder that politics doesn’t have to be an all-out war between two sides set only on destroying the other then functions as a rejection of the Trump worldview.
But it’s more than that too. It’s a hope in the unseen. That adages like “reasonable people can disagree” and “you can disagree without being disagreeable” aren’t punchlines to be met with guffaws and eyerolls by the political professional class. That unity is actually more than a word, it’s a real possibility.
“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days,” Biden said at one point, a tacit acknowledgment that lots and lots of people – Democrats and Republicans – are deeply skeptical that his vision for a coming-together of the country and an end to the “raging fire” approach to politics are anything more than a quaint pipe dream.
And yet, time and time again, Biden returned to that theme of unity – and his belief that we are better than these last four years would suggest.
“This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge. And unity is the path forward,” said Biden. “We must meet this moment as the United States of America.”
It’s a noble idea, to be sure. And there’s no question that a significant chunk of the country is ready for a different kind of politics in the wake of four years of unending partisanship by a president who seemed only to consider his base when making decisions for the country.
Biden’s speech on Wednesday is rightly understood as a metaphorical reaching of his hand across the partisan aisle. (“In the work ahead, we are going to need each other,” he said near the end of the address.) The real question is whether anyone on the Republican side will reach their hand out to meet his.