Biden, Obama, Bush, and Clinton were the four horsemen of the 2021 Inauguration.
Well, Trump is out.
Joe Biden's Inauguration into Presidential office unfolded in a spectacle of patriotism with a slight undercurrent of fear following the white supremacist insurrection at the Capitol in early January.
Though the physical event was small — due to the enhanced security measures enacted in fear of violence or resistance against the transition of power, and the persisting pandemic — and more than 191,500 flags stood in place of the people that usually crowd the surrounding area, the event was filled with prominent guests and high profile performances, both in person and virtual.
The virtual portion of the day was a mixture of performances, speeches, and video compilations 'hosted' by Tom Hanks.
Just as the Simpsons predicted
As part of the proceedings, former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton appeared in a video giving a joint speech, which had the vibe of a group project where you didn't get to choose your partners and you got stuck with some kids you neither knew or liked.
The three most recently joined forces to volunteer to take the COVID-19 vaccine when it was first approved, and like an aged boyband, they came back for one night only, streamed live across America.
In their video, the three ex-presidents congratulated President Joe Biden and stressed the importance of peaceful transitions of power, ostensibly trying to lead by example in a show of bipartisan unity while making a point about the noticeably absent President Trump (who was on his way to Mar-a-Lago with his crying conspirators/children).
The message of the former presidents came alongside Biden urging for "unity" in his Inaugural address.
But what does this mean?
From the beginning of his Inauguration speech, Biden declared his presidency one of "history and hope. Of renewal and resolve." Referring to the historic nature of his cabinet and Kamala Harris's historic position as Vice President, Biden's self-congratulatory remarks also stir up questions.
The intentionally indefinite rhetoric asks: "hope" of what, and for whom? "Renewal" of what? Leaving an era defined by the slogan "Make America Great Again," it feels dangerous to tie a Presidency to the idea of some vague longing.
The politics of nostalgia allow the romanticization of a past which has always had as many problems as the present, if not more. Biden's emphasis on having a Presidency inspired by his predecessors refers to the presidency of Obama, but also to the other two horsemen of the inauguration apocalypse and the Founding Fathers … who we all know were flawed at best.
The desire to appeal to the American mythos reduces the oppression inculcated into US democracy to a footnote in the story — despite the fact that those institutions of inequality are prominent today.
Biden proclaimed that "the American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us. On 'We the People' who seek a more perfect Union. This is a great nation and we are a good people."
… is that true?
While I would like to believe it, and perhaps there is room for more optimism and benefit of the doubt in an inaugural address than I'm accustomed to in life, moralizing the United States as a good nation filled with good people perpetuates the myth of American exceptionalism and allows for complacency.
We could be good people in a great nation, but the overpowering institutions of oppression and violence that we are socialized into make it easier to not be.
Biden did acknowledge that there is work still to be done, but it is dangerous to position the work of progress as a choice, rather than an imperative.
We did it, Joe
Biden's Path to Progress:
Biden's path to progress is simple: unity.
In one of the most pivotal passages of his speech, he said: "Speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear and demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial. Victory is never assured."
In this moment, Biden acknowledged the history of oppression in the United States and the deep-rooted divisions in its present. However, the proverbial good vs. evil dichotomy that he uses is a convenient scapegoat. It is easy to say that there are two sides of people, torn apart by outside forces, that just need to meet each other in the middle. But this is not how division in America has played out.
Progress in America cannot be a meeting in the middle of two forces with equal power, because that's not what the political and social landscapes look like. The forces of "racism, nativism, fear and demonization" have not "torn us apart" — those forces have separated and othered marginalized communities and excluded them from the American ideal.
Therefore, it is not the collective acceptance of the idea of "unity" that will heal the country, it is a commitment by the privileged to root out the divisive forces within themselves.
Unity and healing must happen as a result of progress, not at the expense of it. Biden's rhetoric leaves too much room for regression. But we must not pause to soothe the egos of white supremacists — their goals are not our goals. Biden's path to unity needs to look like accountability, not acquiescence.
In a recent tweet, activist Bree Newsome stated that "The only path toward 'unity' is one that dismantles white supremacy." Anything else would be a continuation of the same structures that "resulted in the Civil War, Jim Crow, the Trump era & the insurrection that occurred two weeks ago. "
There is no way forward without confronting whiteness— how it came to be a sociopolitical construct here, how it re… https://t.co/CAULWCruwH— Unite in justice for the poor & oppressed (@Unite in justice for the poor & oppressed)1611189052.0
Many are feeling the gaps in Biden's rhetoric that could allow for placid and ultimately unsatisfying "progress" and citing the urgent importance of moving forward, rather than back to some fabled better days of a pre-Trump era.
...but what if he said "I cannot be a president for all. I will not serve white supremacy. I will not serve hatred.… https://t.co/1H0JTIPZqV— adriennemareebrown (@adriennemareebrown)1611163169.0
The pre-Trump era created conditions for the Trump era. The current violence is not some aberration or some strange glitch in the matrix. It is a direct consequence of previous failures to root out the insidiousness of whiteness at the root of the United States.
The Problem With Moderation:
The shifting nature of Biden's address — his willingness to talk about the fact of American institutionalized oppression and speak out against white supremacy, but inability to articulate the deep internal work that we all have to do for progress — does not present a progressive pillar to build the next four years on.
It builds one that reflects his whole career: willing to inch towards "slow progress," but more concerned with moderation than radical change.
But moderation is not the way to establish real change. Moderation allows for complacency and, as Newsome articulated, "the 'return to normalcy' narrative is a call to settle for surface-level displays of civility diversity in the aftermath of Trump's brutish behavior without any real push for systemic change."
Even in the highest offices of the two-party government lie dangerous white supremacists who incited the riots alongside Trump and remain loyal to the MAGA following — so if bipartisanship looks like coalescing into an agreeable union that includes and validates those beliefs, I don't want it.
Instead, change has to look like examining the conditions within ourselves and our society which gave those people their platforms and amend those with an eye towards accountability.
The idea of "accountability" has been thrown around so much this election that it has become diluted. Accountability has to be active. It has to not just acknowledge the past, but use those acknowledgments to work diligently towards a new future.
While it's hard to predict how much Biden's speech was well-crafted rhetoric and how much was commitment to action, the prominent performativity of the ex-President's club does not bode well for radical change.
Rather, it signals a clinging onto old ideas of respectability and camaraderie between the powerful and a persistence of the same structures that allowed for the past violence to carry themselves into the future. It confirms that Trump's most egregious act was disrupting the illusion American exceptionalism, which has been long held up by mythology and militarism.
But that disruption was necessary. And it is with those new eyes that we are more critical of Bush, Clinton, Obama, and the entire systems that elected them We have to be.
An unprecedented inauguration for unprecedented times.
After a mob attacked the Capitol on January 6th and over 400,000 U.S. deaths as a result of the pandemic, this year's inauguration is going to look a little different.
Crowds will be small or nonexistent, events will be moved online, and security will be tougher than ever. It will be a day of historic firsts, both good and bad.Some things will change, but the important things will stay the same. The Vice President and President will take the oath of office, and it will be the same oath it always is: An oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
1. Minimal attendance
The actual swearing-in ceremony is the most important part of Inauguration Day. And for the most part, it will proceed normally. As dictated by the Constitution, President Biden will be sworn in at noon on January 20th. He will continue the tradition of being sworn in on the Capitol steps.
It'll be no less star-studded than usual, with Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks, among others, expected to perform. There will be the normal recitation of poems and prayers, all concluding with a speech from the newly inaugurated president.
However, instead of giving this speech to the crowd of hundreds of thousands that usually populate the National Mall on Inauguration Day, Biden will give his speech to around 1,000 people and more than 191,500 flags.
Instead of the usual 200,000 tickets distributed to members of Congress and passed out to their constituents, organizers released just over 1,000 tickets — one for each of the 535 members of Congress and one guest each.
To make up for the minimal attendance, the Presidential Inaugural Committee planted more than 191,500 American flags on the National Mall, meant to represent the American people who can't attend Biden's inauguration.
Flags are placed on the National Mall, with the U.S. Capitol behind them, ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in Washington.AP Photo/Alex Brandon
2. Virtual inaugural events
Inauguration Day is usually packed with events, all of which are usually packed with people. On a normal inauguration day there is not only the swearing-in ceremony but also a luncheon with lawmakers, a parade through DC, and finally the inaugural ball held at the White House. In a year where so many Americans have died of the novel coronavirus, the inaugural committee has decided to change how these events will be held.
The Inaugural Luncheon is usually a grand affair where all the members of Congress gather in the capitol for a three course meal immediately after the swearing-in ceremony. The tradition began in 1953, but this year it has been cancelled entirely.
The next event is the inaugural parade where marching bands, first responders, military units, and other proud Americans accompany the new president in his historic march from the Capitol to the White House. There has been some sort of formal inaugural parade since 1809, when James Madison was inaugurated.
This year, the parade will go virtual. Joe Biden will still make the trip from the Capitol to the White House, but there will be no cheering crowds. Biden will get a presidential escort there, which will include representatives from every branch of the military, as well as the drumlines for the University of Delaware and Howard University — Biden's and Harris' alma maters. But the main event will be the virtual "Parade Across America," featuring performances from all 56 states and territories.
The final events of the day are usually the swanky inaugural balls. The city is usually taken over by both "official" and "unofficial" balls. Official ones are sponsored by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, and guarantee that the president and his spouse will show up. Normally the whole city is taken over by donors, supporters, and celebrities celebrating the new president.
This year, instead of an inaugural ball, there will be a primetime television event. The "Celebrating America Primetime Special" will be hosted by Tom Hanks and feature an impressive celebrity lineup. Demi Lovato, Justin Timberlake, Jon Bon Jovi, Ant Clemons, Bruce Springsteen, John Legend and Foo Fighters will all perform. And Kerry Washington, Eva Longoria, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, José Andrés, Lin-Manuel Miranda and other big names will also be featured in some way.
Tom Hanks to host televised inauguration special featuring Justin Timberlake and Demi Lovato.Getty Images
3. Historic moments
This inauguration will be particularly notable because of its historic firsts. Kamala Harris will be sworn in as the first woman, first woman of color, first Black American and first Asian American to be vice president. Harris' husband, attorney Doug Emhoff, will also make history as both the first male and first Jewish spouse of a vice president or president.
Donald Trump is also making history on Inauguration Day–by not attending. Trump plans to fly to Mar-A-Lago the morning of the inauguration and will not attend the ceremony or welcome the Biden family to the White House. It has been 152 years since a President refused to attend his successor's inauguration.
The last president to refuse to attend was Andrew Johnson in 1869, and he was also an impeached, one-term president. Vice President Mike Pence will be in attendance for the inauguration, as will former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
Kamala Harris accepts the Democratic nomination for as first Black female vice presidential candidate in Wilmington, Del., on Aug. 19.Erin Schaff / NYT via Redux file
4. Higher security
Inauguration security is always taken very seriously by the secret service, but after the riot that breached the capitol and delayed the election certification on January 6th, this inauguration will have unprecedented levels of security. The FBI has warned of threats to D.C., including to lawmakers and federal monuments, and all of Washington is well aware of the possibility of armed groups demonstrating in the District on Inauguration Day.
Inauguration viewers should expect a visible military presence, since a total of 25,000 National Guard troops are authorized to help secure the inauguration. There is also a seven-foot-high, unscalable, razor-wire fence encircling the Capitol.
Unlike usual inaugurations, several Metro stations are closed, a large portion of the city will be restricted for drivers, and a number of bridges that cross the Potomac River and Anacostia River will be closed.
There are also security checkpoints throughout the city. Those checkpoints have already resulted in several arrests, including a Virginia man who had fake inauguration credentials, a loaded gun, and more than 500 rounds of ammunition.
The U.S. Capitol is seen behind a fence with razor wire during sunrise on January 16, 2021.Samuel Corum / Getty
This will be an unprecedented Inauguration Day, but after seemingly countless months of "unprecedented times," what else could we possibly expect?