Following Joe Biden’s inauguration, Nick Spencer considers the cost of unity and healing in America. 21/01/2021
I have yet to hear an Inaugural Address in which the incoming President says:
“Our nation is divided and in pain. But I promise you that my administration will strain every fibre to divide it further. We will work tirelessly to implement precisely the policies that half the people voted against, alienating them still more. I will pretend to care about this but, frankly, if I were one of those morally–bankrupt deplorables stupid enough to vote for my opponent, I would think about emigrating or buying a bunker because the next four years are not going to be much fun for you.”
They don’t say that. Rather, it’s all healing this and unity that. And for good reason. America is politically – and seemingly psychologically – on the edge. Millions of people, on both sides, are beyond cynicism, inconsolably angry, and quite a few of them carry guns. If you are in any position of authority, let alone presidential authority, it is imperative to deploy all your rhetoric in the cause of healing and unity.
Trump did not do that, which is one of the many reasons why the country is better off without him. Joe Biden, in his Inaugural, did, which is encouraging. Biden has a track record of bi–partisan co–operation, having cut his teeth in an age when America’s political divide was severe rather than psychotic. If any leading US politician can forge a measure of bipartisan cooperation, it is probably him. But we should nonetheless note the chasm that lies between rhetoric and reality.
One of Sacha Baron Cohen’s more entertaining characters in his 2018 satire on US politics Who Is America? was the progressive gender studies lecturer Dr. Nira Cain–N’Degeocello who liked to cycle round the country trying to “Heal the Divide”. He did this primarily by baiting irate Republicans with ideas that Cohen knew would incense them, such as building a mega–mosque, funded by Saudi money and the Clinton Foundation, in Kingman, Arizona. The audience’s reaction is all too predictable.
Cohen’s satire (at least in this instance) reveals not only the xenophobia and barely–disguised racism of his Republican audience but also the myopic and self–righteous hypocrisy of those Democrats who claim to want to do the healing. Biden is no Cain–N’Degeocello but it is nonetheless true that ‘healing the divide’ all too often means something like ‘adopt my view of the world’. The rhetoric of healing is not the same as the reality.
And that is because the reality is both extremely risky and costly. Reconciliation, as St Paul explained to his own irate audience in 2 Corinthians 5, demands sometimes superhuman levels of patience, self–restraint and grace, not least the willingness “not [to] count people’s sins against them.” Easy to say, dreadful to carry through.
Thus, the fate of Donald Trump after his record–breaking second impeachment. Impeachment is a strange and unsatisfactory beast, part–political, part–legal, rarely used in parliamentary democracies but more common in presidential systems in which the head of government is elected separately from the legislature. After four years of political incitement, many people are baying for Trump’s political head on a spike and this seems the best way to get it.
Yet, an impeachment trial in Senate on charges of insurrection will blur politics and law still further and, now that the man has been removed from office, is liable to come across to millions (and not only Trump supporters) as mere political vengeance.
There is a huge temptation, among those (including myself) who yearn to see him made publicly accountable for reckless political conduct, to see Trump stand trial and face conviction for shouting fire in America’s crowded, febrile political theatre. But if the calls for unity and healing in the Inaugural are to mean anything in reality, rather than being a rhetorical figleaf for the same old partisan agenda, that temptation should be resisted.
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