The future president has been given a difficult task. But he can find the inspiration to solve it in the history of his country.
At 8 a.m. Sunday in Washington, a pickup truck was parked neatly on Vermont Street, which leads downtown to the White House and the Senate. The car was adorned with signs and slogans. “Why this ridiculous coverup?” said a sign in the window, “it’s crazy.” Missing person flyers with photos of children who were supposedly kidnapped by the satanic, pedophilic elite that are working secretly to achieve world domination, also hung on the car.
“HELP!” was written in large, white letters along one of the car doors. But apparently the help failed to materialize. The car’s owner was obviously among the believers of the conspiracy theories of QAnon, which helped ignite the mob that stormed the U.S. Congress on Jan. 6. Up until the last Sunday before Joe Biden’s inauguration, QAnon believers and other hard-core Donald Trump supporters dreamt about a successful repeat of the onslaught. Flyers advertising a “Million Militia March” abounded, calling people to show up armed.
But in the interim, another powerful faction of American society had taken over the capital. Less than 100 yards from the parked QAnon-decorated vehicle, parked across Vermont Street, was a camouflaged military truck, behind which stood a wall of concrete blocks — and beyond those was an unscalable fence, and behind the fencing waited a group of police officers. Closer to the main government buildings were more walls, more fences and 25,000 waiting soldiers. More than are currently stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Even Dunkin’ Donuts had surrendered and shut its doors.
In other words, the American police and military succeeded in preventing angered citizens from triggering violent conflict in the streets of Washington and the United States’ other centers of power. This time, those responsible for keeping the peace were prepared, and all conflict was averted.
In the time to come, Biden’s ambition is to achieve the exact same result, only with a larger goal than just Washington, D.C. Now it’s time to tackle the whole of the United States.
On Saturday, Nov. 7 — the day it became certain Biden had secured the United States’ presidential election — he gave a speech in Wilmington, the largest city in his home state of Delaware. He talked about it being time to listen again, and to put away harsh rhetoric. That it was time to see his political opponents as just that, and not as the enemy. The new president-elect, as they call it in the States, set an inclusive tone.
Biden’s ambition to reunite the United States has been his basic message in the months since the Wilmington speech. Again and again he has said he wishes to be president of all Americans, including the millions that would rather see Trump in office for another four years. He has repeatedly said that it is time to heal America.
But that may well be difficult.
On Wednesday, Jan. 6, the U.S. Congress building in Washington, D.C., was overrun by hundreds of furious Trump supporters who, encouraged by their defeated president and large parts of the Republican Party, rejected Biden’s electoral victory. The world watched in astonishment as men and women dressed for battle forced congressmen, congresswomen, and even Vice President Mike Pence, to hide. Five people, including one police officer, lost their lives. The riots brought together several fringe groups in American society who had been withdrawing from their communities and into the internet, into extremist media and into a parallel reality. Meanwhile, Biden’s own party is bringing charges against Trump, accusing him of inciting the attack on Congress, and there are those who believe that although there is a need for both a spiritual and legal reckoning for the president, a legal fight will only further divide the American people from one another.
Biden faces an enormous question: How does one heal a country?
Exactly one week before Biden is formally inaugurated, I call Alan Steinberg. A retired political science professor at Monmouth University in New Jersey, he’s also a former senior official in the George W. Bush administration, a lifetime Republican, and now a political commentator. He’d rather speak with the video feature turned on, he says, under a driving cap and a pair of very bushy eyebrows, as we connect.
“I can see myself, and I can see a photo of you,” he laughs. “You’re much better looking than I am, that’s why I’d rather look at you.”
Steinberg is worried for his country. But there are bright spots.
“I think Biden’s gonna be a very good president,” he says. “I think he’s exactly what America needs right now. But I am concerned — I think that the Trumpian Republicans are authoritarian. I think that authoritarianism and fascism [have] really made tremendous gains, as has racism, in the Republican Party.”
Steinberg is a fierce critic of Trump’s Republican Party. He publishes columns and essays in American magazines and sends newsletters to all of his old Republican friends. Some of them he loses, others stick around. He talks about how Liz Cheney, a powerful member of the House of Representatives and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, has broken from the president in connection with the current impeachment by Congress. He’s happy about it — he’s known the Cheney family almost forever, and it gives him hope that the old Republican Party still exists somewhere in there.
“The new, what they call conservatism, it is not conservatism, it is authoritarianism, it is racist. So while I think we will triumph, I remain very concerned.”
On Jan. 6, Steinberg sat glued to his television.
“I was terrified,” he said, “because I didn’t see — I saw where this riot was out of control, and I know how these insurrectionists think. I know how they think. And they have no conscience. These are evil people, every one of them. American democracy means a great deal to me, I’m a grandson of immigrants, my immigrant grandparents came to this country, treasured America, treasured the right to vote, treasured the rule of law. These people are not for the rule of law, these people have adopted American fascism as their credo, and that’s the exact right word for it. American fascism.”
The Democrats in the House of Representatives have now, along with 10 Republicans, including Cheney, moved to impeach the president. This is the second time in as many years that he has been in this situation, most recently in the fall of 2019, when he stood accused of abusing his power to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate then-presidential candidate Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, for criminal activities. This time, he is accused of inciting those of his supporters who committed insurrection on Jan. 6 to “walk down to the Capitol,” as he said at a rally that morning, “and I will be there with you. We’re going to walk down. Anyone you want, but I think right here, we’re going to walk down to the Capitol — and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and -women and we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
In the following days, Biden was so subdued that everyone could hear it. Biden largely kept his thoughts on Congress’ actions to himself, instead talking about combating the ongoing pandemic and economic crisis. He has spoken with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who denounced Trump on the day of the riots, about the possibility of a Senate trial running alongside the Senate’s usual work. That would make sense because the pandemic demands that Biden’s administration hit the ground running, and all new Cabinet members must be approved by the Senate.
There are many different views on Biden’s restraint in regard to the potential trial of his predecessor.
On the one hand, there are those who believe that Biden must take the lead in a showdown with the president. That the United States cannot move forward until Trump and Trumpism are defeated. On the other hand, there are those who believe a Senate trial with less than a week left of Trump’s presidency is, first of all, not worth the hassle and is, second of all, just an expression of the left’s desire for revenge.
Steinberg’s views are somewhere in the middle.
“As long as [Biden’s] not identified as the instigator of it all, I don’t think it will hurt. I think he’s handling it exactly right. He’s a man of the Senate, Biden; that has to be understood. He never wants to appear to be interfering with Senate prerogatives. But at the same time, he doesn’t want to tell the Senate not to do it. […] I think he is threading the needle exactly right on this.”
Like many other political thinkers and observers in the United States, however, Steinberg also has an attitude toward the Senate trial that speaks of something greater than Cabinet appointments, inconvenience, revenge and respect for the Senate’s work. The view is that a Senate trial would go against the fulfillment of Biden’s stated goal: to heal America.
(Sixty-four percent of Americans believe Biden has done well since winning the election in November. Sixty-eight percent believe that Donald Trump should never again hold a role in American politics.)
It has to do with what Biden is tasked with healing. There is not just one America anymore — in fact, one might say there are three. There is the blue America, the Democratic America, that has taken control of both the White House and the two houses of Congress, and which also enjoys great influence in the American mainstream media and big tech. There is the red America, the Republican America, which is weak politically, but still has Fox News and The Wall Street Journal on its side, just as they have financial backing from important conservative donors in business. Finally, there is Trump America, which seems to be moving further and further away from the reality of the others. As large sections of the far right were banned from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in the days following Jan. 6, the market for fringe social media grew tremendously. Downloads of encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and Signal multiplied. Trump’s America has gone underground.
How does Biden avoid pushing this third group even further away? Steinberg has a suggestion, and it involves a balancing act. To explain what he means, he looks back to the American crisis in recent history reminiscent of the one we now face. Namely, Watergate.
Back in 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal. He faced, as Trump now does again, a trial on articles of impeachment. Nixon’s then-vice president, Gerald Ford, took over the White House. In his inauguration speech, he spoke of how the “long national nightmare is over,” words that are famous in the United States. Ford faced a task that parallels Biden’s today, and his ambition was the same. He wanted to heal.
One of the first things Ford did after his famous inauguration speech became one of the most controversial decisions of his presidency: He pardoned his predecessor, Nixon. It was an unpopular move with voters, and according to most historians, it contributed greatly to Ford’s loss of the presidential election two years later. Nowadays in American media, it’s often said that Ford’s pardon worked as intended. Steinberg agrees. Ford understood, he says, that the United States was in a time of crisis, which included the increasingly bloody war in Vietnam. The country simply couldn’t cope with anything more. According to Steinberg, a trial of Nixon would have dug Republicans and Democrats so far into the trenches they would not have been able to reconcile. He believes Ford’s pardon was something like the ultimate example of statesmanship. Therefore, he believes Biden should continue to distance himself from the upcoming impeachment.
“As a citizen, I want to see him impeached in the House, and I want to see him removed from office by the Senate. I favor that. But I’m saying, I’m not the president of the United States, Joe Biden is the president, and he has to approach it differently from the way I as a citizen, as a private citizen, approach it. He cannot appear to be the instigator of it all.”
(Additional information: More Republicans support Trump than McConnell, who is now in favor of impeachment proceedings against the president.)
Steinberg is therefore concerned for his country, especially his party, which he believes has descended into fascism. But he believes it when Biden says he wants to unite the nation, heal America. He thinks there’s something to learn from American history. And he believes in the American people.
“I think because most Americans believe in democracy,” he says during the call, “they believe in a rule of law.”
If Biden understands the potential of alliances, and creates an inclusive government, as Steinberg calls it — that is, if he seeks advice from both Democrats and Republicans — then there is a better chance for healing. If one looks at Biden’s career, he is pragmatic, a centrist, so maybe there are opportunities for Steinberg to get what he wants.
“He’s entitled to make his own decisions,” he says. “At the end of the day they’re his decisions. But I think Biden is going to be a wonderful aspect of American healing. Because he is an open person who seeks input, who seeks other opinions, who does not feel that he is the fount of all knowledge, and I think an inclusive administration is important, and I think that is what Joe Biden will implement. I think he’s going to be a very good president.”
For people like Steinberg, there is hope in the darkness of American politics right now.
“History will look back on Joe Biden as the person who began the American period of healing.”