Tag Archives: inauguration

Twelve Takes on a Transition

24 Jan

As we roll through another transition in American power, here are 12 semi-related opinions on what we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks, and what may yet come.

1. The 2020 inauguration was surreal–and yet it wasn’t at all, either. A who’s-who of a greying political elite that has dominated the American stage for the past 30 years was strewn about a socially distanced stage, masked up before an empty Mall to perform its quadrennial ritual. In many ways it signified a return to boring politics, a development that may not be cause for celebration but at least offers a more familiar, navigable script. There was some fresh poetry and a very elaborate Lady Gaga brooch and some fuzzy Bernie mittens to liven it all up, but otherwise it seemed, in the end, what one might expect this moment to offer: the old gang back together again, and making deep concessions to a changed world.

2. I don’t have a ton to say about Joe Biden that I didn’t say back when he visited Duluth in September or immediately after his win over Trump. As one of the most entrenched establishment presidents ever, he is in many ways a bizarre figure to take charge in a moment of great crisis, amid a pandemic and on the heels of an insurrection, at the seeming end of Reaganomics and amid the highest racial tensions in 50 years. But here he is, anointed by history to take charge, and he has a great opportunity before him. The bar is relatively low: get people vaccinated and back to work and the national mood will lift considerably, and the opposition party has a fascinating struggle ahead of itself as it figures out where it stands in relation to its departed leader. Biden has a chance to be the president who really delivers.

3. The necessary caveat: never underestimate the power of the left eat itself alive. If the vaccine rollout gets bogged down in attempts to target narrow groups (as it already has in some states) or if Biden takes heavy internal heat for a stalled progressive agenda that needs Joe Manchin as its 50th vote, this could wind up as one of the most sclerotic presidencies ever. There is some reason to expect that it won’t. Unlike the Republicans, whose insurgency went straight to the presidency in 2016, the Democrats are a comparatively unified caucus right now; their loudest internal critics wield little actual power. But as the events of 2020 show a roiling frustration with incremental progress on American streets, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the Democratic center fails to hold.

4. The two previous points ask a fundamental question: is this the start of a new era, a swing in the American pendulum that went from New Deal consensus to Regan consensus and now turns toward something new? Or is it another lurch in a nation growing more and more ungovernable, one which the 2022 midterms will promptly offset? Transition or decline? The next two years will, I think, provide a definitive answer on the direction.

5. Pedantic international affairs major insertion: what happened on January 6 was not a coup. Coups d’état involve the active collaboration of the armed forces. The reaction of the American military establishment was basically the opposite of a coup. One could even argue that the events later in the day were constitutionally questionable, because the order to call in the national guard did not come from Trump. Mike Pence, in order to prevent the subversion of the democratic process, seemingly took control; we can only assume that a threat of the 25th Amendment extracted the eventual Trump semi-concession. It took a small dodge of the constitutional order to maintain the larger constitutional order, and was the only logical endgame for a form of politics built around trolling existing order.

6. Whatever failures occurred at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the reaction of the American security state has been overwhelming. The FBI is hunting down the perpetrators with systematic precision, and with a military occupation in Washington DC, the inauguration passed without a hint of returned insurrection. (That said, as someone who once attended another inauguration, I can assure people that the monster security presence, while expanded in 2020, is no new development.) Let no one question the vast power of the American state when it mobilizes, and while it can be terrifying in its reach, it provides a reminder that the old Max Weber maxim, that the state is a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, can be a force of great stability. Stability can be unfair and unequal, but it also tends not to kill very many people, and it usually offers ladders to those who can play its games. It has its discontents, no doubt, but it also has its merits.

7. On a similar note, the power and the social media giants to silence Trump shows their overwhelming ability to control the so-called public square. I have some low-level minor league experience in this world: as someone who has moderated a silly little hockey message board for over a decade, I apply a set of online content moderation standards on a semi-regular basis. (At one point, before I got my admin powers, my board even spun off its own little Parler of disaffected users, though that forum has since gone the way of the dodo.) The language of the Facebook and Twitter plutocrats over the past months is all too familiar because I have said some of the same things to justify some decisions: my message board is a private space, to be moderated by its owner and his designees; we are like bouncers at the bar, not a government, and our users have no inherent right to anonymity or unrestricted speech on our platform. I try to be consistent and just in this space, though I am only human.

8. In short, I think Twitter made the right decision. No one should be above the established standards of content moderation in an established space. What is galling, however, is the inconsistency: if Trump can get tossed for inciting an insurrection, why are oppressive if not outright genocidal regimes still around? The answer, of course, is profit, a trend that the flight of capital from Trumpland post-insurrection underscores further. On the one hand, this seems like a depressing comment on access to a major source of contemporary discourse; one the other, maybe we need to dust off Adam Smith’s old arguments about the moral underpinnings of markets. One can dream.

9. One of the greatest joys of the Trump social media ban: getting Trump out of the heads of the media. A relatively small number of Americans uses Twitter (they are no monopoly, so let’s stop pretending like breaking them up would do any good), but it is very much a major source for everything the news broadcasted over the past five years. No more Trump Twitter means no more real-time lib-owning and the glee or exasperation that came with it. The quiet is so, so very welcome. If a side effect of social media crackdown is that more people spend less time on social media, I will shed no tears.

10. The world will, I hope, become several degrees less crazy when Covid-driven lockdowns cease to be a thing and life frees people from refreshing their news feeds every five minutes, and this trend applies to the left, the right, and the center. Life has blurred more and more toward virtual reality over the past year, with people increasingly reliant on technology for so much of their social lives and their escapes. In some ways technology will only continue this trend, but we have also seen the horrible limits of this world over the past year. In a weird way, I take some solace in the number of people who are just done with lockdown measures. It’s a sign that, when some sense of normalcy returns, a lot of people will embrace that analog reality.

11. On a less obviously political note, I’m very curious to watch and see what happens with real estate markets and American migration patterns when Covid becomes less of a thing. Over the past year, the headlines have been dominated by flight from crowded cities as people seek escapes; anecdotally, some northern Minnesota locales that haven’t seen population growth in a long time have seen an uptick in interest. As someone who thinks that neither $3,000-a-month Manhattan rents nor $30,000 Iron Range homes are signs of healthy economic competitiveness, this pleases me. Now, can it keep up?

12. It seemed somehow fitting that the man who delivered the inauguration convocation was a figure from a strange, dream-like past. I spent my college days eating in a dining hall named after Father Leo O’Donovan, a former Georgetown University president who I’d simply assumed was long dead. Instead, there he was: aged but still vigorous, insisting that a critical moment was upon us. Tennyson’s Ulysses seems an apt metaphor for the start of this new administration.

Goodbye to All That?

19 Jan

Eight years ago, I spent inauguration day freezing to death in Washington D.C. I was a Georgetown freshman, and there was no other place to be, particularly in the aftermath of an election that, whatever one’s politics, was certainly historic. Living in what was then (but is no longer now) a majority black city also gave me an added window into what Barack Obama’s ascendance meant for some people, particularly on election night, when I saw tears and joy that, I understood, were for something I would never be able to feel.

Not that a Midwestern white boy couldn’t try. I made sure to drink it all in: a national day of service event at RFK Stadium, a star-studded inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial. My cousin and his friend drove in from Indiana for the spectacle–I didn’t sleep the night before, as I awaited his arrival–and my dorm became a boarding house, with bodies sprawled across the common room. A group of us started down to the Mall around 4:30 and stood, huddled and chilled, for hours amid a throng of millions. Barack Obama was just a speck in the distance from our spot on the lawn, somewhere near the Hirshhorn Museum. We had a better view of the snipers on the roof of the National Gallery than we did of the new President, and the hike back to the Hilltop involved dazed weaving through mazes of port-o-potties. Still, it was all worth it, and I’m reminded of it almost every day: a few of those American flags they gave us to wave about still decorate my apartment.

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I knew I was living history. I knew that, somehow, I needed to capture what this moment felt like so that I’d remember it. And so I wrote a few paragraphs. I was nineteen, and had only started writing in any serious sense a couple of months before. I had potential, though I also had a rookie’s penchant for florid prose:

The ceremony is to be a re-affirmation of the American faith in democracy. Its venue, the world’s most austere cathedral; the vast morning sky reaching from horizon to horizon in its embrace. There is no ceiling, least of all one of glass; simply the sky reaching towards the heavens…”

Yikes. The glass ceiling line is kinda cute, but come on, Karl. Are you really shamelessly comparing your country to a church? And seriously, that verb construction in the first line?

Fortunately, despite being an idealistic kid consumed by Washington’s atmosphere at the time, I was not among those who expected some sort of grandiose change out of Obama. Not that it mattered. That sweeping rhetoric, both the root of his appeal and the eventual source of disappointment for a number of his allies and disgust for many of his opponents, created a mythology that distracted from the actual art of governance. Later in the essay, I nail it:

There are no messiahs in politics. There are only humans, resplendent in their glories and glaring in their flaws. Time is short; there is work to be done. Soon the aura shall fade into memory, and unforgiving reality shall continue its steadfast march. To see the mountaintop is not enough; to stay upon the mountaintop remains an impossibility.

But for one day, such realities can be cast aside, and the awe-inspiring might of symbolism can run rampant in the mind. Often the import of great events lies not in actuality but in the power they wield in the human perception. And in this sense, this day can trump them all.

I can only laugh wryly at my verb choice in that last line.

In retrospect, that last paragraph was truer than I imagined, and Donald Trump’s election is as good a sign of that as any. So much of politics is emotion and symbolic power—what is ‘Make America Great Again’ if not symbolic?—especially on a distant national level when we’ve never met the people involved. I can be, and often am, more pleased by some election results than by others. But I will never be able to say I understand the joy black people felt upon Obama’s election, just as I’ll never be able to understand how Donald Trump could cause great joy in others, either. This isn’t to claim these emotions are in some way equivalent, but merely to marvel at how much a person we’ve never met can elicit life-defining sensations.

Part of me has grown downright scornful of this impulse to put faith in someone’s election, no matter the reason. This is the most insidious of vicarious lives, to cast one’s hopes on to some inevitably flawed human; Caesarism at its worst, a hopeless projection of hopes and dreams on to some distant figure of power when the most important work one can do to secure those aspirations is right here at home. But another part of me suspects I’d be fighting a losing war against human nature if I were to rail against this impulse full throttle.

It’s something of a paradox. I have little trouble being coldly rational in how I weigh most things, including the effectiveness of politicians I agree with or my own reactions to momentous events. And yet there are few things that have as much of a pull on me as passionate youth, and (joking a few paragraphs ago aside), I pass no harsh judgment on my earlier words. We tend to experience the world more vividly in our formative years, to live more fully in emotional surges. And while it requires the proper mindset, I do actually enjoy revisiting some of my old writing, understanding it as an essential part of growth and not just some fixed moment of an incomplete self. Those glimmers we get in those formative years are among the most important moments we encounter. Joan Didion: “one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”

Inauguration Day 2009 was the peak of an arc that eventually swung through a park in Mexico City two years later, an outburst of troubled words in the days after I left Washington, and has landed me right back where I came from, delighted to be where I am. Joan Didion eventually said Goodbye to All That, and she was right to do so. It’s all happened before, will probably all happen again. There’s nothing so unique about this moment that past experience can’t speak to.

But that doesn’t mean the insight from this moment isn’t real, doesn’t mean the emotion that comes out of it can’t continue to course through what we do, in some way or another. So if I shrug impassively at this next inauguration, it’s not because I’ve abandoned what I felt eight years earlier. It’s merely its natural culmination. A deeper fire still burns. I have work to do.