WASHINGTON — In January 2001, I was part of an administration that began in the midst of controversy. A presidential election that effectively ended in a tie had been decided by the Supreme Court. A significant portion of the country questioned the validity of this outcome and the legitimacy of the incoming president.
We had a few things going for us. Vice President Al Gore, after vigorously disputing the election’s outcome, conceded with grace. When he sat behind President George W. Bush during the inaugural ceremony, it was a symbol of institutional strength and continuity. It also helped that Bush had run and won as a centrist. It had been a divisive election, yet he was not a particularly divisive figure.
Crafting an inaugural address to a rattled and riven country, however, was a challenge. Bush ended up making the following case: He directly acknowledged the divisions among Americans who seemed to “share a continent, but not a country.” He pledged to work on the side of unity by striving to build “a single nation of justice and opportunity.” And he appealed to a set of values — commitments to civility, courage, compassion and character — that lay beneath the country’s political divisions. These ideals, he said, “move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens.”
After the Trump-inspired attack on the U.S. Capitol, I listened to Bush’s first inaugural again. And what struck me — with unexpected emotional force — is how naive it would sound today. Bush assumed that our national divide was primarily political and, thus, cosmetic. President-elect Joe Biden and his speechwriters (who are very good) can no longer take for granted an undergirding consensus of democratic values.
In much of a radicalized GOP, civility is seen as weakness. Courage among elected Republicans — who largely refused to hold President Donald Trump to account for inciting violent insurrection — is vanishingly rare. Compassion is clearly not a priority for those who tolerate raw racism and excuse putting migrant children in cages. And Republicans who now dare to speak of moral character — after following a leader entirely devoid of it — are rightly viewed as hypocritical jokes.
The division runs even deeper. It is disturbing that so many elected Republicans have promoted the big lie of a stolen election without really believing it. It is positively frightening that so many Trump supporters believe the lie with all their hearts. They inhabit not an alternative ideological movement but an alternative universe of facts and truth. Many who came to Washington believed that the hidden reality of Trump’s victory would be miraculously revealed and that he would somehow claim his rightful reelection. This has many of the attributes of a religious sect expecting the second coming (with the strangest choice of messiahs). But it is less theological than magical thinking. Some people honestly expected their mental mythology to materialize in the actual world of laws and institutions.
What happens when that doesn’t transpire? Some awaken, as though from a dream. Some double down, unable to escape the maze of their delusions. Some storm the Capitol and beat a police officer to death with a fire extinguisher.
How can Biden shape a rhetoric of unity and inclusion in a nation that cannot agree on democratic values, and does not agree on truth itself? He might begin by reading Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural. Lincoln drew a hard line at sedition — the necessary commitment of a government under challenge. But he did not assume that his opponents, even in the South, were monolithic. He made arguments designed to drive wedges between moderates and radicals. And he asserted the existence of a deep, mystical bond of citizenship that many — both secessionists and abolitionists — did not feel. This did not solve the immediate political crisis, but it preserved the possibility of national healing beyond that crisis.
Political rhetoric also does not work by magic, as if great phrases — “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” — have the power of incantations. But the best rhetoric can provide a mental refuge to which men and women of goodwill can repair. It can assure them that they are not alone in their worries or in their decency. It can set out the vision of a union — a constitutional system — that has survived deep injustice, electoral controversy and fraternal warfare. And it can affirm the existence of a shared national truth in which the winner does not take all, in which political minorities are respected and consulted, in which citizens of every background are treated with respect and dignity.
Biden is not without some advantages of his own. He ran and won as a centrist, which may uniquely suit him to the task ahead. He faces a set of national challenges — a pandemic and an economic crisis — that are massive, but not inherently ideological in nature. And he will lead a country that has looked into the abyss, and seen the bloody alternative to union.
Gerson writes for the Washington Post. His email address is email@example.com.