Americans remain sorely divided as Biden’s quest for unity begins
The other day, Stu Ross, a retired elementary school teacher, threw his neighbor out of his townhouse in Harrisburg, Pa. The guy had said he saw nothing wrong with the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Ross wasn’t having it.
“You need to leave now,” he said. “I can’t believe you said that.”
The two haven’t spoken since. So when Ross heard President Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day appeal for a lowered temperature, for unity, he wasn’t seeing a realistic path to that goal.
Ross, 59 – alternately a Republican and a Democrat through the years but never particularly political – voted for Biden in November. He called the new president’s first speech “soothing and calm.” But unity? Normalcy? A return to how things used to be, to Biden’s idea that “politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire?” Come on. Where Ross lives, the only way he and the others in his breakfast crew at Roxy’s Cafe can get through a conversation is to steer clear of politics.
At the dawn of an administration that seeks to return to a less fractious, even boring, politics, many Americans grant that Biden’s quest for a quieter culture is a nice enough goal, but, from the left and right, many say the country’s divisions remain too deep to allow for such a shift.
A thousand miles west of Harrisburg, in Topeka, Kan., Ed Myers has no patience for the debate over whether to hold Donald Trump to account for his role in inciting the attempted insurrection at the Capitol.
On public radio shows in New York and Los Angeles, callers grapple over whether it’s more important to punish the former president and send a message that such behavior is beyond the pale, or to move on, allowing Biden to focus on his agenda. But Myers has KNSS radio out of Wichita blaring on his smartphone and Rush Limbaugh is saying, “Trump did not incite the riot,” which happens to be what Myers just said, too.
A retired farm equipment factory worker, Myers says he was suspended by Twitter after he wrote that Biden is “an illegitimate president.” The way Myers sees it: That puts him in the same boat as Trump, whose Twitter account was banned for “incitement of violence,” which Myers views as a move to stifle free speech.
So no, Myers sees no reason to unify, no cause to rally around the new president to combat the virus and revive the economy.
“Two years of Biden, with the economy going to crap, everybody is going to want Trump back,” he said. “It’s typical of Biden; he said we are going to come together and heal the country, and that’s a big lie.” An impeachment trial in the Senate will only “cause people to rise up. The country is totally divided because of the Democrats.”
Myers drove 150 miles from his home in Newton, Kan., on Inauguration Day to stand outside the Kansas Capitol in a brutal January wind, waving a sign that said “HONK if Socialism Sucks.”
He’d expected a big crowd. He stood on the corner by himself. He looked around and said, “Where is everybody?”
In his inaugural address, Biden staked his ability to make progress on the country’s crises – the virus, the paralyzed economy, racial division and climate change – on Americans’ willingness to unite.
“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days,” Biden said. “I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real, but . . . we have to be different than this. America has to be better than this.”
Chris Buskirk, publisher of the conservative journal American Greatness, thinks that even if Trump voters don’t buy Biden’s policies, many may come along, if only because the new president is offering an oasis of calm after the storms of the past four years.
“There’s a lot of people that at least temporarily want to take a breath,” Buskirk said. “For people who supported Trump, there’s going to be a period of self-reflection that always comes with being out of power. What are our priorities? What are we for?”
That doesn’t mean that the majority of Republicans who believe the 2020 election was somehow rigged or stolen will suddenly embrace Biden as their president. After all, Buskirk said, “three of our last six presidential elections ended with a substantial part of the electorate thinking the result was tainted – 2000, 2016 and 2020. That’s a big problem, indicating a country where people fundamentally don’t trust institutions.”
Still, Buskirk believes that although a hard core of Trump supporters will stand by their man, “most probably just go back to their lives. They weren’t involved in politics before Trump and they don’t see much reason to stay involved if he’s not there.”
And similarly, some on the Democratic side may be so exhausted by the country’s political fray and life in the pandemic that they too may recede from the battlefield.
“Even if you’re convinced that Trump is a horrible person and ordered an insurrection,” Buskirk said, “you may decide that some grace would be good for you and your party, and also for the country.”
That’s how Nate McBride, a 27-year-old salesman in Columbus, Ohio, thinks about Trump’s second impeachment and the country’s need to address its problems.
McBride is the ultimate swing voter – he cast ballots for Republican John McCain in 2008, Democrat Barack Obama in 2012, Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. Now, even though he says Trump created terrible division and “got all those people to storm the Capitol” and that “everybody should be accountable for their actions,” he has concluded that it’s time to move on.
“We need to restore balance in the country,” he said. “You kind of want to say, ‘Let him go, let him ride off into the sunset. Let it be over with.’ ”
And yet – maybe not. When McBride heard Trump hint at a return, perhaps another presidential run in four years, “that’s when you say the Senate should convict. He has to go.”
For many Biden voters, the very notion of letting Trump escape punishment for his role in inciting the Capitol attack is a nonstarter. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., put it: “I don’t think it’s very unifying to say, ‘Oh, let’s just forget it and move on.’ . . . People died here on January 6th.”
Yet moving on – forgoing a reckoning with the forces that led to the assault on the Capitol – is exactly what some on the right seek.
“In my Christian faith, healing starts when forgiveness is expressed and repentance is asked for,” said Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, one of the country’s largest evangelical organizations. But, he said, the line between seeking repentance and seeking vengeance is thin, and Democrats may have already crossed it.
“Vengeance is a terrible tool,” Daly said. “Moving on would be a good gesture – a true act of unity, rather than just words of unity.”
Daly said Biden “will be a calming force. Trump was divisive, I get that. But there’s millions of us who think what the Democrats want is more about uniformity than unity.”
Suzanne and Earl Austin, who own a business that handles health benefits for employers, are still in the fight. Suzanne heard Biden’s call for unity, but, she said, “it doesn’t resonate.”
On Inauguration Day, the Austins drove three hours from their home in Jacksonville, Fla., to the Capitol in Tallahassee to protest Biden.
“Trump has left office,” Suzanne said. “Leave the man alone.”
Back in 2015, she originally “thought it was funny when I heard he was running, to be honest, until I listened to his election promises, what his agenda was. And what was the most amazing thing, is everything he said he was going to do, he did.”
She liked how he talked about immigration and the economy and the elites.
“I’ve never been this passionate about anything until this,” she said.
She stood outside Florida’s Capitol with a “TRUMP WON!” sign, pronouncing herself “scared to death that we’re going to become a socialist country with this new administration.” She even suspects, incorrectly, that the attack on the Capitol may have been “staged” by Democrats.
And yet: Would they give Biden a chance? Would they consider his promise to represent all Americans?
“I think that chapter is yet to be written,” Earl said. “But it’s one I look forward to.”
Suzanne was never much interested in politics before Trump came on the scene. Right now, she’s not saying she’d return to a focus on other aspects of life, but that kind of a shift is commonly seen when populist leaders’ time in power comes to an end.
Whether it’s exhaustion, frustration or a sense that the leader’s ideas have been absorbed into the national agenda, followers of populist leaders often lose their fervor over time.
“Without Twitter, Trump is no longer the fuel that feeds the fire,” said Kathy Cramer, a University of Wisconsin political scientist whose book “The Politics of Resentment” explores attitudes among Trump supporters. “Not having that constant reminder of him has to matter. A president’s tone matters. There’s such a fatigue now. The possibility of unity might feel different to many people than it did even just a few days ago.”
Even after the exhausting events of 2020, even with a new chief executive trying to set a different tone, people still have a lot of fight left in them.
Outside the gold-domed Capitol in Denver as Biden was sworn in, T-shirt hawker Rufus Williams waved a Black Lives Matter flag in a solo demonstration of support for the new president and especially for Vice President Harris. He saw little prospect of unity.
“This country is at war with itself,” said Williams, who is 61. Trump, he said, “should just go retire on an island somewhere.”
Trump supporters need to tone down their rhetoric on social media, Williams said: “They are a racist group of people. I just don’t understand what they’re thinking – that they’re going to build their own white-supremacist world?”
In Topeka, Trump voter Marcie Green, 46, a hospital manager, said she didn’t watch a bit of the inauguration festivities because Biden is “a fake president.”
She said the 86 judges – many of them Trump appointees – who rejected Trump’s claims of election fraud did so only because “the evidence they had was not presented in the proper way.”
Green sees no route to unity. Her only hope is that the country somehow “start over,” electing all new lawmakers and imposing term limits. “Our country is going down a path, the wrong path, we are never going to get out of,” she said.
Beyond the political polarization, the coronavirus and Americans’ reliance on social media have also made it hard for Biden to push the country back to “normal,” to an era of calmer politics when Americans had a shared base of information and facts, said Lara Putnam, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh who has examined the social forces fueling Trump’s support.
“It’s hard to think a new normal comes back easily,” Putnam said. “The old normal, we realize, actually was different for different people. What is different now is how and where people get their trusted information.”
It’s not yet clear whether Trump’s departure can pave the way toward a return to a society in which Americans share a basic foundation in facts, Putnam said. The country’s divide over how much of a threat the coronavirus really poses and how to fight it demonstrates that the nation’s fractures lie deeper than Trump, she said.
Somehow, Biden must find a way to persuade disbelieving Americans to accept him and the nation’s institutions, even if only grudgingly, said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.
“We are not healthy right now,” he said. “We are not healthy as a republic. Trump was a symptom of the problems, and he was an accelerant.”
Finding a new normal will be difficult for Democrats who are torn between their desire to hold Trump and his Republican enablers accountable and Biden’s wish not “to be sidetracked . . . with a long, bitter, protracted trial. You can’t demonize your neighbors who went down the path of being a Trump voter. It’s an arduous balancing act.”
Some Biden voters have concluded that a second trial of Trump might actually move the needle toward unity.
Chad Allen, a 26-year-old salesman in Topeka, agrees with Biden that the country must heal, “but at the same time, [Trump] shouldn’t be able to get away with it,” he said. “People can ask, ‘What’s the point of impeaching him now?’ But you hate to see someone escape the justice system – especially the president. It’s not vengeance, it’s more accountability.”
Len Murray, an independent who supported Biden, had hoped that the result of Trump’s drive to overturn the election outcome – affirmation by dozens of courts and every state government that the election was fair – would finally persuade Trump supporters to accept reality.
“We need to accept that first and stop talking past one another,” said Murray, a 55-year-old operations manager in the food industry in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Murray has voted for Republicans and Democrats through the years, from Ronald Reagan to Hillary Clinton. During Wednesday’s inauguration, he stood outside the Florida Capitol holding an American flag, standing behind a sign that said, “One country, one flag. United we stand.”
An impeachment trial may set back efforts to build unity, he said, but Trump’s actions must be investigated and exposed. “Because people died,” he said. “I mean, you had an insurrection there.”
Still, Murray said, “we have to listen to one another. We have 75 million people who voted for Trump regardless of what we saw. Let’s have a reset. And I think Biden is the right kind of guy for that. We can all get around him and come together on this in these four years. And in four years, we have another election.”
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