Our democracy is wounded. How will we heal it?

A new president promises a fresh start but the country’s racial wounds go back centuries.

Barriers, soldiers, and security tape blocked access to a large swathe of Washington, D.C., in the days leading up to President Biden's inauguration.
Photograph by Nina Berman, National Geographic

The inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden and Vice-President Kamala D. Harris went off without a hitch Wednesday, but the United States can never again take for granted its revered tradition of a peaceful transfer of power. When Biden took the oath of office as America’s 46th president, an estimated 25,000 National Guard troops were mobilized to guard the Capitol.

“We have learned again that democracy is precious,” said the new president, looking out over a National Mall filled with 200,000 American flags in lieu of people. “Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

In America, a peaceful transfer of power is considered a national birthright, an article of uncontested faith. Or at least it was. But George Washington, father of the nation, knew better. He warned that sedition could at some point overcome tradition. In his farewell address to the nation in 1796, he forecast that cunning political factions might seek to subvert the rule of law. He foresaw the potential for dangerous partisanship and domestic mobs to threaten the republic’s stability as much as hostile foreign adversaries.

Washington’s worst domestic fear materialized January 6th. A national audience watched in horror as legislators—and Vice-President Mike Pence—were forced to flee for their lives as a mob stormed and ransacked the Capitol. Five people were left dead in the wake of the attack, including a Capitol police officer.

Before the insurrection was brought under control, a Confederate flag was paraded through the Capitol and President-elect Joe Biden went on national television demanding that President Trump call off the mob. In his denunciation of the violence and institutional desecration to which the nation bore witness, Biden offered a brief statement that will reverberate in American history.

“Let me be very clear,” Biden said. “The scenes of chaos in the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.” It was a moment of profoundly wishful thinking that spoke our values but not our national reality.

Historians, civil rights leaders, and social justice activists instantly challenged Biden’s statement about the country’s character. Some found that his words failed to convey a clear-eyed understanding of the American temperament.

“Incoming presidents don’t have many moments to define the nation,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of FactCheck.org. I spoke with Jamieson several days before the inauguration.

“They enter office having some capital to tell us who we are. One of the challenges for the Biden presidency is helping a deeply divided nation better understand and heal itself. His message must be aspirational but not based in the recovery of a mythical lost soul,” said Jamieson.

By the time Biden took the oath of office, he clearly understood the tone that the nation needed to hear. He offered a message of unity that directed an unflinching gaze to the past in order to illuminate the necessary future for a nation split by dangerous fault lines.

“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy,” said the President. “I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know that they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart.”

In many ways, the seditious mob that stormed the Capitol reflects a sweeping cross-section of America. The brazen assault on America’s constitutional process also reflects a nation that has long been fractured at its core by an unrelenting and polarizing factor: race.

“This country was founded as a slave owners’ republic,” said Kevin K. Gaines, Julian Bond Professor of Civil Rights and Social Justice at the University of Virginia.

“There have been powerful movements to attempt to address the entrenched racism in our social and political cultures,” he continued. “Whether you’re talking about the crusading efforts of the abolitionists, a civil war, reconstruction, and the modern civil rights movement, powerful steps have been taken to empower Black people. But the idea that African-Americans should have a share of political power has repeatedly led to a backlash and the stark reminder of our troubled and immoral history.”

Even before the broken glass had been swept from the Capitol complex and the number of fatal and non-fatal casualties declared, a defense of the siege began in earnest. Before his social media privileges were suspended, then-President Trump tweeted sympathetic commentary about the people who descended on Congress. He tweeted of his love for the protestors. He opined that the rioters who protested in his name were no different than the millions of demonstrators who spent much of 2020 united in protest against police violence directed at Black Americans.

The Trump-inspired protestors who stormed the Capitol called themselves patriots. The term is used quite loosely these days. Who exactly were they? From the nearly one hundred arrests already made and several hundred more investigations opened, we have a pretty good idea of who populated the uprising. It was a loose collection of white supremacists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, and far-right conspiracy theorists.

But the demographics of the crowd cannot and must not be overly simplified. The insurrectionists who invaded the Capitol, and those who merely massed outside, included schoolteachers, construction workers, off-duty police officers, firefighters, elected officials. Your next-door neighbor may have well been present at the insurrection.

These Americans largely bought into the lie that the election had been stolen. Trump repeatedly told his supporters that he lost the presidency as a result of massive fraudulent voter turnout—mostly in urban districts. Numerous election officials and state and federal courts rejected that false claim so Trump turned to the mob as his last line of defense. It heeded his call.

“I don’t think we have a word to describe what happened at the Capitol earlier this month,” said Jamieson. “The language that we use doesn’t really capture the reality that a mob stormed the Capitol at the behest of a sitting President with intent to interrupt a peaceful transfer of power. It wasn’t a riot and it was more than an insurrection. It was a seditious attempt to overturn the Democratic process. This occurrence is what Madison may have feared most and wrote about in the Federalist Papers: a fear of populist passions, demagogues, and mobs.”

Some of the protestors may have gathered in good faith believing that they were performing a necessary public service and defending American democracy. A Pew survey taken after the November election reveals that Americans believe their political differences are widely misconstrued and routinely mischaracterized by those of opposing parties. Only 2 percent of both Biden and Trump voters said that those who voted for the opposing candidate understand them “very well.”

Many of the sweeping divisions that divide us as a country were on full display during the Capitol siege. A dangerous and volatile racial animus was also visible. A noose was erected on the Capitol grounds. Some of the protestors carried the battle flag of the Confederacy. These unmistakable symbols of America’s long and enduring history of oppression and violence against African Americans were quite deliberate.

The plight of Black Americans has bedeviled this nation from its inception. When the Constitution of the United States was adopted in November 1787, African Americans weren’t mentioned in the final document. However, their status as slaves was hotly debated. How would these “other persons” be counted for purposes of representation and taxation?

Slavery wouldn’t be officially overturned until 1865, when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted seven months after the end of America’s Civil War. Throughout that horrendous war, which claimed the lives of at least 620,000 people, the Confederate battle flag was never brandished on the Capitol grounds.

Now as monuments to confederate leaders continue to topple throughout the nation, the United States engages in yet another soul-searching conversation about the lasting scourge of slavery, savage Jim Crow racism, and systemic racial inequalities. The nation’s repeatedly cauterized racial wound has continued to fester and is now dangerously erupting.

“Our democracy is wounded,” said Sen. Cory Booker, one of three African-American senators, in an interview with NBC News. “I saw the flag of the Confederacy there. What will we do? How will we confront this shame? How will we confront this dark second time in American history?”

Donald Trump’s complicated legacy will be examined by historians for as long as the country remains. His final unabashed dog whistle to summon a mob in a desperate attempt to overturn an election he lost was an assault on democracy. The uprising was a poignant reminder of an America that some would rather forget or pretend doesn’t exist.

But there’s no turning away. For better or worse, the riotous scenes in America’s capital city offers an unvarnished reflection of our nation and the racial undercurrents that roil it. It’s who we are below the surface. The need for continued vigilance in the pursuit of a more perfect and just union remains among our greatest challenges.

George Washington’s prophetic final farewell to the nation has rarely seemed more relevant. America’s promise is great. So is its peril.

But Biden and Harris, assuming the leadership of a nation sorely battered by multiple crises, seem to know that. As Biden said in his inaugural address, “We look ahead in our uniquely American way–restless, bold, optimistic—and set our sights on the nation we know we can be and we must be.”

Phillip Morris is a Cleveland-based journalist who often explores issues of race, class, and culture.

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