Normal. The United States is returning to normal. During Joe Biden’s inauguration, the commentary was overwhelmingly about a country slowly regaining consciousness, blinking away the bad dream that was Donald Trump. That state of normal was one of not just reinstating all the protocols and rituals of high office, but of the pastoral hand of the president. Biden will now “heal” the nation and rebuild America’s standing in the world. “Civility” will cleanse the US of the previous administration’s toxicity.
But against the backdrop of the past four years in general and the previous two weeks in particular, the ceremonials all felt a bit flat, like trying to burn incense to banish the smell of a rotting corpse. Trump may be gone as president, but the morbidities he exposed remain. They hang heavily in the air: the 74 million people who voted for him despite four years of lies and carnage; the proportion of voters who still think the election was stolen; the ongoing round-up of those who stormed the Capitol; the hundreds of thousands of lives claimed by coronavirus.
None of this was wrought by Trump’s hand alone. None of this could have happened without a pre-existing political culture, the “normal” to which the country now yearns to return. But every significant historical moment needs a narrative, and this was it: Trump had wounded a previously healthy America, divided it and lowered its tone, and Biden would now lay his healing hands on it with the help of a diverse coalition of grownups.
In her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson likens the US to an old house, flawed in foundation, wrecked by age, weakened by cosmetic changes that never address the structural flaws. “You may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought,” she writes. “Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.”
The speed with which Trump’s presidency sent the US into a vortex of racial and social discord is the first clue that the old house was built on shaky foundations. These forces cannot be summoned overnight. They were gnawing away at the core of the country long before Trump became president. They are, in fact, why Trump became president. In describing the effects of Covid-19 on those with even mild pre-existing conditions, a doctor told me that the virus is a “mortality accelerant”. It takes the thing that might have claimed you in 20 or 30 years, and weakens your body so that it claims you today.
So let us look at the “normal” that Trump disrupted. Before he took office, the US was a country in which, since 9/11, far-right extremists have been responsible for almost three times as many attacks as Islamic terrorists. The year 2019 ended up being the deadliest on record for domestic terrorism in the US since then. Before Trump, while the country’s first African American president was in power, the Black Lives Matter movement was founded in protest at the impunity of those who kill black Americans. And despite the widely accepted fiction that Trump’s popularity was a white working-class revolt, he won against Hillary Clinton among high-income white voters, who went on to benefit from a tax-cut windfall.
In a country already riven by economic and class inequality, Trump proved how easily such divisions could be exploited to benefit rightwingers promising economic prosperity for some at the cost of the rest. It may seem that, after four long years of disruption, what is needed is a quiet spell of stability. But what this moment signifies is not a retreat by the forces that Trump has brought to the surface, but a temporary scattering before they regroup (in “some form”, as Trump himself said).
To talk about normality, civility, reaching across the divide and healing at a time like this, when millions have rejected that offering at the polls and hundreds marched on the Capitol, is pointless. For the duly elected Democratic party to feel it needs to reassure voters that it comes in peace is an act of weakness – as if it has no radical plans to take on foundational issues and reorder economic and racial relations in the country. This conciliation is a win for the American right – not only for its Capitol-insurrectionist wing, but for its longer-term scaremongering about the “radical left”. This is already evident in the backlash against Biden’s first executive orders that, in merely undoing what Trump established, are seen as “culture war aggression”.
Biden should be leading a government ready to take on the twin challenges of rooting out white supremacy and rebalancing the economy, yet it risks being one that aims only to fix the leaks of the past four years. This should be a government that stops papering over the cracks, and finally confronts the causes of divisions and embeds permanent reform. Otherwise, though Trump may be gone, the nightmare will be ongoing.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist