It was September, and Donald Trump’s demagogic re-election campaign was in full swing. A not insignificant number of serious people believed he might succeed in stealing the election, or in bringing the country down with him. Omar disagreed. She believed America and its institutions were strong enough to withstand his onslaught. She was concerned, however, that the president had damaged the fundamental idea of what America was.
“The idea that the United States has been seen as a place of refuge, as a place where as my grandfather used to say ‘eventually everyone becomes an American’, is now being led by a xenophobic, racist tyrant, who doesn’t understand anything that is fundamental to the American identity – that’s a shock to many people,” she said.
Trump’s presidency was a continuous attack on that identity. How many Americans have lived with that same shock over the last four years? And how many have been forced to question their own idea of what their country stands for, of who belongs here?
Trump campaigned on a promise to make America great again, but he never truly understood what made America great in the first place. He had no respect for its long tradition as a place of refuge.
He believed he could mobilise enough white anger to cancel out 200 years of history. He believed he could transform the United States from a nation of immigrants into a country for people who looked just like him. He clearly underestimated the strength of those values.
As Biden took to the podium in front of the Capitol building to give his first speech as president, I was wandering around Black Lives Matter Plaza, just behind the White House. I noticed a couple named Melissa and Thalia huddled on a bench around their phone, watching the speech.
It was cold outside but they were grinning. It was as if they had just awoken from a bad dream.
“It’s nice to be able to breathe,” said Thalia. Melissa added: “We’re Mexican-American, and female and gay. So it was scary times. Now it’s kind of a relief.”
Alan Unkle, who had come from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said something similar.
“It’s been crazy. It’s sad as a minority to wake up one day and see that the president posted a video with guys chanting ‘white power’, not knowing where you stand in your own country anymore,” he said.
Despite his best efforts, Trump failed to change the character of the United States. Not only did its institutions weather the most serious attack in modern history, but its ideals have endured and emerged stronger. The election victory and subsequent inauguration of Biden and vice president Kamala Harris was proof of that.
Voters rejected Trump’s division. Mr Biden rescinded the ban on travellers from Muslim countries within hours of taking office. Harris was sworn in as the first female, first Black and first Asian-American US vice president. The ceremony was watched on by what will soon become the most representative and diverse cabinet in the country’s history.
And the inaugural poem, read by a 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, was a reaffirmation of the very ideals Trump had sought to destroy. It looked to the past as a lesson, not as a model.
Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one.