Joe Biden was famous for delivering eulogies long before he was elected president, so it should not come as a surprise that in his remarks to the nation to memorialize the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and our system of elections, he spoke more about the past tense—of a “former president” and a “failed” attempt to overthrow democracy—than about the very real, very urgent threats facing the nation today.
It’s easy and convenient to isolate the images, violence and memories of Jan. 6, to remove them from their ongoing context and package them into produced speeches or television segments that look back. It’s much more difficult to speak the truth about the modern Republican party, from school board meetings across the country to the halls of Congress, harnessing the power of white supremacy, propaganda and violence to fundamentally reshape America and destabilize the institutions that once buttressed the principles of democracy Biden declared on Thursday still endure.
Twelve months after the attack, Biden saying anything was an improvement over silence. But there is a profound danger in “remembering” Jan. 6 once-per-year instead of acknowledging and confronting it daily.
In the space between Trump’s Big Lie about the election and the truth is a web of white lies that Biden and much of entrenched Washington establishment keep telling themselves and the country, enabled by a mainstream media still conditioned to be more fearful of criticism from bad-faith Republicans than of the fall of American democracy.
—The lie that there’s a distinction between Trump and the rest of the Republican Party.
—The lie that “unity” without accountability for an attempted coup of the government by Republicans is achievable.
—The lie that Washington, D.C. can return to bygone days of handshakes and deal-making and cocktail parties, and the result will be a government that functions as designed.
—The lie, largely by omission, that white nationalists who came to the Capitol bearing Confederate flags and donning “Camp Auschwitz” hoodies are isolated and contained threats to the public.
—The lie that “this is not who we are” as a country.
—And the lie that the ongoing assault on democracy is done since our democracy survived the Jan. 6 attack.
These are not the sort of big lies that propagate on QAnon websites, the dangerous ones that have constructed an alternate reality for Trump’s followers and torn our nation apart. But they are the kind of polite, insidious-in-the-guise-of-innocuous lies that have to be believed by Washington elite in order for elected officials, operatives, lobbyists and reporters to continue as “normal” in their glossy political lives.
“Whatever my other disagreements are with Republicans who support the rule of law and not the rule of a single man, I will always seek to work together with them to find shared solutions where possible,” Biden said Thursday, as if House Republican leaders, joined by the vast majority of their colleagues, had not voted to overturn his election, exactly one year earlier and yards from where he stood.
“Because if we have a shared belief in democracy, then anything is possible,” Biden said, as if that “if” could lift such an assertion from the heavy reality that 147 Congressional Republicans still voted to subvert democracy after insurrectionists tried to murder their colleagues and then-Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump and Republicans are not severable, and Democrats and Republicans do not currently share a belief in democracy.
Biden’s apparent desire to be the president he imagined he could be in the late 1980s when he first ran for the office—the president who could host bipartisan meetings and pass appropriations bills with the backing of 90 senators—is in direct tension with the president he needed to be to navigate the nation through this tenuous moment, a president who in the wake of an attempted government coup could immediately and unequivocally call out the Republicans he worked with for decades as easily as they disputed his own election and legitimacy.
It was safer within the “norms”-driven rules of DC engagement for Biden to wait 12 months and remember Jan. 6 as an anniversary memory, a flash bang, something Donald Trump once did as opposed to something his party is currently doing.
When network news broadcasts dispatched their anchors to the Capitol for 24 hours on the anniversary of one of the darkest days of American history to “remember”—after spending a year continuing to give platforms to any number of those 147 Congressional Republicans who voted to reject Biden’s fairly won electors—they isolated Jan. 6, the memory, from Jan. 6, the ongoing reality.
They are complicit in the Republican desire and push to “move on,” reinforced by the Democrats like Biden who think “moving on” is a stand-in for “healing the nation” as opposed to ripping its wounds deeper and leaving the republic even more vulnerable to this continuous assault.
Several Capitol Hill reporters shared important, harrowing recollections of surviving the Capitol attack, of their fears on that day for their lives and for Congress itself. The authors of these pieces were almost apologetic about making themselves “the story,” as if the extremists who—inspired by a president who incited violence specifically against them, came to the Capitol and etched “Murder the Media” into 100-years-old doors—were not the actors in this dynamic.
In his excellent essay, my former colleague Matt Fuller, who was in the building that day, acknowledged that the media has struggled to cover Republicans since emerging as both chroniclers and survivors of the crimes at the Capitol.
“In the aftermath of Jan. 6, most of the media still hasn’t really figured out how to cover Republicans. I’d include myself in that statement. We mostly just pretend Jan. 6 didn’t happen, as if it’s totally normal to let Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) pontificate about gas prices or inflation while we ignore the lies he continues to spew about who’s actually responsible for the attack—or the role he played in undermining our democracy and endangering those of us who were at the Capitol that day,” Fuller wrote.
“It’s difficult to write a story in which you stop in every paragraph to note whether the particular Republican you’re mentioning returned to their chamber the night of Jan. 6, with blood still drying in the hallways, and voted to overturn the will of the people. But maybe we should.”
It would be easier to get to the next question, of “who is served by separating Republicans from their attempts to undermine democracy?” if Biden were speaking directly, truthfully and regularly about the threat Trump’s GOP poses to America.
The scariest part of watching the anniversary is that 2022 almost feels too late to save democracy. Democrats abdicated a more protracted impeachment process in February 2021, when they had the rapt attention of the national media and the country. Republican candidates for nearly every office are gaining traction on the lie that the 2020 election was stolen while Republican officials in state legislatures across the country work to implement mechanisms to steal the next election, but through “palatable” means like closing polling places, installing partisan election officials and Voter ID laws as opposed to violent attacks on police officers.
Each day that passes before the Select Committee to Investigate January 6 issues a report feels like a day lost, as Republicans will either discredit it for being too political and close to an election or shut it down if it stretches past 2022.
The more I think about it, the more I worry Biden actually did give a eulogy for American democracy, not because he’s familiar with the form, but because he failed to address the peril we’re living in now or articulate a path forward to pull us from the brink.