Joe Biden’s “Unbound” January 6 Speech Won’t Be Enough to Save Us

Joe Biden unbound”—that’s how CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger described President Biden’s January 6 speech, right before Biden told reporters, “The way you have to heal you have to recognize the extent of the wound. You can’t pretend.”

And yet pretend he did. Joe Biden “unbound” did not mention race. He did not say, explicitly or in so many words, “white supremacy.” Nor did he say Donald Trump’s name. CNN’s panel scored this a victory, an own, Biden brilliantly hitting Trump’s “trigger points” while denying him oxygen. They pointed out that Trump’s irate statement, released shortly thereafter, inaccurately said Biden “used my name”; they said this was evidence that Trump was wounded by being called only “former.” Here we are, five years into the Trumpocene, failing to recognize that Trump won January 6, emerged from it with more of a stranglehold on democracy, the same way he’s always won: by making the story about him. Say his name, he wins. But when you refuse to say it, he also wins, because you imbue the name with totemic power. Clearly, we—and by we I mean “humanity”—lose when we fail to hold Trump accountable. But what Trump knows, or at least gravitates toward like slime mold, is that we lose, and he wins, when anyone reduces the broad fascist moment that made the insurrection possible to one villain and his circle of enablers, dismissing the mob—the many-millions mob—as dupes who might still be persuaded by Biden.

It’s not that Biden is wrong. We do need to recognize “the extent of the wound.” To not say—as he did—“this is not who we are,” when “this”—white supremacy, the denial of the past—has for so long been interwoven with exactly who we are. It is not all we are. But to exclude it from the narrative, to insist that autocracy “is not who we have ever been,” comes close to papering over the wound. One can hardly blame those who openly embrace white supremacy, the nearly 40% willing to tell pollsters they support political violence, for hearing in Biden’s claims a kind of condescension. Biden did not acknowledge their challenge to democracy. He displaced it onto “the former president”—he gave Trump all the credit for their fascist ascendency. He did not take the fascists as they tell us, again and again, who they are. He pretended, in fact, that they are us, that we are all one people at the end of the day—a cliché to match the banality of the claim.

Maybe, one day, we will be. We haven’t been yet. There is a sense among some Biden supporters that his presidency still possesses the power of restoration—a return to “common ground.” Or, at least, an exhumation of some kind of zombie bipartisanship from beneath it. “The America of our childhood,” as one Twitter user put it to me. But the America of our childhood—and this is as true for my children as of my own adolescence decades ago—produced the authoritarian tendencies that elected Trump and which will, all indicators suggest, keep electing his most extreme exponents. Those who refuse to include in “We the People” Black people, or Black people deemed insufficiently “grateful,” or queer people, or people who write books about queer people, or simply all the people who believe, whether they like the fact or not, that Trump lost the 2020 election.

“We the people prevail,” Biden declared today, attempting to reclaim the phrase, even as he implicitly acknowledged the conflict that makes it fiction. Nancy Pelosi sought also to reclaim words lost to the right, declaring today’s remembrance events held “in a spirit of unity, patriotism, and prayerfulness.” Republicans, meanwhile, boycotted this unity fest or, as with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Rep. Matt Gaetz, spoke against it all together. (“I think we’re post-Constitution,” Greene mused on Steve Bannon’s show.) Such is the danger of “unity”—it is a myth that imagines we are better than we are, rather than calling on us to become better than we have been.

The right’s immediate response to Biden’s speech was, predictably, not to the white man but to the woman of color whose presence at the podium has as much to do with the rage that drove the insurrection as anything Biden named. Blared Breitbart: “Kamala Harris: Jan. 6 Riot Like Bombing of Pearl Harbor, 9/11 Terror Attacks.” This, to the right, is sacrilegious not because of scale but because of color. Pearl Harbor and 9/11: Japanese and Arabs. January 6: Americans, mostly white. The former two, attacks on American unity; January 6, in the minds of its champions and apologists, an expression of that unity, of patriotism, of “the love in the air,” as Trump infamously put it, through which the colorblind could not even see the overwhelming whiteness of the mob.

It will come as no surprise that Harris did not, in fact, make this comparison. Rather she claimed for the date “a place in our collective memory” alongside other days that live in infamy. May this aspiration become so. But right now, our memory is not collective. We live in an age of accelerating revisionism: the erasure of slavery from our schools, the disappearance of queerness from our library bookshelves, the memory holing of the very fear with which Fox News’ memory holers, Hannity, Ingraham, and company, initially responded to the terror of January 6 in frantic text messages.

And yet there are subtler ways to deny the past, even inadvertent ones. “On this day of remembrance,” declared Biden, “we must make sure that such an attack never, never happens again.” There’s an echo of “never again” in this sentiment, the two words with which we have long pretended that we held a line against genocide even as it has occurred again, and again, and again. We can be sure that there are more fascist attacks coming, if not from fascists breaking the law than from their elected representatives making it. (“Never forget the crime of the 2020 Presidential election,” echoed Trump in a second statement hours after Biden’s speech.) The next coup attempt may well be “legal” as state legislatures bend the rule of law, if not the arc of justice, toward Trumpism.

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