Of all the things the Trump presidency has destroyed—norms, the Overton window, countless lives—one of the most prominent victims is time itself.
It’s a cliché at this point, but even before the pandemic turned every day indefinitely into March of 2020, Trump-era chaos had long warped our collective grasp on chronology. The names of early movers and shakers in this administration, like Reince Priebus and Jason Chaffetz, now sound like half-remembered Jeopardy! answers. (“This House Oversight Committee chairman resigned from Congress rather than conduct any oversight on Donald Trump.”)
Has it really been only four years ago since those names were regular fixtures in our lives?
Indeed, it has.
It’s just that every moment since Trump’s inauguration has been part of an endless expanse of breaking news. For many Americans, life soon slipped into a poorly edited, dystopian reality show that hinged on whatever the president would or would not do at any given time.
Now that those of us who survived have reached the inauguration of the next president, it is not at all clear what the next four years are going to feel like. Will they, too, fly/crawl by in a hectic, grey hair-making haze? All that is certain is that they will feel different. They already do.
As much as my brain has been ravaged by temporal distortion, I remember vividly the day of Trump’s inauguration. I made the trip to Washington D.C. to be part of it, to physically register my opposition. The rattled hordes marched with parade floats, like a purgatorial Mardi Gras. A scattered handful of black bloc antifascists weaved in and out of the crowd, en route to go trash some property. (Many of them racked up felony rioting charges for their efforts.) Ghoulishly ebullient MAGA Dads jeered at the lot of us to “get a job,” even though it was Saturday.
The memory is remarkably distant now, like it happened to someone else, and it also feels oddly innocent. I can now look back almost fondly at a time when resistance to Trump was based solely on what he’d done before he became president.
The atmosphere of the day reflected both what we already knew about him, and what we would soon find out. The many “Pussy Grabs Back” signs represented the president’s infamous Access Hollywood remarks, and dozens of sexual assault allegations, and preceded the rise of the #MeToo movement. The signs depicting Trump’s cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin marked the extreme fishiness of Team Trump’s many varied meetings with Russian officials throughout the election, and anticipated years of overblown hype for the woefully wishy-washy but still misrepresented Mueller Report. The Black Lives Matter signs alluded to Trump’s inflaming of white grievance, starting with a five-year embrace of the racist Birther conspiracy against President Obama, and they foreshadowed four years of white supremacists having a champion in the White House—and Black voters playing a pivotal role in removing him from office.
When the Trump supporters in attendance weren’t calling us losers, they would also say, “Give him a chance,” which is nice because who doesn’t love condescension that comes with a homework assignment. But Trump never gave us a chance to give him a chance. He campaigned with immense hostility, propelled by dishonesty, and after winning, he immediately began a four-year experiment of treating those in cities who voted against him like a population of conquered foes. Had any liberal with a Burning Man-grade open mind still felt like actually giving Trump a chance, though, somewhere between the inauguration crowd size lie and the insidious, sloppily executed Muslim ban one week later, that chance would have evaporated.
Now that the inauguration is on the other foot, it’s anyone’s guess what the day might foretell for Biden’s presidency.
Thanks to a pandemic made demonstrably worse by Trump, and a deadly riot incited by him on January 6, the mood ahead of Biden’s inauguration is grim and apocalyptic. But there are other reasons to be worried.
Between some questionable nominations, sketchy math on those $2,000 stimulus checks, and a desire to work hand-in-hand with Republicans (whom the electorate just handed Biden a mandate to work around), all signs point to the new president attempting to turn back the clock to 2013 and pretend that Trump never happened. Throw into the mix a gaudy, star-studded, five-night inauguration celebration, with the theme of “America United,” and we may be off to a misguided start.
The last thing anyone needs from the incoming administration right now—or ever—is an extensive, celebrity-packed auto-pat on the back, in service of pretending that unity is currently within reach.
Fortunately, Biden has also sent out some more encouraging signals of what his presidency might be like. His $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan seems practical, his climate plan is refreshingly ambitious, and his vow to deploy FEMA and the National Guard to assist with vaccinations is a stark contrast from Trump’s botched rollout. Whatever else is destined to go wrong in Biden’s presidency, baseline competence is back, baby!
As Biden must realize, this is the last moment when his term could still be anything. It might be one depressing capitulation after another, with the saving grace of just getting past the pandemic. It might be a shockingly progressive success, in which a historically diverse coterie of advisers and outside activists nudge him out of a centrist bubble and into the realm of making a substantive difference in people’s lives. (Either way, Republican politicians and pundits will react by rediscovering that deficit-spending is Bad, and railing against the scourge of gaffes.)
Should Biden end up pursuing a Make America 2013 Again agenda right out of the gate, though, he may be surprised to find himself up against the same resistors I marched with during Trump’s inauguration.
Perhaps one reason that January of 2017 feels so inexplicably long ago is because it was a moment of collective awakening for people like me, who had failed to be civically engaged enough beforehand. We had missed the warning signs as America trended toward Trumpism, and let down those who caught every one of them. We went from asleep at the wheel to a state of constant vigilance—and felt four years of whiplash.
On the day of Biden’s inauguration, his presidency could still be anything. No matter what happens, though, what I will be is vigilant. There’s no going back.