Some of the President’s colleagues in his party have been anything but reconciliatory. They have continued to demonize their opponents and asked for their heads.
The stage was set in Washington, DC, this past Wednesday. After an acrimonious election, to put it mildly, Kamala Devi Harris and Joseph (Joe) Robinette Biden were sworn in as the Vice President and President of the United States of America. It was a proud moment, particularly for the tiny Indian-American minority. We saw one of our own, Kamala Harris, become the second in command of the world’s most powerful nation. It is by far the highest US public office held by an Indian-American.
As the transfer of power in the world’s oldest functioning democracy on a relatively mild and sunny January morning remained peaceful, the theatre around it was remarkably absurd. Americans were still wrapping their heads around the events of 6 January when a crowd of mostly disgruntled Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol and rioted for some time. The unruly crowd damaged property, and the ensuing violence took four lives. In anticipation of more trouble on Inauguration Day, the security establishment had laid out an elaborate plan.
When Harris and Biden rose to take the oath of office, there was no milling crowd jostling to get a glimpse of their leader. Jennifer Lopez performed the patriotic and uplifting renditions of “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful”. She ended her performance with “Let’s Get Loud” (also a reference to her track), but there were barely enough people to make a squeak. Nor were there long thunderous applause and cheers that have become part of such joyous gathering. The National Mall, which is usually filled with tens of thousands of spectators who cheer on their new President, was turned into a memorial for Covid-19 victims. There was no parade, not even those pompous evening balls.
While the ravaging pandemic put a damper on the crowd and inaugural celebrations, the events of 6 January were still fresh in the minds of both the public and the security agencies. The usual festive-looking DC was transformed into a militarized war zone. There were nearly 25,000 members of the military, in addition to countless federal, state, and local law enforcement agents securing the streets of DC. Roads were blocked off by army vehicles. Checkpoints were set up all around the city. One needed to produce required credentials with “legitimate business” to enter what many familiar with the US military camps in Baghdad, Kabul, etc., called the “Green Zone”. Unscalable fences were put around the National Mall, complete with barbed wire.
In the backdrop of this unprecedented security bandobast were the unfortunate events of 6 January. “Inaugural Security is Fortified in DC as Military and Police Links are Eyed in Riot,” screamed the New York Times headline. The FBI vetted all 25,000 National Guard troops arriving in DC, including checking their political leanings. “U.S. defense officials say they are worried about an insider attack or other threat from service members involved in securing President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration,” reported CNN. There was a pall of fear around the city.
“Fear is the foundation of most governments,” wrote John Adams, one of the prominent drafters of America’s Declaration of Independence, in his famous letter to George Wythe. “It is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that all Americans will not be likely to approve of any institution which is founded on it.” Ruling elites have repeatedly used fear as a means of social control. Oppressive authoritarian regimes first instil fear in the populace, and then they make claims about their ability to protect. “The whole aim of practical politics,” wrote H.L. Mencken, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
There were rumours of a “coup” leading up to the Inauguration. We were told of an “armed insurrection” in the offing. Words like “treason”, “seditious conspiracy”, “armed rebellion”, “domestic terrorism” filled the airwaves and trended on social media. The militarization of DC and increased nationwide censorship and suppression of dissent was presented as a remedy to ward off rebellion. Surprisingly, however, barely anyone in the media raised any scepticism towards the justification of such a massive military power show.
Reminiscing about the dark days of Emergency in India, L.K. Advani, India’s former Deputy Prime Minister, had once said: When Indira Gandhi asked, “the media to bend, it crawled.” And crawl they did. A compliant media that ran a vicious misinformation campaign the past four years or so was happy to play along. It contributed significantly in creating an environment for military involvement by conflating the threat and providing the justification for it. Just a few months ago, a similar justification would have been welcomed in some of the violence-ravaged neighbourhoods of Portland, Seattle, Kenosha, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, and even in DC. However, they were too busy promoting “In Defense of Looting”. Even amid the inaugural celebrations, the Antifa radicals rioted in Portland city and smashed the windows of the Oregon state headquarters of the Democrats.
President Biden, on his part, made a passionate appeal for “unity”. “To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America,” he said, “requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy—unity.” It is, however, not sure how he intends to unify an extremely polarized nation. He did not present his vision or a concrete plan of any sort, just as he did not throughout his presidential campaign. No one from the friendly media probed him on any of his policy matters.
Talks of unity sound hollow without any concrete measures. Some of the President’s colleagues in his party have been anything but reconciliatory. They have continued to demonize their opponents and asked for their heads. On the legislative side, signals coming from the Democrats suggest that they would reject outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s suggestion to protect the filibuster rule. This Senate cloture rule requires 60 members to end debate on most topics and move to a vote.
There is no indication that the newly elected President will rein in either his surrogates and proxies in the media or protect his opponents’ free speech from the onslaught of Silicon Valley monopolies’ censorship. Many of them have been openly advocating a 9/11-like Commission and a Patriot Act like surveillance regime effectively spying on American citizens. Claiming that press freedom is being “abused” by “conservative influencers,” a former Facebook executive declared on CNN that it was time to “get back in the same consensual reality”. Not to be left behind, President Biden’s congressional colleagues are proposing similar sweeping curtailments of civil liberties. “Do I want to see increased monitoring on the types of violent, extremist domestic terrorists that attacked the Capitol, leaving five people dead, including a police officer? Absolutely,” tweeted Rep. Brad Schneider, a Democrat from Illinois’s 10th Congressional District.
In his presidential inaugural address, President Biden has promised to be “the President for all Americans,” whether they voted for him or not. He also conveyed a message of hope and healing. Americans indeed need a Healer-in-Chief in President Biden right now more than anything else.
Avatans Kumar writes frequently on the topics of Indic Knowledge Tradition, language, culture, and current affairs. Avatans is a JNU and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus. He tweets @avatans.