Biden's success rests on America's reckoning with itself

Biden's success rests on America's reckoning with itself
Comment: The myth of American exceptionalism finally came tumbling down on January 6. Biden's success rests on his ability to lead America's reckoning with itself, writes Zaina Ujayli.
5 min read
19 Jan, 2021
Pro-Trump supporters attack the press pool outside the Captiol building [Getty]
Look up Joe Biden's Twitter and you'll be greeted with the following words scrawled in white across his background: "Keep the Faith!" 

The slogan rings hollow as Americans grapple with the anti-democratic riots on January 6 which shattered not only faith in their government, but in their country, too. Rather than enjoying excited anticipation ahead of Biden's inauguration on Wednesday, the country nervously contemplates the possibility of more violence of the kind we witnessed when pro-Trump mobs stormed the Capitol.

And beyond the fear of more violence, lies anxiety that the insurrection somehow "changed the face of America," not only to the world, but to many Americans, too. 

Breathless broadcasters highlighted this "change" drawing frequent comparisons to the Middle East. In their eyes, this type of anti-democratic unrest only happens in BaghdadSyria, or Benghazi, not in Washington DC. While writers like Yousef Munayyer have called out the arrogance and Orientalism inherent to these analogies, what's important about them is not only how they characterise the Middle East, but how they characterise America.

"This is not who we are," Biden announced, as rioters defecated in the halls of the Capitol. However, for many Americans, the rioters in the Capitol represent just that: everything that America is. Photographs of American troops sleeping beneath the watchful eyes of Abraham Lincoln haunt us, with the knowledge that violent clashes between Americans about America's identity characterise both our history and our present.

If you think America looks like the Middle East today, it's because you likely haven't looked at America through the eyes of people of colour

The comparisons between the Middle East and America perpetuate a myth of America as a peaceful democracy; yet America has only truly been a democracy for a little over 50 years. Even now, activists like Stacy Abrams in Georgia must work tirelessly to confront the widespread and historic political disenfranchisement of people of colour.

As for the question of peace, ask any millennial or Gen Z - America has been at war for as long as they can remember. In other words, if you think America looks like the Middle East today, it's because you likely haven't looked at America through the eyes of people of colour. 

The events on January 6, however, have forced all Americans to reckon with the violent, undemocratic face of the US. The myth of American exceptionalism was trampled by the mob, and with it, many Americans' faith in their institutions.

What, then, comes next?

Read more: Why deplatforming Trump is no atonement for Silicon Valley's sins abroad

Luckily for us, these weeks brimming with historical implications for our identity as a nation are leading to an inauguration, a moment meant to symbolize a new beginning, and a new approach. This gives us the opportunity to not only reflect on how we understand our identity as a nation, but also to change what we do not like.

Whether Americans have enough faith left in their government to see the inauguration as a fresh page, or whether that faith can be restored in the months following the insurrection, rests in the hands of Biden and his administration. 

The Biden team clearly understands this. Between dramatic videos of the violent rioters who stormed the Capitol, the FBI's public hunt to arrest them, and Trump's second impeachment as a result of the growing evidence, Biden's team released a 10-day plan of executive orders designed to address the most controversial of the Trump administration's policies.

Among the most welcome, Biden plans on rejoining the Paris climate agreement, reversing the cruel Muslim Ban, and instituting a federal mask mandate.

Biden's team has been clear to emphasise that their agenda not only responds to the past four years, but looks ahead. As Ron Klain, Biden's Chief of Staff, writes: "President-elect Biden will take action - not just to reverse the gravest damages of the Trump administration - but also to start moving our country forward."

The rhetoric echoes Biden's new favourite slogan for America, to "build back better" and makes the new administration's message clear: they will pave over the cracks the Trump era left behind and forge ahead.

Actions and results, not words, will placate both sides of the country

The strategy is a good one, if Biden succeeds. Actions and results, not words, will placate both sides of the country. For Democrats, seeing decisive action on the issues that matter to them might restore some confidence in America's leadership. For Republicans, especially those who believe the election was rigged, only tangible improvements they experience through the economy will legitimise the Biden administration in their eyes.

Biden asks that America "Keep the Faith!". For many Americans, that faith disappeared on January 6, or long before. Restoring it requires decisive action to change the face America presents to the world, and to itself.

Biden and his team have already started planning to do just that, but their success or failure in achieving those goals will determine whether Americans put their faith in his presidency. If they don't, it's likely that this new undemocratic, violent face of America, which broadcasters and citizens alike have been grappling with since January 6, will be here to stay.

Zaina Ujayli is an MA student at The University of Virginia focusing on nineteenth and twentieth century Arab and Arab American writers.

Follow her on Twitter: @zainaujayli

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.