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Opinion If Biden really wants to unify the country, here’s the olive branch he must extend to conservatives

Workers put up bunting on a press riser for the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris in front of the White House on Thursday. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

It was announced this week that the theme for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration will be “America United.” To achieve such a lofty aspiration, Biden will need to do better than he did following the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, when he claimed that President Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and others who repeat the “big lie” of election fraud are embracing the strategy of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

“You say the lie long enough, keep repeating it, repeating it, repeating it, it becomes common knowledge,” said Biden. Of course, Goebbels’s thoughts on message repetition were not particularly original, considering marketers have been using the tactic to hawk their products since the dawn of time. (Spoiler alert: Democrats lie, too, and no brand of toothpaste, laundry detergent or shampoo will substantially improve your life.) To achieve unity, eliminating Nazi comparisons would be a good start.

Assuming sanity prevails and we are spared the melodrama of an impeachment trial for a president no longer in office (even if the House’s impeachment of Trump this week was admittedly more justifiable than the first one), Biden will probably focus much of his inauguration remarks on two preeminent subjects — the fight against covid-19 and the assault on the Capitol. But the new president will divide more than unify if he pretends the Capitol incursion happened in a vacuum. He must likewise condemn violence across America instigated by left-leaning agitators and acknowledge that there’s plenty of blame to go around for a nation more on edge than at any time since the 1960s.

On the morning of Jan. 6, there were signs of the violence to come even before thousands of former president Donald Trump loyalists besieged the U.S. Capitol. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: John Minchillo/AP/The Washington Post)

It will be easy for Biden to offer platitudes that please his supporters and earn him plaudits from the mainstream media. Instead, Biden could actually extend a meaningful olive branch. As of this writing, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other digital platforms have severed or restricted Trump’s ability to communicate with the American people. Parler, an alternative to Twitter, has been targeted by Apple, Google and Amazon in ways that make its continued existence nearly impossible. These actions reflect the typical take-it-or-leave-it arrogance of virtual monopolies.

In the current environment, conservatives are rightfully alarmed at the prospect of crucial digital platforms being pulled out from under them in response to the support they express for a particular politician or idea. The tech giants are private entities claiming to be following their guidelines, not government agencies violating the First Amendment, but a president can use his bully pulpit to influence their actions.

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There are those who say that Trump abused social media to incite violence. Others read the same tweets and disagree. More disturbing than anything Trump could tweet, though, is the fact that the highest elected officeholder in the land could have his voice virtually silenced by the whims of a handful of unelected Silicon Valley bullies.

On Jan. 20, Biden can reassure all freedom-loving Americans, “I vehemently disagree with — and am often repulsed by — nearly everything that Donald Trump and many of his followers say. But in America, we defend the right of others to say things that we may find repugnant. We respond to those who use their words to express hate, ignorance and lies not by forcibly silencing them, but by answering them with love, education and truth.”

Biden could address common justifications used by Big Tech to ban certain people or groups by saying, “Yes, in the United States, freedom is often abused. But it’s better to identify those who plan violence or anarchy so we can respond, when necessary, with preemptive action. What we should not fall prey to is the temptation to silence the voices of millions of peaceful and patriotic Americans by eliminating their preferred platforms because of a few bad actors. That’s not who we are as Americans.”

Biden could further make conservative Americans sit up and take notice by speaking their language, saying, “In the United States, we don’t ‘cancel’ people because their opinions and ideas diverge from what many of us might prefer. We don’t exile people for criticizing or questioning their government or even our democratic processes — both of which can be constantly fortified by our willingness to consider the voices of all Americans, not just those with whom we agree.”

And Biden should make this promise: “I pledge today to all Americans, whether liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, supporter or political foe, you will have a champion in the White House for your right to freely express your thoughts and your opinions on the digital platforms on which we all depend. I will work with Congress and our tech leaders toward the goal of ensuring that those rights are not only protected, but encouraged.”

Biden can use what will surely be one of the most-watched inaugurations in history to embrace Americans across the political spectrum, or he can berate nearly half of America for their beliefs and their choices — relegating his oft-repeated desire for unity to just one more “big lie.” Mr. President-elect, please make it count.

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