The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s challenge: A speech for the Cold Civil War

Flags fill the Mall on Monday amid preparations for Wednesday's inauguration under tight security. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Four years ago, Donald Trump stood on the Capitol steps and painted a grim portrait of an America fading in influence and prosperity, its cities reduced to “carnage.”

This week, Joe Biden stands before a country that much more closely resembles Trump’s dystopian vision than it did then — a country paralyzed by virus and division, not at war but not quite at peace.

Biden’s moment combines aspects of crises that have confronted other U.S. presidents. His inaugural address should do the same.

Ideally, inaugural speeches should lay out a story that frames the national moment within a larger context. Two of the best-known orations — maybe the two best of the genre, period — were delivered at the height of vastly different kinds of wars.

In 1864, in his brief second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln synthesized the events that led to Civil War. “All dreaded it — all sought to avert it,” he said, striking a tone of sadness, rather than boosterism.

Turning toward the war’s inevitable end, Lincoln excoriated the practice of slavery but also made clear that he was focused on unification, not retribution. His promise, laid out in his last ringing line, was to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and achieve “a just and lasting peace.”

Almost 100 years later, John F. Kennedy assumed office as the Cold War with the Soviet Union entered a new and frightening phase. While the most famous line of his speech — “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” — called Americans to serve, Kennedy’s message to our allies and Russia was more consequential.

Putting the dry policy of “containment” into stirring words, Kennedy proclaimed that America would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” in defense of free people and free economies. The flag he planted that day would stay planted until the collapse of communism 30 years later.

Thankfully, neither moment is analogous to what Biden faces now. Bands of unhinged extremists aside, America is nowhere near a second Civil War; Biden faces no insurrection of states, no horrific battlefields. No single issue like slavery cleaves the country.

Nor is America engaged in the same kind of all-consuming, global Cold War, under the daily threat of sudden annihilation. Trade wars and cyberattacks are serious business, but the nation doesn’t wake up thinking about them.

Yet the moment Biden inherits echoes both of those conflicts. Biden confronts what could be described as a Cold Civil War.

Like Lincoln, Biden faces imminent disunion. The secession this time isn’t institutional, however; it’s a secession of the mind.

A large plurality of Americans, concentrated in but not confined to the country’s rural stretches, live increasingly in their own reality, nourished by their own “alternative facts” and led by their own reckless leaders. They separate themselves not from the nation’s governing structure, but from its urban culture and establishment media.

Like Kennedy, Biden assumes power in a country nominally at peace but perilously close to catastrophe.

Only a few shots have been fired across the nation’s cultural divide, the most recent and dramatic being at the Capitol itself. Biden’s challenge, as it was Kennedy’s, is to contain a toxic ideology and keep the conflict cold.

If I were Biden, my goal would be to incorporate elements of both famous inaugurals in an effort to meet another historically weighted moment.

I’d urge Biden, as he did during his campaign, to emulate Lincoln’s tone toward his adversaries. The first and seminal part of his speech should echo Lincoln’s formulation of “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”

Even on the very steps where chaos and violence reigned Jan. 6, Biden should make clear that he intends to govern with a focus on healing the rifts of the Trump era, rather than declaring victory and asserting his party’s moral superiority.

But I’d also include a Kennedy-esque warning, which is just as important in a democratic capital that now feels like an armed citadel. To paraphrase JFK, Biden should let every Facebook feed and cosplay extremist clique know, “whether it wishes us well or ill,” that America will bear any cost necessary to preserve its laws and its values.

He should draw a clear line for anyone even considering violent extremism: No expense will be spared, no weapon left holstered, in the defense of democracy and civil society.

Ordinary Americans living through a Cold Civil War need to know this about our president — that he will reach out to cultural secessionists but tolerate not a whiff of actual rebellion.

We’ve had enough carnage.

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