The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden will offer ‘unity’ and healing. But first we need the truth.

Pro-Trump protesters clash with police outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

Outside a Capitol ringed by 25,000 troops to guard against more violence by Trump supporters, President Biden will deliver an inaugural address at noon Wednesday billed as a “message of unity” and of healing.

It is a noble sentiment. It is exactly what so many Americans want to hear. But it’s not what the country needs to hear — and it won’t work.

There can be no unity without truth. There can be no healing without accountability.

The outgoing president incited a failed coup d’etat. For hours, he declined to call off his supporters as they rampaged through the Capitol, leaving five dead and forcing lawmakers to hide in fear of assassination.

The defeated president did this in service of a Big Lie, the biggest of the 30,534 he told as president, that his reelection victory had been stolen. And a clear majority of Republicans in Congress — 147 of them — voted to overturn the results of a free and fair election, in service of that same lie.

In America, you don’t get to launch a bloody insurrection to overturn an election without consequences. You don’t get to convince tens of millions of your followers, without evidence and contrary to all official and judicial rulings, that the election was rigged.

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The country will continue its descent into violence, and the Republican Party will continue its devolution into fascism, unless elected GOP officials can bring themselves to speak these five words, or their equivalent: Biden won, fair and square.

After tearing apart the fabric of civil society for four years, Republicans in Congress, during Trump’s second impeachment for inciting the Capitol rampage, trotted out Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural: “With malice toward none, with charity for all … let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

But there was a crucial difference then. The South knew it had lost the war. Surrender at Appomattox Court House would come in just a few weeks.

Now we have the opposition party refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the duly elected president, fomenting an ongoing insurrection by white supremacists and neo-Confederates. Biden will stand Wednesday where Trump’s supporters swarmed two weeks ago en route to sacking the Capitol. Because of them, the national capital on Inauguration Day resembles a militarized fortress.

In September, I wrote that Trump’s refusal to accept the peaceful transfer of power put us on the cusp of 1933 Germany. “It’s important not to talk about this as just an election,” Yale historian Timothy Snyder, an expert on totalitarianism, told me then. “It’s an election surrounded by the authoritarian language of a coup d’etat. The opposition has to win the election and it has to win the aftermath of the election.”

Now that Snyder’s grim forecast has come true, I called him again this week for an update on our place in history. This time he warned sharply against the “dumb talk about healing and unity” now on the lips of political figures.

“Moving on without speaking the truth about what happened is dangerous,” Snyder said. “It enables the people who did it the first time to do it again, but worse, and it means the history of your country gets rewritten.”

After World War II, everybody knew the fascists had lost. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, by contrast, the losers muddled the story enough that the defeated remnants were able to reconstitute.

“The Trump people have to know they lost,” Snyder argues, and “there has to be a consequence to losing a coup.” Otherwise, they will stage another coup attempt, and demand that their side rig the next election.

This is why there are “truth-and-reconciliation” commissions following conflicts; reconciling requires accepting the facts. This is why Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate is crucial, as are prosecutions of those who planned, enabled, financed and executed the attack on the Capitol.

Republicans who truly desire the “healing” that Biden offers would follow the lead of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who at long last has abandoned his enabling of Trump.

“The mob was fed lies,” McConnell told the Senate on Tuesday. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop” the election certification. “But we pressed on. … We certified the people’s choice for their 46th president. Tomorrow, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris will be sworn in.”

The 147 Republican lawmakers who voted to overturn the election now face a stark and binary choice: They can cling to their false equivalencies and strained rationalizations as they lead their followers further down the path of disinformation, violence and insurrection. Or they can acknowledge, as McConnell finally did, that Biden was the people’s choice.

Only with that shared truth as our foundation can we build unity.

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