There was a war — World War I — that cost 116,516 U.S. lives. There was a pandemic — the influenza outbreak of 1918 — that claimed the lives of some 675,000 more Americans. There was domestic terrorism — a bombing on Wall Street in 1920 killed some 40 people. There was political strife — a “red scare” followed by thousands of arrests and hundreds of deportations of alleged radicals.
By 1920, most Americans had had enough. Hence Harding’s election. He turned out to be a short-lived and highly mediocre president whose administration is primarily remembered for its corruption. But America did turn the page on the terrible teens. The 1920s were hardly idyllic: This was not only the Jazz Age but also the age of the Ku Klux Klan and bootleggers. But on the whole the “Roaring Twenties” were an oasis of relative prosperity and peace compared with what came before and after.
There is a similar desire, I sense, on the part of most Americans to turn the page today on the turmoil and tragedy of the Trump years. We are all exhausted — even, I suspect, Trump’s dwindling band of fans — from watching his garish reality show go on far too long. The novelty wore off by the end of Season 1. By the start of Season 4, it was simply tiring to deal with the constant stream of loony tweets and dingbat pronouncements from the White House. It was too stressful to wake up every day and wonder, “What crazy thing is the president going to say or do today?”
If you wanted any reminders of why Trump was a historically awful president, he provided them in his final hours in office. Among his last acts were pardons for his former aide Stephen K. Bannon, accused of swindling Trump’s own supporters who wanted to see a border wall built, and for Albert Pirro Jr., Trump’s former business associate and the former husband of Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, who was convicted of tax evasion. It is hard to think of more unworthy recipients of pardons — except for so many of the other beneficiaries of Trump’s clemency.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Trump issued an executive order undoing the executive order he had signed in 2017 limiting his aides from representing foreign governments or lobbying the federal government. Trump couldn’t have spelled it out any more clearly: He never had any intention of “draining the swamp.” It was all a scam. He filled the swamp. And instead of cleaning up “American carnage,” as he promised in his inaugural address, he did little as a pandemic ravaged the United States.
Trump’s departure ceremony from Joint Base Andrews was all about claiming credit for the few things that went right on his watch (e.g., a rising stock market, the development of coronavirus vaccines) without any mention of the more than 400,000 victims of covid-19 or the millions of Americans out of work. If Trump has ever given any care or consideration to any cause greater than his own ego, he once again gave no indication of it.
There was a perfect segue from the old era to the new when CNN cut away from Trump getting aboard Air Force One accompanied by the loud strains of “Y.M.C.A.” to a quiet shot of Biden and his family heading to church. We went from blare house to Blair House. It was as if Biden were literally turning down the volume on our politics.
There was a reassuring normality about the inauguration that followed, even though the situation was far from normal. The absence of crowds and the outgoing president — and the ubiquity of face masks — served as inescapable reminders that we live in unusual times.
But that simply made the timeless rituals that followed — with Republican and Democratic leaders mingling and the new president promising in his inaugural address to work toward national unity — all the more comforting. Hearing a new president pledge to tell the truth and defend our democracy never sounded so revolutionary. And the national anthem has seldom resonated as much as it did when Lady Gaga emphasized the words “our flag was still there” and pointed to the flag on the Capitol, which had been attacked just a fortnight earlier. It was all balm for America’s wounded soul.
Four years ago, after Trump’s inaugural, former president George W. Bush told former secretary of state Hillary Clinton: “Well, that was some weird shit.” Biden’s inauguration wasn’t weird. It was normal — but far from mundane. It was exactly the way it was supposed to be. It was thrilling in its sanity, exhilarating in its conventionality. After the craziness of the past four years, that in itself is a triumph — and an augury of better days ahead.