His rhetoric follows a presidential tradition. Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, summoned the "mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second inaugural address urged Americans “to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization.”
Following the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush told a stunned nation, “Americans showed a deep commitment to one another, and an abiding love for our country. Today, we feel what Franklin Roosevelt called the warm courage of national unity. This is a unity of every faith, and every background. . . . Our unity is a kinship of grief, and a steadfast resolve to prevail against our enemies.”
Presidents in times of crisis seek to instill a sense of common purpose and destiny — an acute awareness that the fate of any one of us is dependent on the fate of the entire nation. As Roosevelt intoned: “We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous."
It is when the United States is most stressed by war or tragedy or economic calamity that Americans re-learn the limits of rugged individualism and the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality. Texans can begin to think that, contrary to their former governor Rick Perry’s admonition, it would be better to accept government regulation than experience deadly blackouts. Half of Republicans, according to polls, can recognize we need a bold, extensive rescue plan because deregulation, tax cuts and cuts in unemployment benefits are cruel and ineffective responses to the twin health and economic calamities.
Biden, unlike most other presidents faced with tragedy, confronts a peculiar challenge: One party is fueled by alienation, resentment, paranoia and bigotry. The Republican Party — as evidenced by its response to Texas’s energy crisis, its implacable opposition to a substantial rescue plan, its disinterest in rooting out violent White supremacists and its celebration of the Confederacy (the embodiment of anti-union sentiment) — thrives when its base feels animosity toward “elites” (e.g., urbanites, experts, civil rights activists) and is convinced the rest of the country has contempt for them. If they come to believe that the federal government has not “stolen” something from them but rather wants to extend a helping hand the entire ethos of the GOP crumbles.
Moreover, in calls for unity, presidents ask us to be good neighbors, to observe the Golden Rule and to act with generosity toward the least fortunate. Roosevelt urged us to look to the “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” George W. Bush, in first inaugural address, implored his country to look to the needs of others. “[Compassion] is the work of a nation, not just a government. . . . What you do is as important as anything government does. I ask you to seek a common good beyond your comfort; to defend needed reforms against easy attacks; to serve your nation, beginning with your neighbor.”
In the present context, that means compelling many in the MAGA crowd who are not economically stressed and not among the most affected by covid-19 (as communities of color are) to stop playing the victim. Republicans these days thrive in the false narrative that White Christians are the most persecuted Americans. Time and again, they tell pollsters that Black Americans and other minorities are not really the victims of discrimination. Asked to recognize fellow Americans who really are in need, they too often recoil as if doing so would deprive them of their self-appointed status as victims in chief.
It is far from clear that Biden can summon the better angels of those seeped in the toxic brew of right-wing lies and White grievance. Sadly, he may need to focus just on the two-thirds of the country willing to serve a higher purpose than themselves.