There were no new revelations from Biden and Vice President Harris about the shockingly violent events we all witnessed a year ago. But I did think I was hearing a new tone from an administration that, until now, has tried to look ahead rather than behind and has avoided re-litigating the Trump years. “I did not seek this fight,” Biden said. “But I will not shrink from it, either.”
By “this fight,” Biden meant the effort to repair and reinforce our democracy after the brutalization it suffered under Trump. But I had to wonder whether the speech might someday be remembered as the opening salvo of a 2024 Biden-Trump rematch.
The quick response Thursday from the defeated former president suggested that Biden’s words had gotten under his skin. In a statement, Trump falsely claimed that Biden “used my name today to try to further divide America.” Since Trump’s lies often map his fears and obsessions, it sounds to me as if it might unnerve him that Biden didn’t say his name at all.
Harris, in her own remarks, set the context for Biden’s speech by putting the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection on par with two other dates that “echo throughout history” — the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Capitol riot showed “what our nation would look like if the forces that seek to dismantle our democracy are successful,” she said.
The logical inference is that, like Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the insurrection sent us into a war. “We are in a battle for the soul of America,” Biden said. This time, though, the enemy is not foreign but domestic. And that enemy of our democracy has a name, even if Biden declined to let it cross his lips.
In brief remarks to reporters after the speech, Biden said that to heal, “you have to recognize the extent of the wound.” Last year, in the hours after the insurrection, even some of Trump’s closest political allies saw those wounds clearly and were outraged. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said that he was finished with Trump once and for all. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) put the blame squarely on Trump. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who had pleaded with Trump to tell the rioters to go home, said Trump was responsible for the insurrection.
What a difference a year makes. On Thursday, Graham attacked Biden — not Trump — for what he called “brazen politicization” of the anniversary. McConnell, too, accused “some Washington Democrats” of trying to “exploit this anniversary.” And McCarthy, like almost all of his fellow Republicans in Congress, was conspicuously absent from the day’s events commemorating the worst assault on the Capitol since British troops burned the building in 1814.
Biden asked, “Are we going to be a nation that lives not by the light of the truth but in the shadow of lies?” The fact that this question had to be raised at all shows what the president is up against: To survive in today’s Republican Party, officials and candidates cannot afford to anger Trump; and to avoid Trump’s wrath, they cannot forcefully reject his lies about the election purportedly having been “stolen.”
The president spent much of his speech refuting those lies with facts and logic. I hope he returns to the subject regularly in the weeks and months to come. Largely ignoring Trump hasn’t weakened his hold on the GOP. The defeated former president must be treated like any other bully: You have to stand up to him.
Trump and his allies will continue to claim that telling the truth about Jan. 6 is some kind of partisan political ploy. It is not. More than 140 police officers were injured in the melee. Several officers later died. An insurrectionist was shot as the mob breached the Capitol. The nation was traumatized. And none of this would have happened if Trump had not illegally tried to cling to power by overturning the will of 81 million voters.
Biden has to lead the fight for truth and democracy. Losing is not an option.