President Donald Trump’s decision to skip President-elect Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration ceremony disrupts yet another tradition in this country’s historic, peaceful transition of power. In this case, it is a tradition worth breaking to avoid the distraction and potential security risk Trump represents.
Consider Trump’s absence from the transition-of-power formality one more defining moment in an unprecedented era of defining moments for the country. The outgoing president, supported for reelection by some 74 million voters, is reduced to an intrusion. He is a public safety hazard. A cannon so loose he cannot be trusted with basic ceremonial duties.
Even his supporters might be relieved by his decision to stay away on Jan. 20. The country is in a collective state of shock and exhaustion following a week of alarming upheaval and violence inside the Capitol. The news of another death attributed to Wednesday’s siege, Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who was allegedly smacked with a fire extinguisher, adds to the anger and bewilderment — and continues to narrow the target of responsibility. For more than an hour preceding the violence, Trump goaded his rallying supporters directly, repeating his “stolen election” claims and encouraging them to fight and to go to the Capitol:
“All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical left Democrats, which is what they’re doing, and stolen by the fake news media. That’s what they’ve done and what they’re doing. We will never give up. We will never concede, it doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.”
We consider Trump’s actions Wednesday to be nullifying to his right to serve as president and commander in chief, even in his final days. He should be removed from office, as we wrote, whether via the 25th Amendment or impeachment. Or he should resign. Whenever his term of office concludes on the calendar, the result is infamy.
So Trump will leave the White House. But what then? Is it possible to shape this moment as a lesson against political extremism and intolerance? Can Trump supporters continue their activism by supporting candidates — bold outsiders, yes, with conservative views on government, the courts, immigration — but reject incendiary rhetoric? Is it possible for the far left of the Democratic Party to apply this moment as a coolant, too?
This jolt to democracy doesn’t have to be the end of the “Trump era” in the way his supporters fear it will. Trump may still seek to be a political force. But this could be the start of a new movement with new leadership for the Republican Party, new appreciation for the power of language, and new respect for returning to greater diplomacy on all sides. That includes elected officials, the media, the pundits and the ratings-obsessed cable news networks. It includes the special interest groups, organized labor leaders, rank-and-file citizens, social media users.
It includes us all. What has become acceptable commentary and behavior — harassing political opponents at home and at restaurants, engaging militias at local protest marches and more — would have been considered unthinkable and obscene by most standards and norms not too long ago. We need a reset button.
No one will be in a tougher position than Biden to glue together what is possible, to navigate ideological splits in his own party and to convince Trump voters he is their president too. Ushering out Trump is the assured part. Dealing with deep divisions and distrust among the American people is the more formidable mission. The anger that led to violence at the Capitol will not disappear with the inauguration of a new president.
What can happen, we hope, is a meaningful lowering of arms in this nation’s culture wars and its politics. A renewed effort at finding common ground in the way previous administrations did it — the sweeping policy changes of government entitlement programs enacted by President Bill Clinton, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Democratic administration and a GOP-controlled Congress, for example.
Because what is clear is we cannot proceed further on this trajectory of political outrage and thrashing. Our safety and security as a country, and our sacred democratic traditions, depend on taking a smarter path.