By Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America
On the eve of the November election, I wrote that history would be watching American voters and judging those who abandoned our values by voting for Donald Trump. As I characterized it, Americans faced a binary question — “will we choose the path of authoritarianism and hatred with Trump, or will we choose decency and democracy with Joe Biden?” Two and half months later, on the day of Joe Biden’s Inauguration, the choice facing Americans today is no longer binary, and lasting change requires more than winning an election.
Despite today’s historic and monumental swearing-in of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, Americans will continue to grapple with the remnants of American carnage — literal and figurative — resulting from the Trump presidency. Restoring the soul of America is possible and within reach, but Joe Biden cannot do it alone. He’ll need the support and trust of Congress and the American people, including Republicans, and it will take time.
The reason is simple — it took time for Trump to erode the fabric of American society, and it will require the same to repair and restore Americans’ faith in truth, decency, and democracy.
While Trump’s four-year disinformation campaign started off seemingly innocuous, it quickly devolved into lies that directly threatened American lives. During the largest public health crisis of our lifetime, we had a president who refused to listen to science. On Trump’s watch, and in part due to his denial and lies, one in 17 Americans have been infected with coronavirus and four hundred thousand have died. His poor handling of the vaccine distribution — ironically termed “Operation Warp Speed” — has been far too slow, which has led to confusion, unnecessary delays, and grossly underestimated supply.
President Biden will take immediate and meaningful action to protect Americans from COVID-19. According to a memo issued by incoming White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, on Inauguration Day, Biden will issue a mask mandate for federal property and inter-state travel. The next day, he’ll sign Executive Orders to expand testing, protect workers, and establish clear health standards. Joe Biden will do what can to tackle this extraordinary challenge, but it will take time and the cooperation of the American people — including those who were led to believe COVID was a “hoax” and refused to wear masks — to truly stem the tide.
It’s a similar story when it comes to restoring faith in our democracy, where so much damage has been done following Trump’s greatest lie. Despite his own Department of Homeland Security confirming that “the November 3 election was the most secure in American history,” Trump’s demonstrably false claim of election fraud infected public discourse for more than two months, with social media facilitating its insidious spread online. It resulted in 40 percent of Americans, and 75 percent of Republicans, distrusting the results of the election by the end of 2020.
It therefore should have come as no surprise on January 6 when extremists massed in our nation’s capital seeking to violently avenge the election. That morning, on the White House Ellipse, Trump explicitly encouraged his supporters to march up Pennsylvania Avenue to “take back our country,” warning that “…if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” In doing so, Trump gave domestic terrorists a mandate to storm the Capitol, which they did, resulting in the death of six Americans, including two Capitol Police officers. Days later, the single article of impeachment that passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support accurately defined Trump’s actions as “incitement of insurrection.”
As the adherents of the extremist QAnon conspiracy theory have been led to believe, this was a “storm,” and it was brewing for some time. What began as an online “stop the steal” movement was given life by Donald Trump and enabled by Republicans, including the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), which refused to publicly recognize Joe Biden’s unequivocal election win for exactly two months. Republican complicity took the form of silence, amplification of Trump’s lies, and the cowardly vote of a majority of House Republicans and eight Senate Republicans who refused to certify Biden’s election win just hours after the direct threat on their lives.
Trump’s storm also included right-wing extremists and white supremacists such as the Proud Boys, whom Trump had told to “stand back and stand by” at the September presidential debate, after pointedly refusing to denounce white supremacy from the debate stage. Here too, Republican silence — including that of the RJC — was utterly deafening. Trump emboldened white supremacists and fomented antisemitism for four years and the RJC said nothing, including after that horrific debate. Unsurprisingly, the Proud Boys and other extremists heeded Trump’s explicit call to “stand by” and wore their hatred on their sleeves while attacking the Capitol, with vile shirts and symbols glorifying the Holocaust and Confederacy, and advertising their antisemitic and hateful beliefs.
Leadership matters, and — as we saw with Donald Trump — his failure of leadership eroded the fabric of American society. But just as Trump alone isn’t responsible for the damage of the past four years, Joe Biden alone cannot fix it.
Restoring the soul of our nation will require accountability for Trump and a reckoning for Republicans who enabled him, as well as recognition by his supporters — including those who silently stood by — that his presidency was a betrayal of all that truly makes America great. Today is a good day to begin this reckoning, so we can move forward, heal, and unite.
Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and their administration represent a return to civility, decency, and truth after four years of hatred, corruption, and lies. But we can only emerge from this dark period as a country united if Trump supporters understand that he represented a stain on American history. This will require Joe Biden’s steady, decent, and values-driven leadership, and the partnership of the American people and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. For those who believe in the promise of restoring the soul of our nation and building back better, our work begins today, and it will require ongoing faith, effort, and time.