For Once, This Isn’t About Donald Trump. It’s About the Rest of Us.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Joe Biden is sworn in as U.S. President during his inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. During today's inauguration ceremony Joe Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

By Billy Ball

January 20, 2021

As Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take the oath of office, a plea for a better America. 

Joe Biden has been sworn into office. And for some reason, I can’t stop thinking about “The Big Lebowski.”

In the 1998 film’s climactic scene, our heroes — played by John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, and a cringing Steve Buscemi — face down a trio of nihilistic conmen, one brandishing a sword and demanding cash. Bridges’ car, lit on fire by the nihilists, blazes in the background. 

“Are they gonna hurt us, Walter?” Buscemi’s character asks Goodman’s.

“No Donny, these men are cowards,” he replies.

I’ve thought of that surreal scene so often the last four years. If it had been filmed two decades later, it would have felt like an allegory.  

The world is changing today. We don’t know how. But we do know this. 

For all the bluster, the shouting from Trump and his enablers, the knock-kneed ruminating from deep thinkers on the left and the right about the economic anxiety of the MAGA voter, there was no thesis statement to the Trump years if you don’t count white nationalism. At least not a coherent one.

The president hurt many people. His failed leadership left us rudderless during a deadly pandemic. It cost us lives, our brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers. His racism, as old and as white as the US Capitol itself, brought out the worst in the political right.  

But what will it mean for American democracy, facing surely its greatest test since the Civil War? There might be unrest ahead. There might be more pain.  

But ideas last longer. And there is no philosophy, no idea that will outlive Trump. We must acknowledge and overcome the violence and anger that he stoked, stop the terrorists that he’s armed, but Trump’s ideas won’t endure. Because he didn’t have any.

Are these men going to hurt us? No, not anymore. These men are cowards.

The Absence of Trump

So what is the proper emotion to feel on Biden’s inauguration? Things will be better. Of course they will. 

But even if you’re a progressive, it was hard to conjure an easy jubilation at noon when Biden took the oath. Don’t feel guilty if you feel that way.

I expect that what we will feel most keenly is the void.  The space where Trump was. Because even something terrible leaves a hole when it’s gone. 

The best comparison I can make is to a migraine headache. When the pain is gone, you don’t experience a sudden splendor. You feel, with a strange sense of precision, the space where the pain was, like a cartoon bubble in your brain just waiting to be filled with something. 

Let’s fill that space with ourselves, with the people who organized — even during a pandemic — the greatest voter turnout we’ve seen in more than a century. Fill it with the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, one of the most impactful civil rights movements we’ve seen in many years. Such advocates are the hope of this process. They are not here to simply oppose Trump. 

They’re here to advocate for something kinder and more empathetic and responsive to a country that is deeply flawed, often hypocritical, and as genuinely ambitious as any country we’ll ever see.

We have to fill this void with actual people.  

Trump was never like you or me or his most ardent supporters. He has always been a creature unto himself, separate from the concerns of a home or a family or a job or a budget or a moral imperative. 

It is hard to comprehend or catalogue chaos, but we have existed in an almost constant state of it thanks to Trump, the human Tumblr feed. He is a person meant to be screaming into a void, not our faces. 

So many of us were pulled into his world against our will these four years. We were forced to endure his worst impulses because he was, of course, the president, the worst-case scenario in the Oval Office. 

But come noon, with the power of office stripped from him, for the first time in such an unimaginably long time, we will have a choice to make about whether we listen.

Reporters got their first taste of the new world Sunday and Monday at NC’s Capitol.  

Police set up barricades around the dull gray building. Journalists donned bulletproof vests and exchanged emergency contacts, heeding the FBI’s warnings that we might hear from the same sorts who terrorized the US Capitol at the president’s behest this month. They waited for something, anything. 

Instead, they got nothing more than awkward chatter with other overdressed journalists. Rumors and wind. 

There might still be unrest to come. But for the moment, it is possible to believe that the quiet in DC and at the Capitol and in our homes as Trump and his enablers slink away is what we have to look forward to in the coming years.   

That something blessedly rote might be ahead. Something that proceeds apace.  We will not be so often besieged by the unthinkable. The president of the United States will not honor rebranded Klansmen or pardon the certifiably corrupt. The president will not so eagerly abuse our attention or our trust. 

As the cliche goes, the wheels of government can turn frustratingly slowly, but at least in the Biden years they will be wheels. Four years ago, Trump popped the wheels off and replaced them with a triangle or some other polygon not meant to roll. 

Biden got an early start, providing some badly-needed leadership and direction during the pandemic, and putting forth a massive relief bill to begin healing those devastated by a grueling pandemic. 

But there is so much to do. We will have to relearn speaking to each other. We’ve spent the last four years screaming at each other over the din of a trash compactor. With the compactor off, we can lower the volume.  

There will be people who must be held accountable. There were crimes committed in this administration, not simply crimes of taste or conceit or politics but actual crimes with actual perpetrators and victims. We must hold them accountable, starting with Trump. 

We have a pandemic that must be stopped, not with words or bravado but with actual policies and plans and science. 

And we have a minority segment of angry Trump voters who we will have to live with—who we have lived with—whether we want to or not. 

It will be messy and complicated. It will not be perfect. There will be battles to fight. But it will be better. Trump didn’t make America great again. He made it angrier and crueler. Biden will surely make it more coherent and decent.

And maybe for once, we will stop talking about Trump, about who he is, what he said or did or didn’t do. Instead, we will start talking about who we are.

Enjoy the silence for a moment. And then fill it.


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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