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Never Take Normal For Granted Again

Slate logo Slate 1/21/2021 William Saletan
Joe Biden wearing a suit and tie: President Joe Biden speaks at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in Washington. Patrick Semansky/pool/Getty Images © Provided by Slate President Joe Biden speaks at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in Washington. Patrick Semansky/pool/Getty Images

Over the past four years, many Americans forgot how it felt to have a president who preached and practiced basic decency. Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday changed that. We’re hearing a normal president say normal things. And as we hear them, the perversity of Donald Trump’s behavior stands out more clearly. By traditional standards, Biden’s inaugural address was unremarkable. But when you compare it to the twisted farewell speeches Trump delivered on Tuesday and Wednesday, it’s shocking to remember that for four years, Trump was the president of the United States.

In his address, Biden preached modesty and compassion. “Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy,” he said. He asked Americans to “show a little tolerance and humility” to their neighbors, “to stand in the other person’s shoes.” Trump, by contrast, celebrated himself and his putative superiority. “I came to Washington as the only true outsider ever to win the presidency,” he declared. He portrayed public service as a grievous burden on his wealthy family: “They could have had a much easier life.” He boasted, falsely, that he had won “75 million votes, and that’s a record in the history of sitting presidents.” He thanked himself, not scientists, for developing coronavirus vaccines. “Another administration would have taken three, four, five, maybe even up to 10 years to develop a vaccine,” he claimed absurdly. “We did it in nine months.”

Biden promised to “set aside politics” and focus on doing the job. Trump focused instead on his image and on shifting blame. “The vets have given us an approval rating like has never been before,” he bragged. Anything good that might happen under Biden was really Trump’s doing, said the outgoing president: “You’re going to see incredible numbers start coming in, if everything is sort of left alone … Remember us when you see these things happening.” As to the 400,000 Americans who had died of COVID during his tenure, Trump devoted his remarks not to mourning them but to denying responsibility. “Nobody blames us for that. The whole world got hit,” he argued. He called it “the China virus” and said, “We all know where it came from.”

Biden asked Americans to pray in memory of the dead: “moms, dads, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.” Trump told the public to think instead about how much money had been accumulated. “The stock market set one record after another,” he gloated. “The stock market is actually substantially higher than it was at its higher point prior to the pandemic.” If it hadn’t been for the pesky plague, Trump groused, the market would have done even better: “Had we not been hit by the pandemic, we would have had numbers that would never have been seen.”

Biden called for unity. “I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did,” he pledged. “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue.” Trump, on the other hand, badmouthed his predecessor and his successor. He said veterans had been “very badly treated before we came along,” and he repeated one of his favorite campaign slams against Biden: “I hope they don’t raise your taxes. But if they do, I told you so.”

Biden asked his listeners to think cooperatively and to strive for collective success. “We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors,” he said. Trump, meanwhile, argued that Americans should take comfort in the pain of other countries and in the humbling of our allies. He boasted not of uniting NATO against Russia, but of extracting money from our partners: “NATO countries are now paying hundreds of billions of dollars more than when I arrived.” And while many Americans might be dead of COVID, the important thing, Trump suggested, was that other nations were suffering more. “America outperformed other countries economically” during the pandemic, he said, and countries “that thought they got away with it, didn’t get away with it. They’re suffering right now.”

Trump is gone from the White House, and most of us are glad to be rid of him. We’d rather not think about him anymore. But before we close that door, it’s important to recover our sense of perspective. The daily viciousness, callousness, and contempt we experienced for those four years wasn’t normal. What’s normal is what we’re seeing now. Don’t ever take it for granted again.


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