My hope for the Biden-Harris administration
May they act in three dimensions, knowing they will be remembered in two
These remarks were delivered via Zoom during an event in Washington, D.C., on the evening of January 20, 2021.
The new President is getting death threats. There’s the possibility of violence against him on election day. Credible threats are being picked up by intelligence that there could be attacks on the Capitol. There’s such anger in the country that people are afraid for the President-elect’s safety.
Meanwhile in Congress, the opposing party refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the election. They’re demanding recounts in various states. They’re doing everything in their power to keep the election from being certified.
Right up until the President gets sworn in, the country doesn’t know if it will happen.
I’m talking about 1877, of course. That’s what you thought, right? Because that’s what happened to Rutherford B. Hayes.
Hayes emerged victorious from a fiercely-contested, bitter election. Pundits were predicting another Civil War. Democrats called for filibusters and other stalling tactics to prevent Republicans from certifying the results. There was so much fear for Hayes’s life that Hayes was sworn-in in secret two days before inauguration, unbeknownst to the American public.
When Hayes did get inaugurated on the East Side of the Capitol—not the West Side as we do today—it was all for show. What mattered was the symbolism, and the opportunity for Hayes to give a speech on how we would unify the country.
Hayes’s list will sound familiar. Civil service reform was a major issue. Grant’s administration had been corrupt. Members of the Administration enriched themselves and their friends. Restoring faith in government was a theme in 1877.
Another theme was how to unify the country and move on from the Civil War, which was 12 years in the past but still felt very present. To allow Hayes to become President, Democrats and Republicans brokered a deal to pull federal troops from the South, essentially ending Reconstruction. That was supposed to end the divisiveness. We know how that turned out.
Historians don’t like to say history repeats itself. There aren’t deterministic forces that guide the path of America throwing familiar obstacles in our way at various times. The point of bringing up 1877 is not to say that we’ve had issues around corrupt government before, or that we’ve had moments before where our elections have been so fiercely debated that we thought we were headed toward another civil war.
The point is to recognize that these are features of American democracy, not abnormalities. Power is always fiercely contested. Violence has been fundamental. As American democracy evolves, divisiveness continues to be a feature and hallmark of it. History is not there to give us comfort. Its purpose is not to tell us that everything is going to be okay. It is to recognize that in these moments of American exceptionalism, we should see ourselves as surprisingly unexceptional.
The election of 1876 and 1877 was, at the time, incredibly emotional and deemed to be incredibly consequential. Today, it’s something that most Americans barely know about. If they do, it’s a paragraph on a Web page. A line in a newspaper article. An entry on Wikipedia. The 1876-77 election was lived in three dimensions, but 144 years later we understand it in two dimensions.
I think about that when I think about the Trump Presidency.
We have lived the past four years in three dimensions. We have lived all of the traumas in an emotional manner. We have felt that each moment would be the one that would be remembered forever, was unprecedented, was “historic,” would be the subject of future PhD theses, books, and historical records. The reality may be closer to 1877. A line in a text book. A paragraph on a Wikipedia page. It will be remembered in two dimensions, if it is remembered at all.
We should not commit the fallacy to think that our times are the most significant, the most important, or the most emotional in this grand story of the United States. We have no idea what awaits us in the decades ahead. It’s possible the next decade will be even more calamitous than the one that just past, rendering this one as a stepping-stone to something we can’t yet see.
This, I think, was the biggest fallacy of the Trump President. Trump believed that he could use the pulpit of the White House to erect a monument to himself. What he failed to recognize was that it is not for us to build our own monuments; it is up to those who come after us. We have no idea what choices they will make, what monuments they will to build—if they decide to build monuments at all. Humility should be the greatest lesson that any President who studies history brings into the White House with him or her. Trump never learned that lesson. My hope is that Biden and Harris will.
One aspect of the Trump Presidency that bears noting, particularly as it relates to Vice President Harris. Trump’s ascendance began with a rallying cry against immigration: Muslim ban. Build a wall. They’re sending their rapists. The Trump campaign was built on the idea that America must keep people out in order for it to be great. Yet, today, the very types of people from the very types of “shit-hole countries” that Trump wanted to keep out have moved into one of the most sacred places in American democracy.
There is fitting irony in that. Especially for me, the child of an immigrant born in a Displaced Persons camp, who came from a shit-hole continent, completely destroyed after the Second World War, and whose family was kept out of the United States because anti-Semitic Members of Congress did not want Jewish refugees. They did not think we would make America great. So, recognizing that Vice President Harris becomes the first minority woman to hold that office—and will hopefully become the first minority woman to hold the Presidency—to me, the immigration story rings most powerful in light of the past four years.
But of course, she too, will be remembered in two dimensions not three dimensions. Vice President Harris will always be the answer to a question on a history exam. What the impact of her time as Vice President will be, we will see. What impact President Biden will have as President; we will see.
The issues we face do not disappear with one symbolic ceremony. On the subject of immigration, today Chinese immigrants who have come to the United States seeking refuge from their government are being persecuted by our government because of their ethnicity. Their lives are being destroyed and they are being accused of being un-American. Unfortunately, we are seeing signs that this unfair treatment will continue. My hope is that this Administration will do something to rectify this.
So, let us not get caught up in the symbolism. Let us not get caught up in the waving flags and the hands-on-Bibles. Because to understand and recognize this moment in three dimensions is to understand that regardless of who sits in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, there is much work to do to create an America that lives up to the values embodied in our founding documents. As we turn the page on Trump, we have an opportunity to live our lives in three dimensions. How those lives will be remembered, however, will inevitably be flatted into two dimensions, if they are remembered at all.
The point is not to be remembered. The point is to live as wholly and fully as we can and to affect as many lives in a positive fashion as we can in the time that we have. We should allow the people who come after us to write the histories they want to write. My hope and my wish for this administration is they use this opportunity not to cement a legacy—not to try to build a monument to themselves—but to try to live the best and fullest life affecting as many people as possible in a positive way.
That is what the American story should be about.
(c) Jason Steinhauer, 2021.