WILMINGTON, Del.—What, exactly, is Joe Biden supposed to do with this? What is he supposed to say?
Today in Washington, D.C., a mob urged on by President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol. Trump’s decisions led to police tear-gassing protesters in front of the White House in June. His decisions led to the same outcome in the Capitol Rotunda today, and Vice President Mike Pence and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris were rushed away.
But there was neither excitement nor harassment on the streets of Wilmington today. Secret Service agents milled about, but none of them were in riot gear. There were no busloads of white nationalists or conspiracy theorists wandering around outside, no showdowns with police. No buildings needed to be evacuated for safety. No one was accosted. No property was stolen or damaged.
Before he came out to speak, the president-elect watched the TV footage with a mix of outrage and dismay. Between sentences, his mouth would drop into a scowl of disgust as he visibly considered whether he was going to stay on script or tear off. Biden has spent his life dreaming of being president—but not like this. His instinct is to be a conciliator, a dealmaker, the man constantly in pursuit of the middle ground. He’s spent his career insisting that people are good, that they can get along, that America isn’t the country it’s become under Trump. This afternoon, he was supposed to give a short speech about small businesses, some subtle counterprogramming to Trump’s rally in Washington. Biden aides worried about what Trump was up to, but ultimately regarded it as a distraction: They felt they could safely get out the popcorn and enjoy watching the Republicans try to justify Trump’s actions.
But there’s no ignoring what members of Congress have called everything from “banana-republic crap” to “domestic terror.” There’s no reaching across the aisle when the president’s oldest son and self-styled political heir started the day by telling rally attendees, “These guys better fight for Trump. Because if they’re not, guess what? I’m going to be in your backyard in a couple of months!” and then panicked into backtracking when he saw that his words were being taken seriously, literally, and violently.
Throughout the past year, Biden often struggled to simultaneously campaign for president while delivering the message that America needed to hear from its leader. This afternoon, as Trump kicked back in his limo heading to the White House, after telling rioters that he’d be going with them to the Capitol, the role of responsible politician again fell to the president-elect.
“The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not represent a true America,” Biden said in a speech from the stage of the reclaimed theater that he’s been using for events during the pandemic. “What we’re seeing is a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness.” He called the crowd that stormed the Capitol a mob, and their actions an insurrection. He said it “borders on sedition, and it must end now.” He accused Trump of shirking his oath of office by not immediately joining Biden in calling for the mob to go home. (Trump tweeted a video later in the day telling people to go home, but it was removed from the site because in it he still claimed to have won the presidential election by a landslide.)
Biden decided to run against Trump because of the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, which Trump at the time described as having “very fine people on both sides.” Never before, Biden has repeatedly insisted with disgust, had a president said anything like that.
Today was the bookend—for the country, and for Trump, as he again failed to condemn far-right insurrectionists during a moment of national chaos and fear. “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” Trump tweeted.
Should there be any question of what Biden thought of the day’s events—he’s been constantly accused, even through the weekend, of not taking the attacks on his legitimacy seriously enough—he quoted Abraham Lincoln: “We shall nobly save or merely lose the last, best hope on earth … The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way, which if followed, the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.”
If you’re reading this article, you were probably watching live on TV, or saw what he said in news articles or tweets soon after he finished. If you’re reading this article, you probably weren’t among those storming the seat of our federal government, either to pose for pictures in the Senate president’s chair or to steal a lectern or to threaten the reporters, members of Congress, and law-enforcement officers there to do their jobs.
Biden is not speaking to the members of the mob. Like cheese dip that’s been left out in the sun too long, they’re probably spoiled. They won’t ever come back to reality, where sometimes politicians win elections and sometimes they lose elections.
But Biden is speaking to Republicans—Republican leaders, specifically. More than 150 congressional Republicans embraced Trump’s call to challenge the (not close) election, hoping to demonstrate their loyalty to him, or get a leg up for the 2024 GOP presidential primaries. Many, perhaps most, of those members knew that the election wasn’t actually stolen. But those who aren’t in the know didn’t realize it was all a show. “The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken,” Mitch McConnell, the majority leader for a few more days, said on the Senate floor in admonishment of what his colleagues were about to do. “If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever.”
In the past year, Biden has seen these same Republicans play dumb about Trump’s efforts to barter the integrity of American foreign policy and military aid in exchange for helpful dirt on Biden and his son. He’s seen most say nothing about the Trump campaign’s dragging his son’s addiction into the presidential race. He often said while campaigning that the American people know who Trump is. He knows who Trump’s water carriers are, and he won’t forget. He’ll try to get them to work on common-ground legislation, but now that the two Senate victories in Georgia will give Democrats full control of Congress, he won’t necessarily need to. He will try, but those who have spoken with Biden say he does know that when McConnell and his colleagues call for bipartisanship, they’re often bluffing.
They’re mostly a lost cause too, he knows. Biden is still trying, desperately, to talk to the people outside the Washington bubble. Trump made fun of him in the debates for looking right into the camera and talking to the people at home, calling that a politician’s trick. But Biden is hoping he can reach people like the Georgians who abandoned Trump since voting for him on November 3, or those who maybe looked away from the cable coverage today to see the Trump-Pence lawn signs they still had up, and began to think about taking them down.
Trump is interested only in talking to those who already like him, and places value on people in direct proportion to how much they can do for him. Biden is never going to spend his days yelling at the TV about MSNBC coverage. He likes being told that he’s wonderful (most people do), but he builds his own faith in himself on the idea that he can win over those who do not agree with him.
Three days before the election, at a campaign stop outside Miami, I asked Harris whether she was worried about Trump trying to seize power if he lost. “I really do believe that the American people have a line that they will be unwilling to cross—and that line is, whoever they vote for, that there will be a respect for the election and the outcome, and they want a peaceful transfer of power, and they will stand for our democracy, whoever they vote for.” On Monday evening in Washington, I asked her if she would call what Republicans in Congress had planned—raising objections to the Electoral College results, as they were starting to do when the mob poured in—a coup. She was more succinct. “Let me just tell you something: We’re going to be inaugurated. Period.”
Biden will be hoping his vice president is correct: that there is a line the American people won’t cross, and that he and Harris will be inaugurated. Right now, though, they’re only sure of the second part.
“I am not concerned about my safety, security, or the inauguration. I’m not concerned,” Biden said today, stepping back toward reporters to add something to his prepared statement. “The American people are going to stand up, and stand up now. Enough is enough is enough.”
How Joe Biden Watched the Capitol Assault The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ The Atlantic.