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The uneasy comforts of Joe Biden’s inauguration TV special

“Celebrating America” captured two versions of the US, separated by razor wire.

Joe Biden Marks His Inauguration With Full Day Of Events
Joe Biden and Jill Biden watch the inaugural fireworks from the White House’s Truman Balcony.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Celebrating America, the 90-minute concert/telethon/plea for national healing that aired Wednesday night to cap off Joe Biden’s inauguration festivities, had no reason to exist.

Some moments were solid. John Legend’s cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” soared. (I’m a sucker for a well-deployed horn section.) Justin Timberlake and Ant Clemons performed a propulsive take on “Better Days” that wandered in and around and outside of the Stax Museum in Memphis.

Other moments were less than solid. For as amazing as the backdrop of actual fireworks looked on TV, Katy Perry’s performance of “Firework” showed her in not particularly great voice. Tom Hanks was weirdly stiff all night long, in a way America’s dad rarely is. And how on earth did someone film three ex-presidents (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama) having “an impromptu chat” without realizing they were horribly backlit? You could hardly see their faces because of the shadows.

But also, like, who cares, you know? Unless you’re a mega-stan of one of the artists who performed (or Joe Biden, I guess), you probably weren’t paying particularly close attention to the particulars of the special, or watching it at all. (America’s No. 1 cable news network, Fox News, didn’t bother to air it, opting instead for its regularly scheduled lineup of evening seething.) Celebrating America existed because an inauguration special — usually with some musical performances and some speeches and some inspiration — always exists. Even in a time when social distancing regulations make big celebrations literally impossible, the show must go on. Does anybody have any better ideas?

And anyway, isn’t that kind of a metaphor for America right now?

Business as usual, in unusual times

President Trump Departs White House For Final Time In His Presidency
Donald and Melania Trump depart the White House on the morning of January 20.
Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Celebrating America had a particularly tricky tonal balance to strive for. It could be neither so morose as to be off-putting to a nation hoping for better days ahead, nor so hopeful as to be off-putting to a nation living through the exact opposite of those better days. The special sort of settled for “neither” and “both” at the same time, which was as awkward as you might expect. Mostly, the special was there. It was a thing you could turn on to remind yourself of a time when everything seemed vaguely functional.

Joe Biden’s election to the highest office in the land has spurred all sorts of fraught conversation, both publicly and privately, about what it actually means. Is America the country that elected Obama twice (and Biden once) or the country that elected Trump that one time? Is it a country of center-left technocratic wonks being dragged slowly leftward by an increasingly raucous leftist movement, or a country of angry white resentment forcing everyone to hurtle off a cliff?

But the answer here, too, is “neither” and “both.” Quite clearly, the US elected Obama, Trump, and Biden, across three consecutive presidential elections. So we are both versions of the country described above. But we’re also neither, because the Electoral College gives Republicans a substantial enough advantage that Biden’s massive win in the popular vote could have easily been erased via a handful of different votes in a handful of states. After all, the popular vote winner in 2016 was Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate. The truth is trickier than a simple either/or.

That “both or neither” distinction was present all throughout Inauguration Day, which felt at all times like a newly elected president and his team trying their very best to pretend that everything was normal, despite very little being normal. Yes, they insisted, the challenges we face are substantial, and for sure, they acknowledged, we are as divided as we have ever been as a nation. But look! The peaceful transfer of power still exists! Pay no attention to the insurrection that happened two weeks ago!

The thing is: Nurturing a feeling of cautious hope is probably the right strategy. I am under no illusions that Joe Biden is going to accomplish anything I believe would actually move this country forward. But for anyone on the left-leaning side of the political spectrum, simply not having Donald Trump in the White House brings with it a sense of relief. Say what you will about Biden, but he knows where the keys are for everything in the government. He’ll (hopefully!) do a much better job of distributing the Covid-19 vaccine than the prior administration did. That, alone, will be a worthy accomplishment.

But I’m not sure that Celebrating America sold anything to me other than “Joe Biden is not Donald Trump.” And that’s true — he’s not. But shouldn’t there have been more to it than that?

A sigh of relief makes sense in this moment. But we can’t lose sight of America’s identity crisis.

Razor Wire
Razor wire surrounds the US Capitol in the lead-up to the inauguration.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

Celebrating America — and Inauguration Day more generally — were full of people talking about America battling some of its greatest foes ever. And textually, those people were mostly referring to the Covid-19 pandemic, which is killing Americans at a staggering rate. But subtextually, it wasn’t hard to read the TV special specifically as an evening-long sigh of relief from assorted celebrities and the regular folks roped in to introduce those celebrities. “Oh, thank god,” I can only assume they exclaimed after that sigh. “Trump isn’t president anymore.”

I feel that sigh of relief, deep in my bones. I do. Trump threatened so many things and so many people who are deeply important to me, and one of Biden’s first acts in the Oval Office was to sign an executive order protecting the employment rights of queer people throughout the country. That’s not nothing! It will help so many of my dearest friends and loved ones! That’s tremendous!

And yet there is also a vague and pervasive sense of fear, one felt by plenty of us who believe Trump wasn’t a unique figure in American politics, but rather the figurehead of a massive, angry movement that isn’t going to suddenly disappear. That fear takes the form of so many of the people who helped Biden clinch the presidency stepping back, looking at the Trump years, and saying, “Huh. That was weird. Thank goodness it’s over!” before going about their lives.

The work of politics is long and agonizing and boring, and it requires constant, constant, constant advocating for the country you want to see, not just the one you happen to live in. I don’t blame anybody for taking a break from that. We all should take breaks from that to rest and be with loved ones and be human. And it’s necessary to have hope: Believing the world might be better than it is right now is essential, and those flames only stay lit if you keep feeding them with the tiny beauties of everyday life.

But in the meantime, it’s worth listening a little less to the parts of ourselves that say, “Huh. That was weird! Thank goodness it’s over!” and listen more to the people who seem as if they’ve just barely hung on to the edge of a cliff for the past four years.

Or, put another way, we must focus not just on the inauguration itself or on a star-studded and perfectly pleasant TV special, but also on the razor wire surrounding the Capitol, lest anybody try to storm it once again. We must focus on the National Guard troops, firearms at the ready, standing by. Seen from one point of view, America is a country undergoing yet another peaceful transfer of power; seen from another, it’s a country just barely keeping itself together. When the rituals of democracy are more important than democracy itself, it becomes too easy for democracy to erode.

America is a shared story, one told by all of its citizens together, hopefully driving toward the same ends. But the past four years have more than driven home the idea that we aren’t all living in the same narrative. If you flipped away from Celebrating America on Wednesday night, you might have seen Sean Hannity ranting about Hunter Biden’s laptop and its supposedly horrible contents.

The special was fine, I guess (okay, it was largely boring), but it mostly seemed to exist because it was supposed to exist. I am not convinced that you can create unity by carrying on as if performing the right rituals will make America a foregone conclusion, a shared ideal that prevails through everything thrown at it, an end that is also the means.

Acting like America is a foregone conclusion is a smart idea in the short term, because it helps Biden assume power in a historically shaky time. It reassures a people who have been through a lot. It makes us feel safe to bet on the country’s continued existence for at least the next four years, but what then? If we’re really unraveling in the way we seem to be, it’s going to take a lot more than faith to turn things around.

America continues to exist because it has existed as long as any of us has been alive, and because the alternative is too horrifying and unthinkable. But it probably needs to change substantially — like in ways where we might cease to recognize it, just a little bit — to survive in its current form. So which is it? Both? Neither?