The question posed by U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday morning was straightforward and direct:
"What kind of nation are we going to be?"
The answer, unfortunately, in this protracted moment of American identity crisis, is neither simple nor shared.
Mr. Biden addressed his nation from Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol, a space that one year ago was overrun by rioters who, at the urging of former president Donald Trump, had stormed the building in an effort to keep Congress from certifying the results of the Nov. 3, 2020 election and thereby formalizing Mr. Biden’s ascension to the presidency.
The 20-minute speech was one of the few times the current U.S. president has directly confronted his predecessor’s corrosive deceit and deliberate attempts to subvert the processes that underpin American democracy. Mostly, Mr. Biden has ignored Mr. Trump’s ongoing shadow campaign to sustain "The Big Lie" that his 2020 election defeat was a result of widespread electoral fraud, clearly perceiving that there’s no political currency in engaging in a back-and-forth debate of democratic principles with a disgruntled loser whose ceaseless ranting has long been completely unmoored from truth.
On Thursday, however, Mr. Biden confronted the events of last Jan. 6, and the man who was their prime motivator, directly.
"For the first time in our history, a president had not just lost an election; he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol," he said. "But they failed. They failed."
“For the first time in our history, a president had not just lost an election; he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol." – President Joe Biden
While studiously avoiding any mention of Mr. Trump by name, the current president made clear the target of his remarks, describing him as "the former president … (who) has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election … (who) values power over principle, because he sees his own interests as more important than his country’s interests and America’s interests, and (whose) bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution."
The address was a pointed summation of the events of a year ago, and a call for Americans to choose a more productive path forward.
Here’s the problem: if current polls are to be believed, only a portion of the current U.S. population will accept Mr. Biden’s entreaty as a sincere and honest plea. Despite the dismissal of every challenge of the 2020 election results and the absence of any credible evidence of the voter fraud Mr. Trump continues to protest, a recent NPR/Ipsos poll showed nearly one-third of all American voters, and nearly two-thirds of Republican voters, cling to the belief the 2020 election was corrupt.
In the immediate aftermath of the violence of Jan. 6, 2020, even Republican lawmakers in Washington were sufficiently traumatized to condemn the Capitol riot and Mr. Trump’s role in provoking it. Within a couple of weeks, however, all but a principled few had fallen back in the former president’s thrall.
While elected Democrats marked Thursday with solemn commemorations of the Jan. 6 attack, most Republicans stayed away, clearly seeking to avoid the Trumpian wrath that would be sparked by even a passing association with Capitol-riot criticism.
In many states around the U.S., rather than observing the anniversary of the insurrection, groups planned vigils in support of the "patriots" who are in jail awaiting trial for their roles in the attack.
Mr. Biden said Thursday that America "is not a land of kings or dictators or autocrats. We’re a nation of laws; of order, not chaos; of peace, not violence."
With all due respect to the current U.S. president, the veracity of that assertion remains very much in doubt.