The America We Can Be
a political essay by Chris Fong Chew
As fireworks exploded over the United States Capitol Mall to Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” on January 20th, CNN’s Van Jones declared that it was “A display of what America can be.”
Many of us let out a sigh of relief as Trump quietly left the White House and President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn into office a few hours later on the steps of the Capitol. Just two weeks prior, on January 6th, we saw those same steps desecrated by a violent fascist mob of Trump supporters who were goaded on by many GOP lawmakers and Trump himself. While we have still yet to see Trump and his allies face legal consequences, the inauguration was, in many ways, a moral repudiation of the horrendous acts that had occurred just days before.
Biden’s inauguration was historically unlike any inaugurations before due to 2021’s unique circumstances. Flags filled the National Mall to represent the many people who would not be allowed to attend due to the pandemic, and over 20,000 National Guard Troops patrolled the premises in light of several threats of violence following the January 6th Capitol storming. The administration and inaugural committee still ensured that people across the country would be able to partake in the celebration.
The evening segment titled “Parade Across America” hosted by Tom Hanks featured many artists and celebrities as well as regular citizens who had done extraordinary things in the past year. In the hour and a half show, we saw a celebration of the United States’ cultural and creative diversity. We saw video montages of students and musicians from all fifty states. My favorite hidden gem was Justin Timberlake walking out of Stax records (the birthplace of soul music) to perform in the streets of Memphis, Tennessee.
The scenes were a stark reminder of what the last four years wanted us to forget. From Trumpism to emboldened white supremacy, racial division to police brutality, the last four years exacerbated and brought to light everything wrong in the U.S. In that shroud of hatred and corruption, it quickly became apparent that the United States were no longer United. Right versus Left, conservative versus liberal: each one for themselves.
After the events of the past 4 years, a message of unity, a message of decency, a message of a celebration of people and humanity feels almost like a rebellion, a repudiation, of the steadfast direction of where our country was heading. But we still have a long way to go.
When Obama was sworn into office in 2008, it was a historic run. Our nation's first Black President. A lot of people who would be now considered incredibly ignorant said that we had reached a “post-racial era” solely because we had a Black person as president. The Obama era ushered in a time of progressive change for the nation: the implementation of Obamacare and a public option in healthcare; the actual implementation of DACA, and a push for immigration reform. All while having a president whose style - from his signature way of speaking to his stature - was undeniably different from presidents before.
For many, Obama signaled a new age in this country. An age of progressiveness and change. Yet under that guise of progressivism, was a rising tide of white supremacy and divisive party politics. This became apparent in 2013 when Obama lost his democratic majority in the House, and then in 2015 when he lost the majority in the Senate as well.
In those four years, going through crisis after crisis, from natural disasters to domestic terrorism, the U.S. government became gridlocked. Bills would be drafted, but die in Congress. Policies would be written but never get anywhere. Congresspeople would vote along party lines and failure to compromise became a major issue. Meanwhile, the American people became more and more frustrated at the growing inaction and wanted change.
Fast forward to 2016,and the rise of Donald Trump. After four years of governmental gridlock, a political outsider became a candidate. Trump, a reality TV star, and member of the New York Elite, with no previous political experience announced his run for Presidency. The ill-spoken, brash, and seemingly un-presidential candidate was seen as a joke at first, but quickly rose through the ranks in the Republican primaries as he fear mongered, attacked, gaslighted, and scapegoated both his Republican competitors and many BIPOC groups in the U.S. and abroad. This seemingly ill-suited man wasn’t taken seriously at all as the Democratic party decided to nominate Hilary Clinton, hoping to run on the historic notion of having a woman for president, while presenting a more “establishment” politician that would continue Obama Era politics of progressive change to an extent.
I think what many failed to realize was how divided the U.S. really was in that moment. Whether it was frustration over partisan politics, or the deeply racist reaction to having a black man as president, people saw Trump as a person who would “shake things up,” a person who would be able to “drain the swamp.” And no doubt in the four years following that would be the result.
In January 2017, Donald Trump was officiated and sworn in as the 45th President of the United States even after losing the nation’s popular vote. His win reflected years of overlooked issues and systemic failures within the country. From losing the popular vote by an unprecedented margin to his first 100 days in office, over the next four years, Trump would desecrate the office of the presidency, both in policy and morality.
In his first 100 days in office, Trump rolled back many of his predecessors policies: trade deals, climate agreements, and executive orders. He allowed controversial projects such as the Keystone Pipeline the resources to continue, repealed or harshly criticized many Obama era environmental regulations. He implemented a “travel ban” from majority Muslim countries in West Asia, and also began a crusade on “illegal” immigration, implementing policies that would put millions of people living in the U.S. in legal jeopardy over their ability to remain in the country.
Meanwhile, Trump would stoke the flames of racial division and misinformation. His remarks sowed division including the times he refused to condemn white supremacy, and called Mexicans “murderers and rapists.” In the past year, his remarks calling COVID-19 the 'China virus' and 'Kung Flu,' lead to several attacks on the Asian American community, while increasing racial division. In his four years as president, according to the Washington Post, “Trump made over 30,573 false claims. Nearly half came in his final year.” This malicious use of lies was inherently harmful to the American People as it distorted reality and drew his supporters away from being able to rationalize the truth. From touting conspiracy theories, to sowing mistrust in the Government, Trump did his best to expose every issue within the U.S. not by fixing it, but by exacerbating the problem and using it for his own personal gain at times.
The events of 2020 could not be a more fitting end to Trump's chaotic and destructive four years in office. His refusal to place a national response to the Covid-19 pandemic, caused hospitals to begin to fill, and hundreds of thousands of Americans to die needlessly. He stoked the flames of violence and hatred when Black Lives Matter protests took to the streets as a response to years of unchecked police brutality and racial violence, ordering tear gas to be used on peaceful demonstrations in D.C. while still failing to address any of the issues at hand. Even in the dying days of his presidency, Trump went on to rush the confirmation of a Supreme Court Judge after the Passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (meanwhile Congress failed to provide any pandemic relief to the American people in months) cementing a conservative majority in the court. He would also attack our democratic institutions, alleging mass voter fraud and sowing distrust in our elections that would lead to a fascist mob of his supporters storming the Capitol. And in the dying days of his presidency, he would grant clemency and pardons to many of his political allies and cronies that had been locked up for serious crimes both domestically and abroad.
Trump and the Republican party desecrated the government. Both literally and figuratively desecrated the office of the presidency and any honor held within our governing institutions. He left people in power that will go on to make decisions likely for decades to come and amplified many of the issues that our country faces. For four years, whether we liked it or not, Trump took us on his trainwreck of a presidency where all common decency and respect for one another was thrown out. any lost hope in their nation and where we as a people were going. And this was Trump's goal:o make us forget. To make us feel hopeless. If we forget our humanity, then Trump wins. When BIPOC communities are divided, Trump wins. When people become split along party lines, Trump wins.
But on November 7th, 2020 Trump did not win. On November 7th, Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 Presidential Election. On January 5th, Trump did not win. On January 5th, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were elected to the Senate in competitive races against David Perdue and Kelly Loefler, both allies to Trump, and whom Trump campaigned for days before the race.
Trump lost. But Trumpism is still here. From the fascist mob at the Capitol, to his allies in the House and Senate. Trumpism is something we will have to deal with for years to come. If we manage to denounce and repudiate his legacy and rhetoric when it comes up, then Trump's legacy will have ended the day he left office. If we let his supporters or allies continue to come to positions of power and fail to hold them accountable, then Trumpism will be a cancer that will continue to spread and eventually bring down the democratic institutions of the U.S.
On January 20th, Joe Biden was sworn in as President. In his inauguration speech he called for unity. But there is no unity without accountability. While America is a beautifully diverse country with a rich history from the Native Americans to the many Immigrant communities that came to call this place home, we also have a deep history of division and racial divide. Trump took advantage of this, but the problem was already there. Biden’s parade across America was a little reminder that there is still beauty within our country, but as Van Jones said, it's “A display of what America can be.” While we have a lot of work ahead to achieve what America Can Be, We must remember to still celebrate the little victories and triumphs, and then get up, and continue the fight for Liberty and justice for all.