I watched as Donald Trump left the White House on Wednesday, tacky and lacking in grace and dignity — consistent with his life and presidency — and I watched as Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of America.
I had many feelings as I observed this pageant of customs. The first was the feeling of having — remarkably, improbably — survived a calamity, like stumbling out of a wrecked car and frantically checking my body for injuries, sure that the shock and adrenaline were disguising the damage done.
To be sure, Trump has done real and lasting damage to this country. He has tested the rules we thought might constrain a president and found them wanting. He has shown the next presidential hopeful with authoritarian tendencies that authoritarianism can gain a foothold here.
Trump taught us, the hard way, that what we took for granted as inviolable was in fact largely tradition, and traditions are not laws. They have no enforcement mechanism. They are not compulsory.
There is the feeling of releasing resistance, of allowing the tension in the neck to relax and the shoulders to drop. It is the feeling of exhaling. It is the feeling of returning to some form of normalcy — a normal presidency, a normal news cycle, a normal sleep habit.
But embedded in that feeling is the knowledge that normal is a removal of Trump’s outrageous behavior and incompetence, not a return to fairness, equity and equality. Those things didn’t fully, truly exist before the Trump presidency. Normal wasn’t working even then.
Biden is coming into office facing multiple extraordinary challenges: a pandemic not yet controlled, a teetering economy, open displays of white supremacist terrorism, yet-to-be-addressed racial inequities and a large portion of the electorate that sees his presidency as illegitimate.
Even so, his administration’s feet must be held to the fire in a quest for true, transformational change. We must not assume that a return to normal is a greater achievement than overturning, in the most positive way, what “normal” looks like.
There is a feeling of deep patriotism and awe for the country itself. Trump did everything he could to break this country, but in the end America remains. Biden was sworn in at the Capitol that Trump’s insurrectionist supporters had stormed two weeks before. Power was transferred.
There is the feeling of pride in symbolism. Kamala Harris was also sworn in as vice president, the first woman in that seat, the first Black and the first South Asian person in that seat. Although Trump, in his smallness and insolence, chose not to attend, Barack Obama was there to see his former vice president assume the presidency. And make no mistake about it, Biden is president only because of his allegiance to Obama.
But then there are also the lingering feelings of disappointment, betrayal and loss of faith.
How is it possible that enough Americans — mostly white, it should be noted — voted for Trump in the first place, sending him to the White House? And how did he receive the second-highest number of votes in the country’s history in November?
Donald Trump is a racist and a white supremacist. And yet, millions of Americans — again, mostly white — either agreed with his views or were willing to abide them. I know that there will be those who warn that I should just let this go, that holding on to it is “divisive.”
To them I say, “Hell no.” You can’t have a feeling of unity after there is enforcement of a practice of cruelty. There must be acknowledgment and accountability. There must be contrition and repentance.
It is not enough to simply let the co-conspirators and abettors of a white supremacist president quiet down and cool off, biding their time, waiting for the next opportunity for their riotousness and wrath to be unfurled and unleashed.
How is it that people of good conscience and good faith are supposed to make common cause, to find healing and unity, with people who have demonstrated their contempt for the equal humanity of others? Where is the center point between my determination to be free and your determination to contain or constrict that freedom?
I still think about the children separated from their parents at the southern border and the children kept in cages. I think about the Trump administration arguing in court that those children didn’t need toothbrushes or soap or the lights turned out at night so that they could sleep. I still think about all those who died in custody and all those who have not been reunited with their families.
There are many transgressions of the Trump presidency. Some, like the mishandling of the pandemic, have even been far more deadly than the handling of migrant families. But there is something particularly cruel and inhumane about what Trump did to those children in the name of the United States government.
I will never forget that. And I will never forget that tens of millions of Americans were willing to accept that and give Trump a pass on it.
I am happy that the Trump administration is now behind us and a new, more normal one is before us, but my relief still mingles with my rage.
Charles M. Blow is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.