Twenty years ago we were “all American now”. Next Wednesday, on Joe Biden’s inauguration as US President, we might become so again.
In 2001 terrorists seized control of passenger planes and turned them into missiles. The jets were crashed into the World Trade Centre towers, the Pentagon, and one was brought down in a field by rebelling passengers. It was called the worst act of terror on American soil.
That September reminded the world that for all its wars and dim presidents, America stood for something great. The editor of Le Monde wrote “Nous sommes Americaines” and caught the moment perfectly.
Two decades later, it might feel that way again. We shall breathe a sigh of relief that the old president is gone. Donald Trump, the man who legitimised domestic terrorism.
The image of his sabotage of America was the mob that fought its way into the Capitol building. A short performance that summed up the chaotic dysfunction of his time in office.
The mob took four years to be whipped up into hysteria, and a few hours to be repelled. Appalling as that was, it was the result of a long campaign against the institutions of American democracy.
Trump took down the idea of decency, the notion that a leader should at least pretend to be a gentlemen. The party that had invented that phrase “family values” a few decades earlier adopted a candidate who terrorised women. In so doing, the Republicans and the US electorate demeaned themselves.
He then turned his attention to the institutions of state. The FBI was mocked, its head fired. The basic principle that the governing and the government are on the same side was trashed.
Not happy there, he mocked the military. War veterans were cowards. At the beginning of the 20th Century US strategy was to “speak softly and carry a big stick”. A hundred years later the president was shouting while tossing the stick on the fire.
He sought out the enemies of Pax Americana and befriended them. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un became a buddy. Vladimir Putin was to be trusted over Washington advisers.
Like the mob he’d ultimately summon, all this terror was chaotic, unfocused and self-serving. The rumour about Nixon is he resigned before some much greater crime was revealed. Trump leaves office with no crimes proven, but the weary sense they are yet to be found.
Forgotten in the scenes of MAGA idiots attacking the very thing that does make America great, stable democracy, was the result from Georgia. The Democrats won the last two seats in the election race, and so control the senate. There is a chance that not only is the reign of terror over, but an astonishing moment of American greatness is about to come.
Biden takes office with a black, female vice-president. Kamala Harris should not be judged on those terms, but becomes the first woman to hold the office. The howl of terror towards women quietens a bit.
The institutional terror for black Americans isn’t over – it will take more that a four-year term to fix that. But the horror of black people dying from police brutality may get a chance to be addressed seriously.
Their experience is why 9/11 was not the worst act of domestic terrorism. That title is surely the centuries of violence against black Americans. Biden doesn’t have to fix the last four years. Like every holder of the office before him, he must fix a legacy of bloody division.
The new president’s plan is for jobs, to be delivered through green investments. That’s pretty much the hope of every other government – America will resume its role as leader of the free world’s economies, while reversing the maniacal pursuit of climate damage set upon by Trump.
With a political veteran in the White House, a liberal agenda, a pledge to play by the rules by promoting America, and a Capitol Hill that should approve the president’s wishes, all looks set for a great time.
And yet, how many will be persuaded by another speech pledging that politics can heal America? Who believes he’s the man to lead not just a broken nation, but a world in crisis?
The problem is that for all Trump trashed the agencies of government, lots of police and army personnel were big supporters. Along with millions of other Americans.
Most of what Trump said about the election was false but his vote increased. Ten million more voted for him than in 2016.
The coverage next week will be about a change, about healing from the terror of a mobster. We shall look forward, and quietly hope to fall in love again with the USA, to be American again. But the problem has not gone.
In Biden’s time China will become the world’s biggest economy. The climate crisis will continue. When this pandemic is over, another will eventually come. Social media will further rot democracy.
All the ingredients needed to make predominantly white Americans feel insecure. The time when even Americans don’t feel American is here to stay.