Inauguration Day marks the end of my trilogy on the 2021 American election. This election has been marred by lies, conspiracies, and armed insurrection, so I have never really relaxed even after the election was called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. And I’m still not relaxed, even though President and Dr. Biden are now ensconced in the White House, and Vice President Harris and Mr. Emhoff are wherever they’re staying until the Naval Observatory is ready. Trump and his cronies have been banished, for now, to the last place that will have them: Florida. He can spend the next however many years bitching to the absolute worst people in the world, new money Florida millionaires. I don’t care what he does, unless it’s being served subpoenas from the SDNY or getting sucked into Ghislaine Maxwell’s trial somehow. He has done his damage, and it is staggering, and we will spend the rest of my lifetime, at least, attempting to undo it. But yesterday felt like a step in the right direction. It felt a little like hope returning to the American project.
I cried off and on all day. I cried during Amanda Gorman’s poetry reading, I cried when Kamala Harris was sworn in, I cried when President Biden stood before the nation and spoke of humility and leadership in the same breath, and I cried during the “Firework” fireworks. The crying was not elegant, it was half panicked, half relieved, and I don’t think I, or anyone, has truly reckoned with the emotional strain and psychological trauma of the last four years. We’ll be unpacking this for decades. Amidst the crazed crying, one image struck me as a curious combination of somber and hopeful, though. It was the image of the field of small flags on the National Mall, meant to represent the crowd kept back because of the pandemic. It was a nice touch, a way of recognizing the impact of COVID-19 on public life, but it also looked a bit like a memorial field for the dead (which, horrifyingly, numbers over twice as many as the two hundred thousand flags on the Mall). It was as if those little flags said, You can’t be here now, and they will never be here again.
As solemn as that feeling is, the flags also seem like a hopeful signal. Trump loved to surround himself in flags, he would literally kiss flags if given a chance—he’d probably grab one by the pussy if flags had anatomy. And, of course, our last widespread image of the capitol was of the building draped in Trump flags as smoke filled the air during the insurrection. The field of small flags was like a deep clean for flag symbology around a US president. These flags were not there to enhance President Biden’s stature or make him look, somehow, more presidential, because “presidential” is not a stage direction, it’s an inner quality of leadership and excellence that projects from one’s behavior and deportment. No, the small flags were for us, the American people. They serve as a reminder of how our lives have changed and those lives that have been lost, they were there to serve an idea greater than a single person or a single presidency.
It doesn’t fix anything, but just having a president use flags to signal a collective experience rather than for personal photo-op enhancement says so much about how different things could be compared to the last four years. It’s not about returning to “normal”, because “normal” is the status quo and the status quo is broken, but we do need normalcy in our political process. The field of flags felt like a little bit of that normalcy, of a president recognizing a collective trauma, and not just his own personal grievances. Of course I cried when I saw it, because how nice is it to FINALLY have the events of the last year acknowledged from the person who is meant to lead us? And it’s not just an empty symbol, as one of President Biden’s day-one activities was to sign an executive order for a federal mask mandate, at last acknowledging from the executive office that this sh-t is f-cked and we have to make a massive public effort to get it under control.
Of course I don’t think things are going to be magically better now. America is still a deeply divided country and a disturbing number of citizens would prefer to live in a fantasy realm where Democrats eat babies and Trump will always be president (QAnon: still insane!). We still have massive racial injustice, wealth inequality, and a broken immigration system. The planet is still on fire. One guy is never going to fix all that. But at least with President Biden, there is a feeling that he notices other people and actually cares what happens to them. He acknowledged our collective COVID trauma in a graceful way on inauguration day, and it’s a step in the right direction, after four years of running in the exact opposite way. And if, after inauguration day, we can tone it down with the flag sh-t, that would probably be good. Flag worship is f-cking weird and the flag is like Trump’s father, no matter how much you hug and kiss it, it will never love you back.