Two impeachments. More than 20,000 U.S. troops in D.C. to ensure the “peaceful” transition of power. Nearly 400,000 Americans dead from COVID-19. Upwards of 6,000 migrant children torn from their parents. Over 10 million unemployed Americans. An $8 trillion increase in the national debt. Four years lost in the race to mitigate climate change. Incalculable damage to democracy.
President Trump used his inauguration speech to promise an end to “American carnage.” He’s delivered just the opposite. And the wounds he’s inflicted on the United States could fester long after his term officially ends at noon EST on Wednesday.
President-elect Joe Biden enters office with three-quarters of Trump’s supporters believing the election was stolen, and with the U.S. capital under military lockdown to prevent the repeat of another insurrection, as the U.S. flounders through a deadly pandemic. And it’s unclear whether the worst is over.
“This is not going to go away on January 20,” former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who served under President George W. Bush, told VICE News on Friday.
Chertoff and other former senior government officials from both parties warned that Trump’s unprecedented attack on truth and democracy could take years to undo, hinder Biden’s administration both at home and abroad, and prime right-wing extremists to commit further violence.
“The fuse that lit this particular explosion was the big lie. It was a lie propagated by Donald Trump and his supporters that this election was rigged and stolen,” Chertoff said during a conference organized by the National Task Force on Election Crises. “The big lie nevertheless continued to propagate and reflect a challenge in our society in terms of truth and a willingness to trust our institutions.”
Heading into inauguration, the U.S. Capitol resembles a heavily guarded military base. The number of troops authorized to deploy to Washington to ward off any further attempts at insurrection is three times the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—combined. It’s more than the 13,600 troops sent to quell the riots triggered by Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. It’s the largest presence of troops in Washington, D.C. since the Civil War.
Those are the points of historical comparison: The civil unrest of the late 1960s, and the outbreak of the Civil War.
But even those times didn’t have a pandemic. The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has dominated the news, overshadowing the near-record highs of COVID-19 patients in the U.S. America has long had the highest per capita rates of coronavirus cases in the world, and the numbers of new daily COVID cases in the U.S. have roughly tripled since Election Day. Trump’s one big promise to battle COVID was an all-hands-on-deck rollout of a vaccine, and that’s clearly come up short, with states scrabbling for more doses and struggling to give out the ones they do have.
Biden renewed his promise to get 100 million shots of the vaccine in the first 100 days of his administration on Friday, promising to turn around Trump’s disastrous vaccine distribution rollout. “You have my word: We will manage the hell out of this operation,” he said in Delaware. But major logistical operations like this can take months to stand up, and it’s unclear how long it will take to even have that many doses.
And even once that system is running smoothly, it’s unclear how long it will take the Biden administration to get enough Americans to get vaccinated before herd immunity can be achieved. Trump’s months of claims that the coronavirus wasn’t that dangerous convinced many of his own supporters not to take the pandemic seriously, even after the disease put the president in the hospital.
More than one-third of Americans say they’re not ready to get the COVID vaccine, including a majority of Republicans, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Trump was both a symptom and a cause of the disease festering through American society. Economic inequality, distrust in institutions, racist reaction to America’s diversifying population and populist rage have been building for years. But he fed those trends, vaulting into politics by spreading the racist lie that President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., pushing false claims about his opponents in both parties, winking and nodding at the QAnon conspiracy theorists who believe his opponents head a globalist child sex slavery ring, and lying that he lost the 2020 election.
All of his lies and hate culminated in a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol that left at least five people dead, including one police officer. For hours, members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence hid as rioters and militia members stormed through the shrine of American democracy calling for their heads. Only luck—and a few seconds—kept them from falling into the hands of the mob.
Now, militias and other extremist groups feel empowered, and even if the inauguration itself stays peaceful, their fury could carry on for years.
“I do think we’re going to see domestic terrorism continue to be a more serious threat in this country,” Chertoff said.
Trump will continue to hinder Biden’s achievements as president. His grip on the GOP base remains strong, leaving Republican lawmakers with little room to compromise with Biden. And Trump’s impeachment trial will take up valuable time in the Senate, potentially slowing down Biden’s confirmations and any legislation he hopes to pass. Unless the Senate votes to convict Trump and then moves to bar him from running again, he could run again in 2024; if not him, plenty of other Republicans will seek the populist-authoritarian mantle.
Trump’s team spent years seeking to undo environmental standards both large and small, pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords, trashed the Iran nuclear deal. He failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act or deport nearly as many undocumented immigrants as planned, but Republicans did all they could to weaken Obamacare and punish the migrants who did come to the U.S., separating thousands of children from their parents without bothering to try to keep track of them so they could later be reunited.
The Trump administration is racing to push last-minute changes to cement its policies before Biden enters office. In recent days the Department of Health and Human Services finalized a rule allowing government-funded social-service providers discriminate against the LGBTQ community, the Department of Homeland Security signed agreements with local governments seeking to thwart Biden administration’s plans to change immigration policy, from changing Trump’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization.
But his biggest legacy is the distrust and discord ripping through the United States.
“Tremendous long-term damage has been done to this country and our political system by the big lie” from Trump that he actually won, said Trevor Potter, a Republican and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. “There are well-intentioned Americans who still believe this big lie and that is a problem clearly for the legitimacy of the new president as he takes office.”
About the only thing Americans can agree on right now is that things aren’t going well: 71% said that democracy and the rule of law are threatened in a CBS/YouGov survey released Sunday. But you can’t even trust those polls anymore. Pollsters missed the mark in the 2020 elections, underestimating Trump’s support, and there’s some evidence that’s because Trump voters distrust institutions so much that they disproportionately won’t answer the phone for pollsters anymore.
It’s going to be hard for a country that just survived a coup attempt to argue for democracy abroad. And it’s clear that America’s historic allies have little trust that the U.S. can remain a steady friend on the world stage. There’s plenty to do abroad, and the near-impossible diplomacy around an actual alleviation of greenhouse gas emissions will make it even harder.
But even some foreign policy experts say that Biden’s biggest systemic challenge is healing America itself.
When VICE News asked Tara Sonenshine, who served as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs during the Obama administration, what the biggest challenge Biden faced in reasserting America’s position in the world, she turned back to the U.S.
“The hardest part is we’re going to have to do nation-building at home,” she said. “I’ve spent my career working on nation-building overseas and never thought we’d have to do it at home, to build back trusts in institutions.”