Comment: Why we can’t have nice things, like an inauguration

If we can’t do it by mutual agreement, then we shouldn’t do it at the tip of the bayonets of 20,000 soldiers.

By Tim Krepp / Special To The Washington Post

As we recover from the shock of the events of Jan. 6, a thought has begun percolating in my mind, and the minds of many of my Capitol Hill neighbors: Are we seriously attempting to go through with this?

Having anything approaching a normal inauguration this week is absurd. The Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle said in July that “sports are like the reward of a functioning society,” and nothing since then has diminished the truth of those words. At that time, “only” 130,000 Americans had died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. We’ve tripled that, and the number is going up so fast that we have to use “9-11s per day” as a unit of measurement. We’ve done the absolute bare minimum to support Americans affected economically, and less than that in many cases. Throw in a white nationalist insurrection that interrupted the work of Congress in an attempt to thwart the results of a free and fair election, and I think we can say with confidence that society has not done the work to deserve the reward of a celebration.

There is precedence for just skipping it. During World War II, when gas and other supplies were rationed and a significant portion of the population was overseas fighting fascism, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opted for a simple White House ceremony instead of a traditional one on the East Front of the Capitol. Congress had allocated $25,000, and he pledged to do the ceremony for a fraction of that, coming in at under $2,000. When a reporter asked whether there would be a parade, he quipped, “No. Who is here to parade?”

OK, you might say, forget about a celebration. Shouldn’t we at least celebrate the norms of democracy, upholding the long tradition, handed down by George Washington himself, of a peaceful transition of power?

Alas, that ship has sailed. People have already died and been grievously injured by the insurrection. It’s hard for me to muster sympathy for the four insurrectionists left dead after the attack, but my humanity compels me to remember they had lives ahead of them and people who loved them. More importantly, we must never forget Officer Brian D. Sicknick, who died fighting the mob. Nor is that the end of the casualty count: Others were beaten by American flags or crushed by mobs, and many will bear the psychological scars for the rest of their lives, as the tragic loss of Officer Howard Liebengood reminds us all. Nothing “peaceful” remains to celebrate.

We won’t miss anything if Joe Biden doesn’t mark his own inauguration. It’s not incumbent on the new president to uphold the traditions of the transfer of power. That is the work and expectation of the outgoing one. It’s upon them to graciously concede once the results are decided. They are to be the ones that put the greater needs of our country ahead of their own emotions and assist the new president and their staff in taking the reins of power. And they have an opportunity to be the public face, often sitting politely as a political rival, even enemy, has their moment.

There was never a clamor for President Trump to do even this much. He was always that great-aunt who got the wedding invite because it was obligatory, not out of any desire to see more of them. John Adams and John Quincy Adams skipped the inaugurations of their successors before to no great damage to the republic or their own legacy. All Trump had to do was play golf and be privately petulant for the past month, and we would have been through this.

But because he didn’t or couldn’t, the lives of hundreds of thousands of us are in turmoil. As I write this, I hear and feel the incessant rumble of motor coaches and National Guard trucks militarizing my city. When we take our daily walk, do we go left to see the burgeoning armed camp around the Armory and RFK Stadium, or do we go right and see where the latest razor-wire fences have sprung up in our neighborhood? Every morning, we turn to social media to see where the latest checkpoints have further restricted access to my hometown. The genie has left the bottle, Pandora’s box has opened; take whatever mythological warning of the ancients you like, but we are there.

As has been said often this past year, we may all be in the same storm, but we are not in the same boats. Those of us here in the District will never get to forget this time. If our eyes weren’t open before, they are now. We will never forget that much of America hates us and wants us to die. They shoot up our museums and pizza places, casually dismiss us as not real Americans, disrespect us and our elected leaders. Perhaps these were all one-offs, dismissible in detail.

Not anymore. After the Jan. 6 mayhem, we know there are enough of them who will come for us. As needs repeating in each and every discussion, we don’t get a vote in the building that our police fought to protect. Yet we bear the costs. Some of these costs are overt: Instead of my local tax money going to educating our children or making a better life for all our residents, I have to pay for the security apparatus to keep your elected representatives safe. Keep in mind that the Trump administration still hasn’t reimbursed D.C. for the costs of his only inauguration, nor the added expenses of his petulant and racist response to protests over the summer. But that is hardly the extent of the economic cost. Restaurants already on the ropes are losing business. Rather than a boon, the inauguration is a drain on businesses small and large.

And the cost transcends the financial. My city, the one I love and am proud to show off, is being steadily whittled down and barricaded away. We walk our streets and are treated as potential terrorists, particularly galling as people just attempted to take over the country’s most august democratic institution, one in which I’m not even represented. Nor has anyone articulated what life will look like when it’s over. America, we are exhausted from you demanding freedom while stripping away ours.

On the day of the attacks, Biden said that “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.” He went further to explain that these were a small minority of extremists who don’t speak for all of us. I see his point, but an old truism that was taught to me as a young naval officer comes back to mind: “The situation you walk by is the situation you accept.” We have to look unflinchingly at who we are. Right now, we are a nation that cannot respect the norms and civilities required for basic governance. If we can’t do it by mutual agreement, then we don’t get to do it on the bayonets of 20,000 soldiers.

Shut it all down. Pack up the stage. Pull the bunting down. Stand down the troops, and let them have a day off to explore their capital instead of napping in the Capitol Visitor Center. Call the chief justice to the Oval Office and let him swear in the new president there. Roll the cameras, so we can all watch it and bear witness to what we’ve become. Then fade out as now-President Biden sits down at the Resolute Desk and gets to work. And let the rest of us close our tabs, delete Twitter and Facebook from our phones, turn off the 24-hour news networks and do the same. Democracy starts at home.

Tim Krepp is the author of “Capitol Hill Haunts” and “Ghosts of Georgetown.”

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