Presidential Inauguration Post: Fear Itself
As the moneychangers leave our temple of government, Joe Biden's first job is to reassure Americans that they no longer need to be afraid of the future
Franklin Delano Roosevelt rides to his inauguration on March 4, 1933, with outgoing president Herbert Hoover—who, unlike Donald Trump, attended the inauguration. Photo credit: FDR Presidential Library/Wikimedia Commons.
In honor of inauguration day, this Wednesday post is available to all subscribers.
Shortly after the election on November 3, 2020, pundits—many of them Republicans—told us it was time to be afraid. Really afraid. The eleven-week gap between Donald Trump’s loss and Joe Biden’s inauguration, they warned, would be the most dangerous period in the Trump presidency. “Perhaps the greatest constraint on [Trump’s] behavior over the past four years was the knowledge that he would need to run for reelection this year,” Matt Ford wrote at The New Republic on November 7. “Now that burden is lifted.”
Intelligence analyst Malcolm Nance agreed that fear of what the president might do before January 20 was justified. Trump’s defeat ensured that he would spend his final weeks in office “wrecking the United States like a malicious child with a sledgehammer in a china shop,” Nance told The Guardian on November 8. “We’re likely to see the greatest political temper tantrum in history. He may decide he wants to go out with a bang; he may decide he will not accept the election result. Who knows what a cornered autocrat will do?”
Well, now we know. A nation traumatized by Covid-19, economic collapse, conspiracy theories, lies, and violence also experienced an attempt to overthrow the government on live TV. Because of the MAGA insurrection against Congress on January 6, the Pentagon has authorized up to 25,000 National Guardsman to protect Washington (7,000 behind an “unscalable” fence at the Capitol) from a second attack by unhinged Trump supporters, this time on the inauguration. Twelve of those soldiers have already been dismissed from the assignment because of evidence that they may have anti-government views.
We are hopeful, but we are also afraid. That is what Donald Trump and his allies intended from the election violence: they meant to instill a general fear that would outlast the Trump presidency. And as we wait to see what a new administration will bring, we might recall a past moment when America, and the world, were similarly afraid.
Between Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election on November 8, 1932, and his inauguration on March 4, 1933, the economy—already battered from four years of depression—was in freefall. Nearly a quarter of American workers were unemployed. Almost 9,000 banks, close to a third of American financial institutions, had failed since 1930, taking the nation’s savings, pensions, and mortgages with them. Millions of Americans had lost their homes or were unable to pay rent. They squeezed in with relatives or moved to tent cities on vacant urban land, naming them “Hoovervilles,” after President Herbert Hoover.
Roughly two million Americans had become migrant workers, roaming the country doing agricultural labor for pennies a day. Less than a year before Roosevelt’s inauguration, federal troops fought a pitched battle against the poor in the heart of Washington D.C. They killed, beat, burned-out, and dispersed 25,000 World War I veterans and their families encamped in an Anacostia Hooverville, Americans who had marched there from around the country to demand early payment of the Bonus they had been promised as a form of government relief. But the government refused to help them.
Violence was escalating around the world too. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler of the National Socialist German Workers Party was named Chancellor of Germany. As Roosevelt chose his cabinet and prepared to take office, Hitler was consolidating his power through the use of show trials and concentration camps, where members of the German political opposition, socialists, communists, labor leaders, and Jews, were drilled in military formations until they collapsed, savagely beaten, and murdered.
German state violence was orchestrated to cow the general population, and often committed by citizen militias who thought of themselves as patriots. Notably, most of the people arrested in the early days of the Hitler regime were released within months of their incarceration. Although they were sworn to silence on pain of re-arrest, as historian Nikolaus Wachsmann writes in KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (FSG, 2015), “such threats could not stop former inmates from talking to family and friends, who in turn talked to others, in a countrywide game of pass the message.”
Medical professionals saw first-hand evidence of the regime’s ruthlessness. “Even former inmates unable to speak about their experiences—because of fear or trauma—bore witness to the camps,” Wachsmann writes. “Their broken teeth, battered bodies, and terrified silences were often more revealing than words; it could take months for visible injuries to heal, and some victims never recovered.”
The point of the violence was, in part, to make the whole nation afraid.
Fear, and the accompanying political paralysis, were also pervasive in the United States, a country that many feared was on the brink of a revolution in March 1933. Thus, the speech that Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave at his inauguration was intended to demonstrate calm, resolute leadership in the midst of a world careening towards the unknown: you can listen to it, and read a full transcript, here.
The speech is most famous for its second and third sentences: “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper,” Roosevelt told his audience.
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
Roosevelt also dominated a relatively new national and global media on inauguration day. Using radio technology to reassure Americans that the country would be capably governed from Washington, he also promised listeners around the world that the United States was prepared to return to a global role, one abandoned by the Republican party.
An unprecedented 178 American stations carried the inauguration broadcast, knitting the United States together with Roosevelt’s words. As importantly, for the first time, short-wave and relay technology carried the speech simultaneously to multiple nations, including England, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand.
To the world, Roosevelt promised that the United States would undertake the role of “the good neighbor—the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others.”
However, as Donald Trump and his greedy family leave Washington on Wednesday, January 20, 2021, it is the portion of Roosevelt’s speech that spoke to the general corruption of Republican leadership in the 1920s that seems as pertinent. Criticizing capitalism’s hold over government, Roosevelt proclaimed that “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization.”
The new president continued,
We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.
Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live. Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now.
“We do not distrust the future of essential democracy,” Roosevelt emphasized to an audience of billions, including those people whose countries were sliding into dictatorship and apartheid. “The people of the United States have not failed. In their need, they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift, I take it.”
In two days, Joe Biden becomes that instrument, something he has dreamed of since 1987, and we who love democracy have dreamed of for over four years.
The people of the United States have not failed.
For your listening pleasure:
My old blog pal John Fea now has a podcast at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, and I joined him there to talk about Political Junkies: you can listen here.
What I’m Reading:
Remember the conspiracy theories Fox News hosts fueled about murdered Democratic party staffer Seth Rich? They settled the case—but with the stipulation that new of the settlement not be released until after the 2020 election. (Ben Smith, New York Times, January 17, 2017)
Helaine Olen reports that Katie Porter (D-CA) has been bumped from the Financial Services Committee, which is great for Wall Street kingpins but not so much for ordinary Americans. (Washington Post, January 16, 2021)
NYU Professor Cristina Beltrán explores the attraction of Latino and African-American activists to the MAGA world. (Washington Post, January 15, 2021)
Those of you who follow me on Instagram know that I am getting ready to write a biography, so I am reading biographies. This week it is Heather Clark’s Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath (Knopf, 2020). If you are a Plathian (and what female-born person who aspired to a writing career in the 1960s and 1970s is not?) Red Comet is a must-read. Depending on how strong you are, you may want to buy it on Kindle: at 1,118 pages, it weighs almost four pounds and is one of the most ergonomically unsafe books I have ever read.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research, and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).