The popularity of the Sanders meme shows that many Americans are frustrated and exhausted, and not ready to be convinced by unsubstantiated platitudes about unity and healing.
He sat with his arms folded, buried in his green parka.
His gloves, hand-knitted, made from recycled plastic bottles, visibly itchy — were folded on his lap. His eyes were narrowed, all of Washington reflected in them.
"Everyone looked beautiful at the Inauguration, their outfits were stunning and cool to look at and made by famous… https://t.co/VIyZuwlAb5— Teen Vogue (@Teen Vogue) 1611257706.0
In spite of the best efforts of inaugural organizers, this photo of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former presidential candidate and beloved patron saint of a new generation of Democratic socialists, broke through the noise. It is perhaps the defining image to emerge from the inauguration of America's 46th president, Joseph R. Biden, on January 20, 2021.
Biden's inauguration was nontraditional from start to finish. Instead of the crowds and balls that light up Washington on a typical occasion, Biden's inauguration consisted of socially distanced speeches, masks, and a whole lot of pre-recorded television spectacle.
Needless to say, Biden's inauguration comes smack in the middle of a time of unfathomable national tragedy and trauma. Just the day before the inauguration, the United States hit 400,000 COVID-19 deaths, and the crisis continues to grow more unmanageable etc day.
Two weeks before the inauguration, Donald Trump had sent an angry mob to launch a successful breach of the Capitol, resulting in five deaths and an increasingly horrific tale that highlighted the fragility of American democracy.
Today, millions of Americans find themselves out of work, with no end to the pandemic in sight. America is brutally divided, with half the nation in the meshes of conspiracy theories and a fair number of people hoping for the resurgence of the Confederacy. A thread of exhaustion and desperation runs through the air.
Despite Joe Biden's many promises and pledges to put an end to the pandemic and revive America's economy, most people — having lived through one or two presidencies before — aren't fabulously optimistic about Biden's ability to save us all from the many interlocking crises that plague us.
Plus, even his policies like a national $15 minimum wage have come under fire from people who don't think all full-time wage workers should be able to earn $31k per year. It's going to be a long, long road to change.
Perhaps because of this — because of our national fatigue and the fragility of democracy and the trauma of the Trump Administration — Biden's main inaugural televised event, the "Parade Across America," felt a bit like it was trying too hard, like a cheerful waiter interrupting a bitter fight at dinner.
The concept was a wholesome and inspiring one. The Parade featured clips of performers and ordinary people from across America, all offering some sort of smile, song, or dance and celebrating Biden and his new administration. Diversity and ordinary people were front and center, and everyone had a wholesome smile and a word about kindness and hope. Many of the performances were marvelous, reminders of the best of what America is.
#Inauguration Parade Across America - LIVE on C-SPAN https://t.co/xvklJYaA5z #InaugurationDay https://t.co/pXA6auoef8— CSPAN (@CSPAN) 1611176905.0
The production felt like the polar opposite of Trump's entire ethos, almost to a fault. Trump's messages of ruthless individualism and cruelty were devastating, but still empty messages about "healing" and promising that an optically diverse government will save everything may not be the change that most Americans are looking for, either.
the bernie sanders sitting in the chair meme is funny to me because they spent $100 million plus on a party for the… https://t.co/Bx9Uep20F8— 𝐜𝐡𝐚𝐨𝐭𝐢𝐜 𝐠𝐚𝐲 𝐢𝐦𝐩 🏳️🌈 (@𝐜𝐡𝐚𝐨𝐭𝐢𝐜 𝐠𝐚𝐲 𝐢𝐦𝐩 🏳️🌈) 1611256888.0
Americans are in pain. The parade tried to push past that pain, but the truth is that there is no way to cover it up. Even the most well-produced videos can't help but feel encumbered by an internal strain. Perhaps that's why the Bernie photo registered so deeply. Amidst all the pomp and circumstance, it felt real.
The Problem with the Parade
Many of us can't gather to sing and dance like the groups in "Parade Across America" did; many of us haven't seen our families in months. Sure, Americans are still smiling, but all the bright smiles and innocent purity of the parade felt a bit disconnected from the genuine anger and desperation many Americans are feeling — desperation that Trump did speak to, in his violent way, alchemizing it into something malicious but cathartic for many.
That isn't to say that Biden and his inaugural team should have put on a show about anger, or dwelled on gloom and bitterness about the past administration. It's certainly not to fault the amazing performers who made the Parade what it is.
It is to say that many Americans probably didn't find themselves feeling truly hopeful while watching the gleaming parade that was "Parade Across America" and the subsequent "Celebrating America."
The problem wasn't with the ordinary people that "Celebrating America" showcased, of course. It was with the entire atmosphere of the Inauguration and the underlying sadness that the production seemed to be desperately trying to cover up. Images of healthcare workers dancing to TikToks brought traumatic memories of COVID hospitalizations and unbearable death. Sketches of children earnestly dancing outdoors brought back memories of dances that our own children won't be able to participate in this year.
Performances by celebrities like Demi Lovato and Katy Perry (looking eerily alike with their short hair and high notes) also felt slightly uninspired, like soda left too long in the sun. Katy Perry's choice of the decade-old song "Firework" felt too nostalgic, trapped in the past instead of looking to the future — a great fear of many of Biden's naysayers, who fear he's trying to return to tradition instead of actually making change.
It's a lovely day around the USA! Thank you @ddlovato for helping America get dancing tonight. 💃🇺🇸… https://t.co/0zQQzT4SfM— Biden Inaugural Committee (@Biden Inaugural Committee) 1611199242.0
During the song, the fireworks were so violent that, for a second, I wondered if alt-right interventionists were going to use this moment to launch their attack. The very thought was absurd, but no doubt I wasn't the only one to have similar thoughts. After all, every event was under the maximum-security protection of thousands of U.S. troops, defending their democratically elected government against Americans.
Pretty Coats Aren't Stimulus Checks
In spite of it all, the Inauguration was a joyous day. It is a tremendous relief to see Trump gone and to feel hope about the government instead of horror. All the stylish, brightly colored coats, from Michelle Obama's purple to Jill's blue to Kamala's vibrant purple and JLo's suffragette white, were pleasing to the eye.
Biden's steady-handed promises, the flurries of executive orders, and the images of cleaning supplies wiping the stains of Trump from the White House, were welcome changes from the nonsensicality of the last four years.
Hope fluttered throughout the Inauguration like a baby bird, weak but full of promise. One of the most genuinely hopeful moments came from young poet laureate Amanda Gorman, whose call for unity emphasized not a return to some fictional past of equilibrium but rather a new future, one of possibility and growth.
Poet Amanda Gorman reads 'The Hill We Climb' www.youtube.com
Still, of course, none of these promises or performances are enough to actually heal the damage that has been done. That will take lots of work, lots of activism, lots of bravery, and yes, lots of money — and even then, we'll still need some miracles.
Perhaps that's why the Internet chose Bernie Sanders as its Inaugural patron saint. Instead of smiling and promising us anything, Bernie sat there, angry and uncomfortable and unpretentious and looking ready to get to work. He wore recycled gloves and the same parka he always wears.
Can’t wait for the new #SATC feat #BernieSanders @SenSanders 😊 Cute highlight from #InaugurationDay https://t.co/CpdOMcthGn— Anita Sharma ૐ (@Anita Sharma ૐ) 1611237134.0
He looked like he might have been riding on the subway, tuning out the world, or sitting on his lawn, ornery and ready to yell at any kids who disrupted his silence. He looked like many of us feel — exhausted and totally distrustful of empty promises, possibly sitting on fibroids or with some sort of stomach ailment, but ready to go to work.
I’m once again asking for some hand warmers. (Made by me and @naomiotsu) https://t.co/FCD102lp0n— Nicolas Heller (@Nicolas Heller) 1611165176.0
Sanders's younger compatriot, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, made her own statement on Inauguration Day. Instead of attending the ceremony, she pointedly attended a workers' strike in the Bronx.
Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders's no-nonsense performances both underlined their commitment to working people; and at the same time, they asked Biden's administration the question: Is your commitment real? Will you actually help suffering Americans? Or are you too busy celebrating the nation's diversity and preaching unity while actually allowing injustice and suffering to continue unchallenged?
Biden Tries His Best
So far Biden seems to be doing his best. On his first day in office, he rejoined the Paris Agreement, he canceled the Keystone pipeline, and much more. He has relentlessly unveiled plans that appear to be dedicated to actually building America back better — ambitious plans to end the pandemic, to provide support to all Americans, to tax the super rich. His overly saccharine approach to inaugural affairs is certainly preferable to whatever sad shows Trump was able to unveil.
Still, all this doesn't mean that we can all "go back to brunch." We have just gotten our nation away from the claws of one of the most dangerous men ever to helm the U.S. government, and the next Trump will be better and smarter, and the next insurrection will be better-organized. Trump was the symptom of a much greater illness, one that won't be solved by a return to business as usual.
Biden seems aware of this — he has spoken about himself as a "transitional" president, seeming to understand his role as the bridge between an old world and a new one. But we can't get complacent for a second.
And gloves-and-parka, hunched-over Bernie knows this. And so does the Internet's denizens of meme-makers, who saw something sad and funny and deeply relatable, even universally human on a profound level, about the image of Bernie Sanders at the inauguration.
The internet really can be magical https://t.co/Jrwkj2twii— Ashley Holub, PhD (@Ashley Holub, PhD) 1611195891.0
The Sanders image has been used to express the frustrations of countless progressives. Bernie's image has been photoshopped in front of signs reading "We stand with our teachers." It's been emblazoned above images of Bernie in a burning room with the caption, "When you're waiting for them to realize that we actually need to end all fossil fuel emissions by 2030, not 2050." He's been placed beside Forrest Gump and the Schitt's Creek family and E.T.
More than any superficial show of unity, the Bernie meme reveals we need a clear-eyed look at the problems that we face. Sometimes, that might mean breaking from the crowd, sitting alone at a freezing inauguration, watching rich politicians gallivant in front of us, biding our time.
Bernie dressed like the inauguration is on his to do list today but ain’t his whole day. https://t.co/wCRyoxU3V2— Reeezy (@Reeezy) 1611158421.0
@jaketapper This is the best I have seen. https://t.co/SSsnBSZnCV— Katie (@Katie) 1611201064.0
https://t.co/bn79beIqJz— Michael Tannenbaum (@Michael Tannenbaum) 1611174424.0
More than any of the bright, smiley performances that comprised the Parade Across America, more than any platitudes or fireworks or Tom Hanks cameos, it was those upcycled mittens, that slumped posture, that world-weariness, that spoke to us, the huddled masses who actually have to live in whatever America truly is.
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