Opinion

Joe Biden's Hollywood inauguration

The star-studded festivities feel like something from another time — and maybe another universe

A seasoned, gray-haired pro comes out of retirement to put the gang back together for one last job. No, that isn't the log line from a Robert De Niro heist movie — it's a description of the inauguration of Joe Biden.

Celebrities this week are showing up in droves for their "buddy" Joe, including many familiar faces who also performed or presented at President Barack Obama's swearing-in back in 2008. "After four years of Trump," a recent Variety cover-story explained, "Hollywood wants to help Biden and Harris save America." But a bunch of entertainers ushering in Biden feels jarringly out-of-step and out-of-touch with the current moment — one of the darkest in our nation's 243-year history.

Not that there's nothing to celebrate. Biden's inauguration marks at least a temporary stay on President Trump's record of cruelty, petulance, and catastrophic indifference; Trump leaves office with an untold amount of blood on his hands, from the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died due to his incompetent handling of the coronavirus crisis, to his monstrous curbing of the nation's refugee program, to the white nationalists he's emboldened to violence, to the unknowable amount of future suffering that may result from his environmental rollbacks. It's no wonder that when the election was finally called, there was actual dancing in the streets across the nation, as if a war had just ended.

But three months on, the atmosphere has shifted. Trump has staunchly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, going so far as to incite an insurrection, with experts on extremism warning of potential further unrest in the days and weeks ahead. Tensions are boiling that won't be cooled down by a monologue from inauguration host Tom Hanks. At the same time, COVID-19 cases are breaking records daily, with the death toll reaching or surpassing the equivalent of one 9/11 a day. Hospitals are overwhelmed and considering devastating decisions about how to ration care. The American documentarian Ken Burns has dubbed this moment the nation's "fourth great crisis" — after only the Civil War, the Depression, and the Second World War.

Throughout the pandemic, celebrities have made cringey and misguided attempts to lift Americans' spirits, unaware, perhaps, of how their messages of hope and resilience sound when broadcast from their mansions, as millions of Americans are out of work, facing eviction, and struggling to feed their families. Likewise, Biden's star-studded, five-day-long inaugural festivities come across a little like a party on the deck of a sinking Titanic. The inauguration, which is either naively, ignorantly, or idiotically themed "America United," has a lineup more appropriate for Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin Eve circa 2006, and belongs to an entirely different universe than the one most of us are living in.

The performers are also pulled from the mid-aughts, with Biden going back to the playbook for Obama's inauguration (that theme was the similar-sounding "We Are One"): Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, John Legend, and Tom Hanks are all returning cast members. Others — Lady Gaga, The Foo Fighters, Justin Timberlake — wouldn't have been out of place at the prior celebration. The message seems to be that Biden will be a kind of third-term Obama, which again, feels simply ignorant. Anyone who's been paying attention knows that while we can hope for a more boring and steady leader, there is no going back to what came before.

The celebrity-focused events of the week also show a failure by the incoming administration to separate entertainment from politics. Perhaps that is another irreversible trend to be chalked up to Trump, the show-biz president, but the nation could do with a little detoxing at this point. To quote The Week's Matthew Walther, who noticed this trend over the summer during the Democratic National Convention, "Hollywood is not doing the Democratic Party any favors by turning what should be a straightforward election fought on unemployment, health care, education, and other kitchen-sink issues into a festival of groan-inducing wokeness." When you want to focus on the issues, you probably don't want to headline the people whose jobs it is to otherwise distract us from reality.

Adding to the less-than-ideal optics is Biden's own record of coziness toward Hollywood, which leaves his swearing-in tainted with the impression of elitism and even potentially cronyism. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris "received more contributions from the entertainment industry than any other Democrat," Variety reports; Biden, meanwhile, arrives in Washington with aides plucked straight from Hollywood and a reputation of "delivering for the [film] industry." Studio executives like Disney's Bob Iger and DreamWorks and Quibi's Jeffrey Katzenberg have been rumored for ambassadorships. Holding an inauguration with so many stars involved, then, feels almost distasteful, like we're watching celebrities who are celebrating their own good fortune.

You can't be too hard on Biden, though: presidential inaugurations have long been festive and celebratory affairs. And they should be; the peaceful transfer of power, as we now know, is not to be taken for granted. But the inauguration should also represent the mood of the nation, the solemnity of our tragic moment, and the enormity of the problems still ahead.

Instead, Biden will take his oath on Wednesday as the 46th president of the United States as his band of rock stars and pop stars play on.

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