All politics is made up of symbols. And it is the symbols that embody customs and trace arcs of continuity that, over time, build the identity of a country in which its inhabitants recognize themselves.
That is what those who raised the foundations of the United States, the oldest democracy on the planet, have wisely understood by establishing a habit that the pettiness of Donald Trump now breaks after 150 years of healthy democratic coexistence.
The outgoing president, who denounced fraud without providing a miniscule proof, as dozens of courts reminded him, will become this Wednesday the fourth US president not to attend the swearing-in of his successor. The practice, maintained since 1877, embodies respect for democracy, the electoral process and the unity of the country.
According to the Historical Association of the White House, the leaders who missed the assumption of his replacement are four: John Adams (1797-1801); John Quincy Adams (1825-1829); Andrew Johnson (1865-1869); and Trump.
Before Trump, the last absence was in 1869, when Andrew Johnson did not attend the inauguration of Ulysses Grant. According to a story that the newspaper The Washington Post published these days, Johnson made up his mind at the last minute, harassed by his bad relationship with Grant.
Joe Biden will not be welcomed into the White House by outgoing President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP
Added to that were disputes under the Democrat Johnson, who replaced Republican Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) after he was assassinated in a theater.
The Post notes that Johnson’s “racist views” offended Grant, who was then leading the US Army. A curiosity: like Trump, Johnson was also one step away from being dismissed in an impeachment by Congress, but the Senate buried the initiative in a hectic session in 1868.
Former Presidents Adams, father and son, also did not attend the swearing-in of their successors, Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), respectively, antagonized by very tight elections. A separate case is Richard Nixon who resigned in 1974 over Watergate.
Perhaps it is Ronald Reagan, in a warm salute to his Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who best explained in 1981 the sense of custom of attending the ceremony.
“She has shown an expectant world – he said – that we are a united people, committed to maintaining a political system that guarantees individual freedom like no other.” And he added: “In the eyes of many in the world, this ceremony is a miracle.”