eyes on the U.S.

The Months That Will Turn Joe Into President Biden

For all his experience in government, Biden is entering unfamiliar territory. Trump, barking at the president-elect's heels and challenging his legitimacy, will try to make the transition harder still.

A hard task ahead, despite Biden's experience as senator and vice-president
A hard task ahead, despite Biden's experience as senator and vice-president
John M. Murphy*

Joe Biden won the election, but whether he wins the transition is another question. The peaceful transfer of power always tests an incoming president, but this time promises to be particularly perilous.

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating, taking lives and jobs as it spreads. The incumbent, President Donald Trump, has only reluctantly agreed to the transition and knows how to dominate the national conversation. He seems determined to deny his successor's legitimacy and appears to be planning a 2024 campaign rally on Inauguration Day.

In the transition time remaining, I believe Biden needs to establish two kinds of legitimacy. He should show the nation that he possesses the competence to plan an administration, in order to create substantive legitimacy. And he should perform important ceremonial rituals, in order to establish symbolic legitimacy.

As a scholar of the presidency, I've written about John Kennedy's transition, which culminated in his superb inaugural address. Biden seems unlikely to match that rhetorical achievement, but he is off to a solid start.

President Donald Trump speaks behind a podium.

President Donald Trump speaks during a rally to support Republican Senate candidates in Valdosta, Ga. on Dec. 5, 2020. Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

This one's different

The president-elect has sought to craft his substantive legitimacy through comparison and contrast. One of these presidents, Biden suggests, is not like the other.

This is not an unusual strategy. Democratic political consultant David Axelrod long ago coined the opposites theory of presidential elections, noting, "Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have." President-elect Biden appears to assume that he won at least in part because voters rejected Donald Trump, and so he has reinforced the difference between the two during the early transition.

When the election hung in the balance, the former vice president waited for the results with the rest of us. Unlike Trump, Biden refused to declare victory, noting only that "We feel good about where we are." His humility contrasted to Trump's behavior throughout his term.

When the result became clear, Biden not only promoted national unity in his Nov. 7 speech, he also shared the stage with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. That was a perk denied Biden on election night in 2008 and an indication that he planned to govern not as a rogue individual but as part of a team.

His first staff and cabinet choices have reinforced the teamwork theme. "Competence is making a comeback," the Associated Press declared in its analysis of Biden's national security selections. The president-elect quietly made his decisions, with no public auditions or press leaks. He introduced them as a team in a sober setting. Each gave remarks emphasizing their commitments to morality and honesty.

For example, his nominee for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, movingly told the Holocaust survival story of his stepfather, announcing a moral mission for the United States in the world. Avril Haines, nominated for Director of National Intelligence, said she would speak truth to power, "knowing that you would never want me to do otherwise and that you value the perspective of the intelligence community, and that you will do so even when what I have to say may be inconvenient or difficult."

Joe Biden is clearly determined to dissociate his administration from the previous one, which was characterized by neither moral commitment nor faith in truth. He is crafting his substantive legitimacy by demonstrating his belief in teamwork, morality, competence and experience. His administration, he claims with these choices, is ready to lead.

Biden and Harris appearing at an announcement event

Biden, left, and Harris, right, appear jointly at many events. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Symbolic legitimacy

Biden is among the most experienced candidates elected to the presidency. Yet assuming the office will be difficult, even for him. He has been a senator and vice president, but he has not been in charge.

To become the president requires ritual.

A president is both the legislative leader and the head of state, the equivalent of a British prime minister and the queen in one. The trappings of the office make the office. Americans need to see Biden invested with the presidency, much as a Prince of Wales becomes the king by assuming the robes and powers of his office in a ceremony.

The inaugural ceremony on Jan. 20 is a ritual of transition that transforms "Joe" into a head of state, into Mr. President. The inaugural address gives him the opportunity to demonstrate his presidential capacity, to unite partisans as one people, and display himself as their leader.

Expertise in your inbox. Sign up for The Conversation's newsletter and get expert takes on today's news, every day.

The Founders understood the human need for political ceremony at times of transition. George Washington learned of his first election to the presidency on April 14, 1789 and soon left his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia for the then-capital of New York City.

Washington's journey turned into a grand celebration of the new nation. In Trenton, New Jersey, for example, 13 young women, dressed in white, walked before him, strewing flowers from baskets as he rode underneath a magnificent floral arch. Washington was no longer a gentleman farmer nor even a general. He was about to become the president and these sorts of rituals marked the way.

Biden is unlikely to undertake such a journey from Wilmington to Washington, although Axios has reported that Biden could ditch the recent inaugural tradition, "the typical flourish of arriving in Washington on an Air Force plane, pulling in instead on the same Amtrak train he rode to and from Delaware for 30 years as a senator."

A lithograph showing George Washington being greeted by

A lithograph of Washington's reception by ladies, on passing the bridge at Trenton, N.J., April 1789, on his way to New York to be inaugurated first president of the United States. Nathaniel Currier/Smithsonian American Art Museum

If Biden is to establish his symbolic legitimacy as a rightful president of the United States, he will need a ceremony displaying that legitimacy, one that looks and sounds like those of his predecessors. This will be hard in a pandemic, as the campaign showed. He was unable to campaign as a candidate normally would or give his election night speech in front of a roaring crowd, as, for example, Barack Obama did in Chicago's Grant Park in 2008.

Now, it seems unlikely that he will be able to take the oath in a large ceremony or enjoy many of the traditional trappings of a presidential inauguration. Biden has said his inauguration could "resemble the Democratic National Convention."

Although the 2020 convention was successful, it didn't look like the traditional inaugural ceremonies. As a model, it would deprive the nation of many of its comforting rituals. It would substitute a small, televised ceremony at the Capitol and virtual activities from around the nation.

The president-elect and his advisers will have to find ways to make these new traditions authorize his presidency as well as the old ones. I do not envy them this task.The Conversation

*John M. Murphy, Professor of Communication, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!