America Won

Voters stopped an authoritarian populist from destroying the country’s democratic institutions.

Joe Biden
Brian Snyder / Reuters

As president, Donald Trump has caused needless suffering on a staggering scale and subjected the country’s democratic institutions to their most serious test in more than a century. They survived that test. Joe Biden has narrowly defeated Trump, putting an end to the nightmare of the past four years.

A competent and humane administration is now preparing to enter the White House. Although the nation’s deep problems won’t vanish, the 46th president of the United States will undoubtedly work to tackle rather than downplay the danger still posed by the global pandemic, to improve rather than imperil the lives of immigrants and minorities, and to unite rather than divide Americans.

What does Biden’s victory mean?

In the early stages of the campaign, pundits wrote Biden off as an anachronism who had missed his moment. Born during World War II, he was sworn in as a United States senator in the same month that George Foreman won the world heavyweight boxing championship. Biden first tried, and failed, to become president when the Berlin Wall still stood tall and nearly half the Americans now alive were young children or not yet born. While his most recent Democratic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were elected to the highest office in the land as young men impatient to conquer the future, Biden will assume it as a kindly grandfather who seems nostalgic for a calmer past.

It turns out, however, that Biden is a man very much in tune with this historical moment—despite, or perhaps because of, his age and experience.

Biden’s competitors in the primaries thought that they could clinch the Democratic nomination by parroting an extremely pessimistic discourse about this country and its prospects. His rival in the general election thought that he could hold on to power by appealing to America’s basest instincts. Biden alone managed to eschew the zero-sum terms of the culture war that has consumed our political class: Neither woke nor anti-woke, he eked out a rare victory against an incumbent by being, simply, decent.

If, in 2016, Americans rewarded anger and extremism, in 2020 they handed victory to a man of moderation, one who stands up for progressive ideals without looking down on conservatives, and who believes that it is possible both to be honest about the country’s flaws and to take pride in its strengths. Biden won because he recognized that most Americans have far less appetite for political extremism than the country’s cable-news hosts and social-media celebrities seem to think.

Trump’s defeat suggests that the first draft of history—written by pundits, politicians, and political scientists over the past four years—was unduly pessimistic.

When Trump won one primary after another, and beat Hillary Clinton in an upset, pundits and political scientists attributed his ascent to racism, positing that a large number of Americans craved the racist messaging that was central to his first campaign. The inevitable implication, in some circles, was that America itself is irredeemably racist.

An academic study by the political scientist Diana Mutz helped cement this view, arguing that the 2016 election “was an effort by members of already dominant groups to assure their continued dominance.” But the true findings of the study were much more ambivalent than the summaries that made it into the mainstream media. Most Americans who voted for Trump, Mutz acknowledged, did so because they had long supported the Republican Party. And though most Americans who switched from supporting Obama in 2012 to supporting Trump in 2016 felt that their social status was under threat, their motivation was not primarily racial in nature.

To gauge respondents’ status anxiety, Mutz asked them questions about “support for international trade, support for immigration, and whether the US relationship with China is a threat or an opportunity.” In other words, at least two of the three indicators actually pointed more to economic problems.

Racism probably does explain how Trump was able to attract the fervent support of a part of the Republican base and win a crowded primary four years ago. And many other Americans were shamefully willing to look past his bigoted statements when they backed him in 2016. But the best evidence now suggests that Trump’s racism has harmed (not helped) his standing among the general American public, and motivated a significant number of his former supporters to vote against him in 2020.

When American voters were asked about Trump’s job performance during his last year in office, they gave him comparatively good marks on the economy, and were surprisingly generous in their assessment of his handling of the coronavirus. The issue on which he did the least well, by some distance, was race.

That anger at Trump’s racial views was evident over the summer, when I sat in on a focus group of working-class women who had once supported the president. Asked about his handling of the economy or the pandemic, they made a series of excuses. Although they thought that he hadn’t done a great job on either, they emphasized that he’d been dealt a bad hand. When asked about Trump’s views on the killing of George Floyd, by contrast, they grew livid. His obvious desire to inflame racial tensions revolted them—and they weren’t shy about saying so, or about voting him out of office.

Exit polls suggest that many of them really did desert Trump. The incumbent made significant gains among African Americans and, especially, Latinos. He lost anyway, apparently because he was abandoned by a significant number of white voters who supported him in 2016.

Banished from power, Trump will do what he can to bring out the worst in America. The country remains deeply divided. The incoming administration won’t have a moment to lose in repairing the damage of the past four years and reestablishing America’s reputation in the world.

But after four years of dread and shame, this is a moment for hope and pride. America stopped an authoritarian populist from destroying its democratic institutions. We came together in unprecedented numbers to show, however narrowly, that Trump is not the true face of this country. So we should once again dare to be optimistic about the possibility of building a thriving, inclusive democracy that more fully lives up to its grand ideals.

Eighteen months ago, launching his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, in a nod to the ideals enshrined in the United States Constitution, Joe Biden said, “Everyone knows who Donald Trump is; we have to let them know who we are.”

We did.