Biden has earned more votes than any other presidential candidate in history—with Trump a close second. As in 2016, tens of millions of Americans will look at the results knowing that their compatriots voted for a candidate whose campaign was premised on their mere presence in the United States being an existential threat to the country. For many of them, the sense of relief they find in a Trump defeat will be coupled with the understanding that much of the electorate does not recognize them as truly American, and that the faction that supports Trumpism has not only grown, but grown more diverse than it was in 2016. The outcome is ultimately bittersweet—not only because of the institutional obstacles to any lasting change, but because America’s rebuke of Trumpism was paired with a reminder of the ideology’s lingering potency. That the president spent the last few weeks of the campaign making his own supporters sick with a deadly disease, simply to feed his own ego, did not begin to dampen the devotion they showed him.
With Biden’s victory, American democracy has earned a reprieve from its most immediate threat. But the tasks Biden faces when he assumes the presidency are daunting. Biden will have to contain the worst pandemic in a century and revive the economy, but he must also restore faith in American democracy. The sole blessing, perhaps, is that these tasks are closely related to the crisis that summoned him to the fore. To succeed, Biden will have to do more than secure Americans’ right to vote, ensure that workers’ wages rise, and return life to some semblance of pre-pandemic normality, although those are all necessary. He must also remind Americans that the government can serve the people, and not just the ambitions, avarice, and ego of its leader.
The moral core of Trumpism is the ethnic and religious chauvinism that the president has espoused since his descent from the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015, when he announced that Mexico was sending “rapists” and “drug dealers” to America. As that campaign unfolded, Trump’s list of domestic enemies grew, as he vowed to ban Muslims from coming to the United States, and embraced police brutality against Black Americans. But what sustains Trumpism is cynicism about the workings of government and the promises of democracy. If every politician is a crook, if every program is a boondoggle, if every initiative is graft, then absolutely nothing is lost by elevating a strongman who seeks to stuff his own pockets. Perhaps, unlike the crooks currently in charge, he could get something done.
This cynicism was perhaps easier to sustain before the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis it created. The American people needed their government to be effective, responsive, and generous. The Trump administration needed to contain a deadly outbreak, communicate clearly and effectively about the risks of infection, prevent the economy from collapsing, and dispatch resources to states to keep them from being overwhelmed. Instead, after a crucial initial stimulus, the president and his party held up further aid on the grounds that it would amount to “blue-state bailouts” that would assist the enemy—that is, the Americans who live in states whose electoral votes did not go to the president in 2016. It will not be a simple matter to purge this poison from the body politic, if it is possible at all.