The Crisis of American Democracy Is Not Over

To succeed, the president-elect will have to do more than address the pandemic and revive the American economy.

An illustration of the Statue of Liberty
Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Updated at 9:50 a.m. ET on November 9, 2020.

The 2020 campaign was long and brutal, unfolding before a backdrop of death and economic decline. When all the votes are counted, a challenger will have unseated an incumbent president for only the 10th time in American history. Donald Trump’s presidency is over.

Blinded by their contempt for Hillary Clinton, much of the 2016 electorate failed to see the danger Trump posed to popular sovereignty. Since taking office, the president has used the levers of government to enrich himself and his allies; purge those who resisted his schemes; turn the powers of law enforcement and intelligence agencies against his enemies and apply those powers to benefit his co-conspirators; socially engineer a whiter America in order to preserve the nation’s traditional aristocracy of race; and attempt to destroy the ability of the United States to hold free and fair elections. Even now, he calls for the results to be altered in his favor—a call that the majority of his supporters have refused. But just enough of them have embraced it to remind everyone of the stakes.

That Trump’s defeat came at former Vice President Joe Biden’s hands is no small thing. After all, Trump was impeached for attempting to blackmail the president of Ukraine into framing Biden for a nonexistent crime for the sole purpose of crippling Biden’s bid for the presidency.* The seemingly unstoppable force of a blue wave conveyed in poll after poll met the immovable object of a red wave that most polls failed to detect. But the political coalition supporting the former vice president was large and resilient enough to secure a victory anyway. Perhaps Trump was right to fear him.

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.

The coronavirus crisis also made the cost of Trump’s authoritarianism more apparent. The president consciously misled the public about the risks of the pandemic and lied to the American people about its implications. Government officials who did their duty in documenting the ineptitude of the government’s response were purged. Seeing the pandemic as largely a public-relations problem, Trump forced government agencies to follow his lead in seeking to preserve his own political prospects rather than safeguarding the health of the American people.

The president also hoarded resources and distributed them as political favors, regarding Americans who live in states that chose Clinton as more deserving of death than those who live in states that chose him. He believed that resurrecting the economy and, with it, his political fortunes was more important than protecting American lives—particularly because he saw the brunt of the pandemic being borne by those who were not his “people.” The Trump administration’s goal was to salvage the image of the great leader, not to contain the deadly outbreak killing hundreds of thousands of American citizens.

In the final debate of this season, Trump falsely proclaimed that the only undocumented immigrants who show up to their court dates are those with the “lowest IQ.” It was as vivid an expression of the president’s worldview as you could get, not only in its nativism, but in its contempt for boundaries: Only chumps follow the rules. If you follow the rules, then you are a chump. But the rule of law depends on the willingness of leaders to not just enforce the rules but obey them.

Biden’s success as president will depend on the willingness of his administration to recognize Trumpism as a symptom of a deeper affliction. If Biden is to restore faith that democracy can serve all people and not just the powerful, he must show that government is capable of meeting the challenges ordinary Americans face. It will not be enough to resurrect an economy in which the average American is a bill or two away from bankruptcy, and the engine of economic growth is consumption by the wealthy. That means keeping families in their homes, preventing state governments from going bankrupt, and safeguarding businesses crushed by the pandemic, but it also means ensuring that the benefits of a recovery are available to all Americans and not simply the wealthy and upper-middle classes.

“Democracy in order to live must become a positive force in the daily lives of its people. It must make men and women whose devotion it seeks, feel that it really cares for the security of every individual,” Franklin D. Roosevelt declared in 1938, as the tinder of fascism in Europe was poised to ignite World War II. “Democracy will save itself with the average man and woman by proving itself worth saving.”

It is not 1938 all over again, but America nevertheless faces a wave of illiberal nationalism at home and abroad, and a not-unfounded disillusionment with democracy, based on the belief that it has been fatally corrupted by a self-serving elite. Trump ran in 2016 on fighting a “rigged” system, then rigged it even further as president. His major legislative accomplishment was cutting his own taxes and those of his wealthy donors, and he wielded executive power in pursuit of a less diverse America in which the cultural hegemony of white conservatives and the economic power of the wealthy would remain unchallenged. And yet even Trump’s failure feeds the cynicism that gave rise to his administration; through his own con, the con man seeks to “prove” that honest or responsive government is impossible.

The cost of Trump’s presidency was high, and those responsible for enabling him will not pay it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, beginning with his refusal to consider Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by Antonin Scalia’s death in 2016, has undertaken a series of risky gambles that have cemented a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, and filled the judiciary with hundreds of conservative nominees. Pending the outcome of two runoff elections in Georgia, McConnell is likely to retain control of the Senate, and with it a potential veto over Joe Biden’s agenda. If America’s economic suffering deepens, he is in a position to make the Biden administration bear the blame, as he did the last time a Democrat held the presidency.

And yet Biden cannot afford to fail to deliver on his pledges to voters. The president’s racism proved far more sincere than his vaunted economic populism, and that surely cost him at the ballot box. But here is also a lesson for the president-elect, on the importance of delivering for your constituents. Black voters, now as in the past, acted as American democracy’s firewall, not only elevating Biden above a crowded primary field, but providing crucial margins in the swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania. Yet it has been generations since the Democratic Party has fully met its commitments to its most loyal constituency. Returns from Florida to Ohio to Nevada show many of the Democratic Party’s bonds to other elements of the Obama coalition have already eroded. The perils of failure are real.

Trump’s rise could not have happened without the achingly slow recovery that followed the Great Recession, a product of Republican obstruction and Democratic timidity. If Biden truly wishes to follow in FDR’s footsteps, if he seeks to restore faith in democracy, then he will have to be bolder than the Obama administration. If his ambitions begin and end with the restoration of the status quo ante, then he will leave the nation vulnerable to the next racist demagogue who comes along, who may not be as clownish, or as incompetent. American democracy must now prove itself worth saving. It will be an arduous task.

*This article previously referred to the president of Ukraine as prime minister.