The Biden Era Begins

Joe Biden Named 46th President-Elect, Making Kamala Harris the First Female VP in History

American democracy has survived Donald J. Trump.

American democracy was on the ballot on Election Day, and although American democracy won, an occasion of immense relief, the margin of victory should not be exaggerated.

Joe Biden, the victor in the popular vote by a margin so far of more than four million, has won the Electoral College and will become the forty-sixth President of the United States. Senator Kamala Harris, the daughter of a Black father and an Indian-American mother, will make history as Biden’s Vice-President. Donald Trump, who will finish out his term as the most cynical character ever to occupy the Oval Office, was mendacious to the last, claiming victory before the ballots were counted and accusing an unknown “they” of trying to steal the election from him. He is sure to pursue his case, however misbegotten, in the courts and in the right-wing media. It would also come as no shock if he provoked civil unrest on his own behalf. If four years have proved anything about Trump, it’s that he is capable of nearly anything.

The unhinged, if predictable, spectacle of Trump’s press conference early Wednesday morning at the White House was outrageous even to some of his closest allies: here was an unstable authoritarian trying his best, on live television, to undermine one of the oldest democratic systems in existence. “This is a fraud on the American public,” he complained. “This is an embarrassment to our country.” As far as he was concerned, citing no evidence, “we have already won it.” Trump was willing, as always, to imperil the interests and the stability of the country to satisfy his ego and protect his power. On Thursday evening, Trump reprised this malign and pathetic performance, as he took to the White House pressroom to claim, again without proof, that he was being “cheated” by a “corrupt system.” Reading from a prepared text, he said that his vote was being “whittled down” as ballots were being counted. He spun a baseless conspiracy theory about dishonorable election officials, a burst pipe, and “large pieces of cardboard.” His words were at once embittered and deranged; his voice betrayed defeat. There has never been a more dangerous speech by an American President, and it remained to be seen if his party’s leadership would, at last, abandon him.

There can be no overstating the magnitude of the tasks facing Biden. If he survives whatever challenges, legal and rhetorical, that Trump throws his way in the coming days and weeks, he will begin his term facing a profoundly polarized country, one even more divided and tribal than the polls have suggested. It is a nation in which one half cannot quite comprehend the other half. He also confronts a country that is suffering from an ever-worsening pandemic, an ailing economy, racial injustice, and a climate crisis that millions refuse to acknowledge.

Many Biden supporters had hoped to gain a more resounding mandate, and on Election Night there were early glimmers of hope in Texas and Ohio. In the end, with close finishes in so many states, Biden would have to be satisfied with unseating the incumbent. Crucially, he outperformed Hillary Clinton in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and widened the playing field to Arizona and Georgia, where Democrats have struggled for years. The polls had been, almost uniformly, wrong, often by significant margins. They again underestimated Trump’s over-all support. Predictions of a towering “blue wave” washing away the Trump Administration and the memory of the past four years proved to be a fantasy. And yet the end of the Trump Presidency is, by any measure, a signal moment in modern American history. These four years have wrought tragic consequences; there is no question that another four would have compounded the damage immeasurably.

Throughout his term, Trump openly waged war on democratic institutions and deployed a politics of conspicuous cruelty, bigotry, and division. He turned the Presidency into a reality show of lurid accusation and preening self-regard. But what finally made him vulnerable to defeat was his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly a quarter of a million Americans. His disdain for scientific and medical expertise, his refusal to endorse even the most rudimentary preventive measures against the spread of the virus, was, according to medical experts, responsible for the needless deaths of tens of thousands. Perhaps the most emblematic sign of his heedlessness was the Rose Garden ceremony at which Trump announced his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court; within days, it was clear that the ceremony, a predominantly mask-free affair, with people seated in tightly packed rows, had been a superspreader event.

The pandemic also served to heighten the difference in character between the two candidates. For many months, Trump betrayed little sense of loss. Fellow-feeling is not in his emotional vocabulary. At his rallies, he ranged between flippant and indifferent, unwilling to acknowledge the gravity of the pandemic in any recognizably human way. “We’re rounding the turn!” he declared again and again, as the death toll rose higher and a new wave of cases crested in hundreds of American towns and cities. For a fleeting moment, when he was ill himself, Trump pretended to experience a glimmer of sympathy for people who had died, been sick, or feared the virus. That soon passed.

To Biden, loss, and the recovery from loss, is the very condition of life. As a young man, he suffered the deaths of a daughter and his first wife in a car crash; more recently, his elder son died of brain cancer. Biden is a man of transparent flaws—regrettable political decisions during his long Senate career, a speaking style that often tips into bewildered verbosity—and yet in his public life he rarely fails to project a quality of empathy. That quality may have been as essential to his appeal as any policy proposal.

Trump could never bring himself to promise an orderly transfer of power. He now will doubtless cast blame, concoct conspiratorial reasons for his downfall, and, if past is prologue, compare the beneficence of his rule to that of Abraham Lincoln. It is hard to imagine him appearing at Biden’s Inauguration and behaving with even an ounce of grace. He knows well what follows, and he cannot bear it: Joe and Jill Biden will move into the White House, and he will retreat to Mar-a-Lago, where he could spend years fending off creditors, prosecutors, the Internal Revenue Service, and the judgment of history. Trump might develop a new media venture. He might even lay plans for a run in 2024. The Constitution allows it.

But, even if Trump’s career in elective politics is over, Trumpism will, in some form, persist. In 2016, he recognized the hollowness of the Republican establishment and quickly buried front-runners for the G.O.P.’s nomination, from Jeb Bush to Marco Rubio. As President, he made the Party his own, bending former opponents to his will and banishing anyone who questioned his authority, his judgment, or his sanity. Republican leaders made it plain that they were willing to ignore Trump’s antics and abuse so long as they got what they wanted: the appointment of right-wing judges and diminished tax rates for corporations and the wealthy. His appeal was nearly as frightening to Republicans in Congress as it was to those who voted for Biden. Trump has lost this race, but it is hard to describe the election as a wholesale repudiation. Tens of millions of Americans either endorsed his curdled illiberalism, his politics of resentment and bigotry, or were at least willing to countenance it for one reason or another. The future of Trumpism remains an open question.

So is the prospect of a Biden Presidency. At first, Biden ran a wobbly campaign as a centrist, a meliorist, open to such reforms as an expansion of the Affordable Care Act and a reassertion of such international accords as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement. But, unlike his opponent Bernie Sanders, Biden would never use “revolution” or “movement” to describe his intentions. Having spent more than forty years in Washington, he entered the field hoping to be a candidate of restoration, compromise, and reassurance, a return to some indefinable form of “normal.”

In the early debates and primaries, Biden stumbled. His opponents highlighted his uneven record, his rhetorical blunders, and his age. (Biden, who will be seventy-eight on November 20th, is older coming into the White House than Ronald Reagan was when he left it.) His early campaigning did not inspire confidence. Pundits recalled how, in 2008, he had scored one per cent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses and quickly bowed out. Would the same happen in 2020? Memories of his performance at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and other moments of misjudgment were a drag on his candidacy. His effort seemed tired, without evident purpose. Writing in BuzzFeed News at the time, Ben Smith rightly observed that Biden’s campaign was “stumbling toward launch with all the hallmarks of a Jeb!-level catastrophe—a path that leads straight down.”

But, after getting buried in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, Biden persisted, deploying a steady appeal to his own ordinariness, a sense of decency. His message, to a great degree, was that he’d been Barack Obama’s Vice-President and that he had the best chance of beating Donald Trump. In South Carolina, thanks in part to an endorsement from Representative James Clyburn, a lingering glamour from his place in the Obama Administration, and heavy support from Black voters, he won the primary. Thereafter, his campaign came alive. He and Sanders, in particular, continued to debate the issues, but one sensed that among all the Democratic contenders there was an underlying priority—the need to deny Trump a second term.

On April 8th, after suffering a string of primary defeats, Sanders suspended his campaign. Calling Biden “a decent man,” Sanders declared that he had won the ideological argument on climate change, the minimum wage, and many other issues. And, in some ways, he was right. He had hardly converted Biden to democratic socialism, but he had at least pushed him in the direction of greater ambition. Biden, who had begun as the most establishmentarian of the Democratic candidates, now seemed to understand that some sort of Obama-era restoration was insufficient to the moment.

Events in the following weeks shaped the Biden candidacy even more than the competition had done. Almost immediately after becoming the presumptive nominee, he had to confront two realities: the Trump Administration’s bungling of the pandemic response and widespread demonstrations, under the banner of Black Lives Matter, that had been sparked by the killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, and the legacy of systemic racism. Biden was forced to recognize that if his Presidency was to meet the challenges facing the country he would have to act with no less dispatch than Obama, who had come into office, in January, 2009, amid an economic collapse. More and more, Biden made the case that, as President, he would emulate Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

In late October, Biden spoke at Warm Springs, in rural Georgia, where F.D.R. had a home known as the Little White House and would come for polio treatments. Biden’s theme at Warm Springs was national healing. “These are all historic, painful crises,” he said. “The insidious virus. Economic anguish. Systemic discrimination. Any one of them could have rocked a nation.” He vowed, in a sense, to go well beyond his instinct for centrism. To manage the public-health emergency, to deal with economic distress and catastrophic climate change, he would have to build a broad political coalition and act with compassion and determination. “God and history have called us to this moment and to this mission,” he said. “The Bible tells us there’s a time to break down, and a time to build up. A time to heal. This is that time.”

The success or failure of the Biden Presidency will depend on whether his speech in Warm Springs was a matter of stagecraft or true intent; his political fate, and the country’s, will depend on whether he can unite a radically divided country (at least to some degree) and, at the same time, make good on his commitment to confront these myriad crises with anything like Rooseveltian ambition. The Senate will not make it easy. Biden will find himself challenged by the same sort of ideological and political resistance that Obama met when Mitch McConnell vowed to thwart him at every turn.

The task of repairing liberal democratic institutions and values awaits Biden, too. The country’s intelligence agencies concurred that Vladimir Putin had acted on his long-standing antipathy for Hillary Clinton and meddled in the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. Historians and experts in cyberwarfare will continue to argue about the degree to which Russia interfered in the election and the degree to which it mattered. What is less mysterious is why Putin preferred Trump. The Russian leader wished to be left alone, free of American intrusion in Ukraine, free of nato’s influence in the Baltic States and in Eastern and Central Europe. So long as the United States was tied up in its own internal tumult, so long as the new President disdained postwar international alliances, Putin was pleased. For him, America’s pretensions to moral authority on the world stage were—particularly after its military adventures in the Middle East—a colossal hypocrisy. “The liberal idea,” Putin told the Financial Times last year, has “outlived its purpose.” Trump’s victory seemed to vindicate Putin’s dark conviction.

The pandemic revealed the human cost paid by states without humane social safety nets and equal access to medical resources. It also revealed the capacity of capable democratic leadership. Angela Merkel, in Germany, and Jacinda Ardern, in New Zealand, were exemplary in the way they communicated the facts with their populations and acted to contain the virus based on scientific evidence and rational decision-making. Trump’s behavior, by contrast, resembled the denialism and the autocratic style of Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil.

To rebuild trust in democratic processes, Biden needs to restore faith in the integrity of government itself. He needs to empower scientists and medical experts at the C.D.C. and the F.D.A. and oust charlatans at the Department of Justice and fossil-fuel lobbyists at the E.P.A. Trump routinely mocked figures of integrity like Anthony Fauci and threatened to fire them. He railed against the perfidies of the “deep state,” slashing programs and regulations, undermining the work of devoted public servants. It is encouraging that Biden has said that on his first day in office he would “stop the political theatre and willful misinformation” and “put scientists and public-health leaders front and center.” He needs to make it clear that expertise is invaluable in all realms of government: the courts, public health, environmental science, diplomacy, defense, the economy. In order to repair American democracy, he also needs to address the antediluvian mechanism of the Electoral College and help reform an unjust system of voting.

Biden’s election is a moment to take stock. Another four years of Trump’s recklessness would have meant the intensification of a public-health disaster. It would have meant squandering more time in a fight against a climate catastrophe that is already upon us. It would have meant that Trump, an authoritarian by instinct, would be even more emboldened to surround himself only with satraps and advisers willing to do his bidding. It would have meant more attacks on the press, more assaults on truth itself.

During the 2016 campaign and beyond, Obama generally upheld the tradition of post-Presidential discretion, but he feared the worst and could not always contain himself. At one point, he called Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, and said, “Tim, remember, this is no time to be a purist. You’ve got to keep a fascist out of the White House.”

Joe Biden is just as much a small-“d” democrat as he is a big-“D” one. It is, finally, possible to see an end to a singularly destructive carnival. As President, Trump never seemed to realize how much wreckage, political and spiritual, he was inflicting on the country. Nor did he care. For him, the Presidency was a show starring himself, and everyone had to watch. The job came with a big house, a motorcade, a fabulous plane, limitless business opportunities, and, best of all, round-the-clock media attention. 

At a rally late in the campaign, in the Lehigh Valley, in Pennsylvania, he glanced at an eighteen-wheeler that was parked nearby. “You think I could hop into one of them and drive it away?” he said with a smirk. “I’d love to just drive the hell out of here. Just get the hell out of this. I had such a good life. My life was great.” To the end, it was all about him.