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Our National Nightmare Is Over. Now, The Real Work Begins

President-elect Joe Biden addresses the nation at the Chase Center November 06, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President-elect Joe Biden addresses the nation at the Chase Center November 06, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In the end, our battered democracy stood strong, despite the despotic impulses of American history’s most aberrational of presidents.

State election officials tuned out the intimidating noise orchestrated by a president who has neither a command of election law nor a respect for the U.S. Constitution. With the help of nonpartisan volunteers, they just counted the votes.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be the 46th president of the United States, notwithstanding the dictatorial dreams of the deranged incumbent.

President Donald J. Trump’s histrionic, unsubstantiated accusations of election fraud this week underscored the much-ballyhooed theme that this campaign has been a “battle for the soul of America.” Any hope for a swift resolution of that existential struggle ended when, with millions of ballots still to be tallied, Trump declared victory from the White House briefing room, demanded on Twitter that we STOP THE COUNT, and all too many Americans cheered.

“This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election,” the would-be tinpot dictator pronounced, not for the first time mistaking the people’s White House for his imperial palace. He was applauded by millions of camp followers who find nothing alarming about a president’s craven attempt to undermine the legitimacy of an American election.

There was no landslide, it’s true, no seismic shift in the American political landscape. But Biden won the popular vote by more than four million votes, even as 70 million people voted for the crazed incumbent. A definitive repudiation of the indecency and incompetence that characterized Trump’s tenure never came. The new president will lead a deeply divided country.

The election returns remind us in the starkest possible terms of the robust strain of racism, resentment and anti-intellectualism in American life.

Trump’s true believers never amounted to more than a third of the electorate, but it was a liberal delusion to underestimate their influence. Few Americans who supported Trump embrace the violent tactics of the Proud Boys or the Wolverine Watchmen but more than a few share the rage that fuels the white supremacist marches of those fanatical militiamen. They voted for Trump to reclaim “their” streets from Black Lives Matter demonstrators, to take back “their” neighborhood from the gay couple down the block, to take “their” strip mall back from the women’s health clinic that opened next to “their” bowling alley.

Trump’s tribunes are on track to retain control of the U.S. Senate with increased GOP representation in the U.S. House, including a crackpot from Georgia who subscribes to QAnon fantasies about Satan-worshipping Democrats bent on global domination who run a sex trafficking ring out of a Washington, DC pizza parlor.

The election returns remind us in the starkest possible terms of the robust strain of racism, resentment and anti-intellectualism in American life. Trump did not so much expose the Know-Nothing tendencies in the electorate as embody it. Like the nativist political party of the 1850s that demonized Catholics and immigrants, Trump personified the mobilizing fear that demographic change could dislodge from power those who feel permanently entitled to their privileged position.

Like demagogues before him — think Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s — Trump showed us just how susceptible we are to the simple solution and the convenient scapegoat: build the wall, blame the Muslims.

Like bigots before him — think Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1968 and 1972 — Trump demonstrated how receptive we are to racism repackaged as reverence for law and order.

Like the most gifted of grifters — think Louisiana Governor Huey Long in the 1930s — he mesmerized far too many of us with his populist blather while he picked our pockets.

Trump did not trash the animating principles of American democracy by himself; he did so with the help of spineless Republicans like Senator Susan Collins of Maine and rank hypocrites like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Neither paid a price for their complicity; both scored solid re-election victories this week.

Not much is riding on Joe Biden’s optimism, just the soul of America.

Come January, Biden’s easy calls will be rescinding Trump’s executive orders turning our public lands over to private profiteers, restoring competent public servants to our hollowed-out federal government, repairing tattered relations with our international allies, and rejoining the Paris climate agreement to combat global warming.

Even reuniting those 545 migrant children with the parents from whom they were separated at the U.S. border by Trump’s cruel and chaotic immigration policy might be hard, but doable, now.

Harder will be controlling a raging virus among Americans who cannot agree that wearing a mask is a public health precaution, not a political statement. Harder will be reviving a battered economy in the face of Senate leadership more inclined to extend tax breaks to billionaires than to provide emergency financial relief to those who have lost jobs to a pandemic that has already claimed more than 230,000 American lives. Harder will be confronting systemic racism in a country divided about whether that scourge even exists.

“I know this won’t be easy. I’m not naive. Neither of us are,” Biden said of himself and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. “I know how deep and hard the opposing views are in our country on so many things. But I also know this as well. To make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies. We are not enemies. What brings us together as Americans is so much stronger than anything that can tear us apart.”

Not much is riding on Joe Biden’s optimism, just the soul of America.

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Eileen McNamara Cognoscenti contributor
Eileen McNamara teaches journalism at Brandeis University. The author of a biography of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, she won a Pulitzer Prize as a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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