Yes, Biden Won—but It’s Still Trump’s America
Many thought 2016 was a fluke. That’s impossible to argue now.
This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.
After days of seesawing vote counts and gut-churning uncertainty, the answer is finally in—sort of. Joe Biden has won enough electoral votes to make him America’s next president.
Chaotic as this week has been—with its Mad Max-style rolling caravans, major polling failures, and multiple unsubstantiated claims of victory from President Donald Trump—it would be a mistake to let all the bedlam and the legal battles likely to come obscure one of the most important takeaways from the race: just how close Trump got. Far from the landslide many experts predicted, the vote was a tight one.
Which raises the question of what the results actually mean for the country, beyond who becomes its next president. Pundits have tried to explain away Trump’s unexpected strong finish by pointing to lockdown fatigue or voters’ appreciation for his perceived success on the economy—at least until the pandemic cratered it.
But these rationalizations don’t tell the whole story. Most important, they don’t account for the fact that, after four years of scandal, corruption, and failure after failure, nearly half of all U.S. voters still endorsed an authoritarian, white nationalist serial liar who has spectacularly botched the most serious health crisis in a century. They also knowingly ignored, or willingly embraced, Trump’s cruelty, racism, and sexism; his lack of curiosity or knowledge about the government and the world; his disdain for traditional U.S. values such as fair play, rule of law, and freedom of the press; and his eagerness to tear down the institutions of governance at home and abroad—institutions that, while flawed, have provided so much peace and prosperity over the years. Back in 2016, some Republicans voted for Trump because they didn’t know much about him or because they hoped that the responsibilities of the office would transform him into a statesman.
No one can make that argument today. We all now know exactly who Trump is.
When you factor in the facts that Trump has now won some 7 million more votes than he did in 2016, that he improved his standing among Latino and Black voters, and that the Republican Party may well hold the Senate, you’re left with one conclusion: 2016 was no fluke. Biden may have won the election, but we’re all living in Trump’s America now.
Why do I say that? For starters, Trump and the Republican Party’s show of strength means that despite his defeat, Trump isn’t going away and Republicans won’t reject him. Before the election, Trump’s stranglehold on the party seemed to be slipping fast. More and more Republicans were arguing, quietly, that their party needed reform and that four more years of Trump would doom them at the ballots. Even stalwart supporters such as Sen. John Cornyn were starting to edge away from the president. Now that Trump’s supporters have done so well—especially those, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, who glued themselves to their leader’s side—it’s hard to imagine many Republicans giving up on Trump or Trumpism anytime soon.
With his party and a large chunk of the public behind him, an empowered Trump—as de facto opposition leader, freelance tweeter, talk show star, or media baron—will continue to draw huge levels of attention and support, which he’ll use to hector and undermine Democrats, publicly shame Republicans into fighting Biden on everything, and to push the same peevish, counterfactual, us-versus-the-experts-and-everybody-else message that he has for the past four years. Thursday night’s speech, with its baseless claims of voter fraud and endless lies, shows what tone Trump will continue to set. As Brad Parscale, the president’s first campaign manager in this election, told the New York Times, “It isn’t like his Twitter account or his ability to control a news cycle will stop.”
Meanwhile, the “Never Trumpers”—former Republican officials dedicated to process, competent governance, the importance of institutions, and at least some basic form of national unity and who are desperate to reform the party—will remain marginalized or will leave the party altogether.
The results for the country will be dire. In the likely event that Republicans manage to hold on to the Senate, the policy paralysis of the past four years will continue. Even presidents who control Congress rarely get more than one or two big things done before their first midterm election, when they often lose legislative support. It’s hard to imagine that a President Biden, lacking full congressional support, will get even that far—no matter how good a dealmaker he proves to be.
That’s a recipe for big trouble ahead. While Biden may seek to change the tone in Washington, the years of Barack Obama’s presidency showed that despite Biden’s lifelong dedication to bipartisanship and his still cozy relationships in the Senate, so long as Republicans remain the party of no, the chances of achieving compromise are close to zero. Under a divided government, we’re likely to see more inaction on huge problems such as the pandemic (though Biden could make some improvements using his executive authority) and the economy (where he can’t do much without Congress). Should Biden fail to pass major pandemic relief and other government spending, markets will flounder, and financial instability will increase. Without coordinated action by all branches of the U.S. government, the pandemic will get much worse.
Thus Trump’s America—a country that has just spurned its best chance to resoundingly repudiate him—will mean more self-perpetuating dysfunction. Rage at the failure of the government to help, or Republicans’ rage at the government’s attempts to help, will only intensify the country’s already vicious polarization, further reducing the chances for cooperation and possibly leading to violence.
Biden’s goal of healing the nation’s divisions and governing in a way that brings everyone together seems like a very tall order now. Obama’s attempts to do the same only fueled Republicans’ obstreperousness and drove a large share of the public into the dangerous fantasy land of birtherism and other conspiracy theories (some of which ultimately morphed into QAnon). Now that Trump’s approach, for all its futility and ugliness, has been embraced by a large portion of the country, it’s hard to imagine a President Biden managing to do heal the country.
But it was impossible to imagine a President Trump even trying.
This story has been updated to include the latest election results.
Jonathan Tepperman is an editor at large at Foreign Policy, a role he assumed in November 2020 after three years as the magazine’s editor in chief. He is the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems. Twitter: @j_tepperman