American Democracy, as much as any candidate, was on the ticket this 2020 presidential election. And the American people — bless them! — saved it. But just barely.
While Joe Biden will be our next President (thank God!), and Donald Trump will not (thank God!), the inescapable fact is: Trumpism won big and is here to stay. That is to say: Anti-democracy. And no countervailing “blue wave” rose up on Election Day to reckon with all of Trumpism’s malignities.
So, we rejoice, after four long days of electoral counting. But our rejoicing is tempered.
After four long, harrowing years of a President (Donald Trump) who knocked off every guardrail of American Democracy, with the approach of Election Day and the chance to make major course-correcting change, any democracy-loving American had to hope post-election headlines would declare, with exclamation point: “American Democracy Saved by the American People!”
But the inescapable point instead is: Trumpism — law-manipulating, institution-abusing, norm-busting, ally-insulting, dictator-embracing anti-democracy — won big. How big? Nearly half — nearly half — of the American electorate voted for four more years of it: more Trumpism. Specifically: 70,356,821 at this moment — or 47.7% of the total vote. We are a profoundly divided nation, alien to each other, near-ungovernable.
No doubt those voting for Trump favored him for more personal reasons — his scorning of “elites,” his non-politician “telling it like it is,” his handling of the economy pre-pandemic, his bad luck with a pandemic (“not his fault”), some projecting him as savior. But beyond the personal, there is stone-cold Reality: Four more years of anti-democratic Trumpism, wielded from the White House, was….unthinkable. Former Trump administration officials expressed fear that, if re-elected, Trump would be “unleashed” from all law, any remaining institutional constraints. Meaning: The proto-autocrat could go full autocrat — and destroy American Democracy. Because with Trump re-elected and unfettered, what was to stop him? What counter-force?
Happily — though to be sure, it is modulated happiness, it’s more like relief — it is the other half of the American people who proved to be the “what” that stopped the proto-autocrat, to be that counter-force.
But — and this is the fact tempering our rejoicing: These saviors — the true saviors here — constitute just barely a majority of the current electorate. And they — we — just barely saved our beloved democracy. All hail to us — or rather, semi-hail.
It remains to be seen at this early juncture — watching the happy crowds celebrating Biden’s victory, I see a sign in Biden’s lettering saying “Bye Don!” — it remains to be seen how Trump’s supporters react. Will there be violence, will there be blood? Such threats — infamously reinforced with Trump’s signal to his armed militias “Stand back and stand by” in the first debate — remain real. Thank God, with Joe Biden, no more presidential sanctioning of armed militias! This thought brings home the horrors we have endured (and brings the tears): With no more presidential sanctioning of armed militias, American Democracy is saved.
No doubt Trump will keep screaming “Fraud” and keep seeking recourse with the law — which law, btw and LOL, Trump otherwise disdained. Still: Restoration of Rule of Law is another sign American Democracy is saved. (News flash: Statement from President Donald J. Trump — “Beginning Monday, our campaign will start prosecuting our case in court to ensure election laws are fully upheld and the rightful winner is seated.”) And between now and the 10 weeks until Inauguration Day, national security experts worry Trump may exercise “emergency authorities.” Will he? Of course he will, but what?
Happily, the American people will now stand a better chance against the coronavirus with a President who believes in science and in government’s capacity to do good. (News flash: President-elect Biden is to announce Monday a task force on the virus, signaling corralling it is Priority №1.)
Amidst our celebrations — again, modified fireworks— Democrats have lots to think about, now and during the coming Biden presidency: Why the HUGE, nearly victorious vote for Trumpism? How to bring back to the fold all those millions of working-class Trumpists who once were Democrats? Realigning the party to its working-class roots and away from the moneyed interests of the Clinton era is key. Also: Given that Trumpists were O.K. with Trump’s racism, and given there will be no grand reckoning absent a blue wave, how to make the case that racial inclusiveness redounds to the interests of both White America and America herself?
But those are political questions, to be tackled later. For now, let us mini-celebrate. Tributes and thanks to the following for giving their all, never mind a narrow victory:
The voters of the just barely majority. As of this moment, they number 74,523,535 or just 50.5% of the popular vote — so, so close. While so, so close, this number nevertheless signifies the biggest popular vote for an American President in our history. Let us also remember: Many of these voters braved the aerosolized coronavirus, standing in long lines for hours.
The state and local officials who conducted a smooth-running count — another sign of a saved American Democracy. It was inspiring to see governors, mayors, secretaries of state step up and deliver, often with voices choked with feeling.
The ballot counters. These volunteers — they are not permanent government employees but paid volunteers — did their tabulating under intensest pressure. The eyes of the world, billions of them, were trained on their backs, their masked faces.
The poll workers, many of them young people who stepped in to take the place of older workers more susceptible to the virus. Well done, youth of America.
The media. Except for Fox News and other conservative outlets, the media has evolved to a point where Trump’s lies are being called out as lies. This lies-outing/truth-calling is crucial, not only til Inauguration Day, but going forward. Only with truth can American Democracy continue saving itself.
A note in passing: With American Democracy saved, just barely, it behooves the American education system to underscore once again civics education in schools, from preschool through college. Moreover, after this brush with strongman rule, forced on us by the proto-autocrat Trump, this civics education must include compare-and-contrast with the autocratic rule that is, in fact, trending throughout the world. I note Zeynep Tufekci’s point, that America awaits a more competent authoritarian. I think of Yascha Mounk’s long-running research showing big numbers of young people being O.K. with autocrats for their supposed efficiency; they need to understand the costs — just as we, the bare majority, have learned the costs.
Finally, if anyone disputes the initial-caps — American Democracy, Rule of Law: Again, our form of government, so weakened and so damaged, not only by Trump but abused over the years, felt indeed nearly lost to us. But: This Election Day, the American People have saved American Democracy, just barely. And it feels all the dearer for being such a near thing. The Ship of State, though damaged, yet sails. Halle-half-a-lujah.