The looming end of the Trump presidency has given rise to a strange cocktail of emotions: elation, relief, anger, and concern.
The first two reactions stem from completing the existential but ultimately narrow task of removing a toxic presence from power, and reminding the country and the world that what happened four years ago—as awful and tragic as it proved to be—was flukish. For all the problems with the system that allowed Donald Trump to become president in the first place, it didn’t amount to a representative snapshot of America.
But that’s just to say it never should have happened. He never should have been there. And undoing the damage he did, in the name of a minority of the country, will be the work of lifetimes.
That’s where anger and concern come from. The scale of the task ahead of us, complicated by the emerging results of the election down ballot, will require us to channel anger and concern toward longer-term ends once celebratory and contemplative phases have passed.
The anger we feel—or at least that I feel—is born of injustice, rather than retribution. It stems from four years that we lost, because they were stolen. The target isn’t really anyone in particular, nor should anyone responsible for the evils of the Trump years be dealt with vengefully. We can’t get our time back. But we can do the next best thing: redress, as best we can, what has been damaged; reverse, as best we can, what hasn’t been irretrievably altered; expose, as best we can, what was undertaken in our name, without our consent, and seek blind justice for it.
The general election turned thematically on Trump’s disastrous COVID-19 response, and once he’s gone the country might finally, collectively grieve the dead, suppress the pandemic, and learn the full extent of the dishonesty and corruption that cost hundreds of thousands of Americans their lives.
But the key to understanding Tuesday’s results—the cardinal fact that the Republican elite will try to erase from memory—is that Biden never trailed. Not before the coronavirus existed, and not during the few months when most of the west assumed it was a problem for east Asia to deal with. Flawed as the polls were, they steadily anticipated a sizable, error-proof Biden victory, and that’s what we got.
Trump was always losing because he’s cruel and incompetent and a thief. He has never actually been favored by a majority or plurality in either election he’s contested. He was behind before coronavirus, through years when the economy he inherited remained strong, because of what he and his party stand for. Because they embrace situational ethics gleefully, and assert that rules only apply to others; because they tried to take people’s health care away, and funnel the money that paid for it into Trump’s pockets and the bank accounts of wealthy Americans; because they separated children from their parents and locked them in cages; because he cheated in his re-election campaign, and his allies in Congress helped him cover up evidence of the crime; because Trump ran the country like the tribal leader of red states, his followers at war in their minds with the citizens of the blue states, and Republican officials relished the abuse.
They did all of this without a popular mandate to govern, and so took pains to make sure as little of it as possible could be remediated by future majorities. Over the years they’ve stacked the courts, flouted subpoenas, used lame-duck state-legislative sessions to strip power from incoming Democratic governors, sabotaged the Census, and will awaken every day between now and inauguration to do more in this regard while they can.
Undoing it all would have required herculean effort under the best of circumstances, but the unevenness of the election may put doing much of anything about it out of reach, at least for the foreseeable future. As of this writing, Republicans are poised to enter the new Congress with an ever-so-slightly diminished Senate majority in tact. They could still lose it before the 2020 election is fully complete (everyone ready to move to Georgia?) but for the moment, Democrats have to plan for divided government, with Mitch McConnell at the helm of the Senate, and all his hundreds of illegitimate Republican judges at his back. Under those circumstances, the problem won’t be the filibuster, so much as McConnell preventing the Senate from voting on any progressive legislation. The courts will remain stacked with right-wing operatives, and McConnell could unilaterally block Biden from filing judicial vacancies, Merrick Garland-style, as they arise. After two years of hearing that a single chamber in a divided government can’t effectively check a president, McConnell’s committee chairmen may well paralyze the Biden administration with bad-faith oversight. Biden might even have a hard time appointing a cabinet, and we’ll then learn that Republicans aren’t actually OK with stuffing the government full of acting officials after all.
This is the source of concern: that the spoils of the election will be limited to purging the Trump element from the government, while democracy continues to backslide.
But even without the Senate, Democrats can do extraordinary things. The lesson of Trump’s time in office is that the president is clothed in immense power, even when he doesn’t fully understand it, or respect its boundaries. The Biden administration can audit the entire federal government to better understand how Trump and his aides abused their power, and refer evidence of crimes to the Justice Department. The House can make use of the awesome oversight powers it largely neglected the past couple years, in service of understanding how Trump so easily corrupted the government, and pass legislation designed to retrofit it. With a Democrat in the White House, Republicans might even support something like that. In an instant, Biden can reverse Trump’s family separation policy, then set about reuniting kidnapped children with their parents. He can quickly correct some of Trump’s worst abuses of our immigration system, rejoin the Paris climate accord, and then think creatively about how to govern around Republican nihilism. (As just one instance, the government’s neglected antitrust powers already reside in the executive branch.)
No matter how many Trump-loyal judges now serve on the bench, there’s only one official in our system of government who represents all of the people, and Biden just won a historic majority of their votes. When Biden declares victory, he’s likely to call for national healing; but he can also promise to govern the country whether the forces of reaction like it or not. He can signal that he won’t be norm-bound and helpless while Senate Republicans and the courts nullify the public will. He and the rest of us can sort out what that means in practice in the days and weeks ahead, but without a fighting mindset, he will own whatever failures Republicans foist upon him.
We narrowly escaped our internal brush with fascism, but what will become clear when the elation and relief wear off is that vanquishing it will require vigilance for many years to come.