Joe Biden has won the bitterly fought 2020 presidential election, bringing the former vice president into an office he had coveted for nearly five decades and ending the chaotic presidency of Donald Trump.
The Electoral College may turn out to be tight: States that appeared relatively safe for Biden turned out to be close, and the result was not the landslide win some polls had projected as possible. The coalition of states Biden assembled included those that had previously gone for Trump, like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The drawn-out process put the nation on edge, and led Trump to falsely claim victory in several key states in the early morning hours following a long election night.
But in the popular vote, Biden won easily. He commanded the most votes cast for any candidate ever in a US presidential race, more than 73.5 million. And he defeated an incumbent who was wildly popular with his base — and who exasperated Democrats with a presidency built on racism, lies, and the appeasement of his own ego.
Trump’s time in office was marked by undermining public health measures during a pandemic that has killed more than 230,000 Americans, by weaponizing the functions of government against perceived opponents, and by boosting conspiracy theories and white supremacist groups. Much of Biden’s first months in office will be consumed by attempting to undo what Trump has done, with nothing more pressing than gaining control over the coronavirus.
Biden’s attempts to govern will almost certainly collide with a hard fact: Trump was defeated, but Trumpism was not. Biden ran his campaign on a central, existential argument that Trump represented an aberration in US politics, and that American voters want a moderate, steady hand to return the country to some semblance of normalcy. In short, Democrats wanted this election to resoundingly repudiate Trump and his politics.
That did not happen.
The tensions Trump inflamed and capitalized on were present in this country before he came to power, and those divisions remain strong. While the final vote tally won’t be known for some time, more than 68 million Americans voted for Trump. Many of those voters believe Biden and other Democrats are corrupt, empowered by fraud, and unfit to lead, and they will form a vocal and zealous opposition. Over the summer, the largest protests in American history centered on stopping police violence against Black people and rectifying systemic racism, proposals Trump and many of his followers rejected. Unifying such a divided country, or even mitigating the partisan hostility, will be one of Biden’s most daunting tasks.
What’s more, the control of the Senate is still unknown, with the possibility that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be able to continue exercising his ironclad rule. Early in his campaign, Biden leaned heavily into his years as a DC establishment figure and dealmaker, as a pragmatist with progressive ideals but bipartisan tendencies who would seek to work with McConnell, as he had when he was vice president. But, as many progressive Democrats pointed out, McConnell’s strategy when Barack Obama was president was to oppose virtually everything. There is no reason to think McConnell will act any differently now. And while resistance to the Democrats will make it relatively easy for McConnell to hold his ranks together, the deep splits between progressive and moderate Democrats could make it hard for Biden to keep his party unified.
Although Trump will leave office, he probably won’t leave the field. He will still wield more than 85 million Twitter followers, hold sway over a Republican Party that has transformed to fit his image, and inspire millions who passionately feel he gives them a voice in a battle against the establishment — whether that means elites, government, or other institutions, including science. He will likely seize every opportunity to oppose and undermine Biden.
Still, Biden will be president of the United States, with all of the official power that Trump has now lost. He won a hard-fought campaign that was historic in a way that no one could have foreseen: COVID-19 forced sweeping closures of the basic functions of society and brought campaigning to a halt in March. Biden chose to follow public health guidelines while Trump went on with large rallies where attendees were not required to wear masks — and many indeed did not. It was a contrast that Trump, who last month was briefly hospitalized after being diagnosed with the coronavirus, hoped would make Biden look scared, weak, and unable to draw a crowd.
Biden, though, made Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic the central point of his campaign, hammering Trump for minimizing the danger early on and failing to control its spread. Biden gave expansive speeches about the crisis and what it would take to recover from it, and he modeled safe behavior by observing strict social distancing and wearing masks at all public events.
The nature of the campaign — distanced, impersonal — was unwelcome for Biden, who has built his career since the 1970s on intimate human connection and visceral emotion. His life and career have been shaped by grief, after his wife and daughter died in a car crash in 1972 and then his son Beau Biden died of cancer in 2015. While meeting voters on the pre-pandemic campaign trail during the Democratic primary, he spent time connecting with them over their own losses, sometimes consoling people as he took selfies with them. Then, as hundreds of thousands of Americans mourned loved ones who died from COVID-19, Biden was able to speak to their pain.
“There are moments in our history so grim, so heart-rending, that they’re forever fixed in each of our hearts as shared grief. Today is one of those moments,” Biden said in an address from his home in Delaware in May.
“I think I know how you’re feeling. You feel like you’re being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest. It’s suffocating,” he said.
Trump, meanwhile, repeatedly blamed the death toll and rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the US on a media conspiracy and his Democratic opponents. He mocked wearing a mask as “politically correct.” It was after a largely maskless event to introduce Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to the US Supreme Court that Trump and members of his inner circle contracted the virus and the president himself had to be hospitalized. In the final weeks of the campaign, the pandemic surged across the country, with cases rising in almost every state and the Midwest battleground region hit especially hard.
The two candidates often felt like they operated in alternate realities through the general election campaign. Biden emphasized the very real toll the pandemic took on people’s lives; Trump downplayed it, and emphasized the need to get the economy moving again. Biden spent months cordoned off at home and only emerged for small events; Trump held giant rallies as if nothing had changed, which in some cases likely led to coronavirus outbreaks. But both candidates, for almost all of the race, made the campaign about Trump. For Trump, it was the usual drive to be the center of attention and self-professed savior of the nation, occasionally referring to himself as “your favorite president” or comparing himself favorably to Abraham Lincoln. For Biden, it was a constant invocation of the president’s failures even beyond the coronavirus, from his refusal to unequivocally condemn the white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville in 2017 to his cozying up to foreign authoritarians. Biden invoked Charlottesville on day one of his campaign, arguing that he was leading a battle for the soul of the nation. That theme persisted, a catchall for the existential threat Biden said Trump posed, be it to America’s decency or health and safety.
But near the end of the race, Trump did try to turn the election on Biden’s character, with a frenzied campaign led by Rudy Giuliani to implicate Biden in an unclear nefarious plot in Ukraine and China with his son Hunter (there is no evidence that the claims were true). In their first debate, Trump raised Hunter’s history of drug addiction, a strategy which didn’t gain much traction beyond the far right. “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people we know at home, had a drug problem,” Biden responded. “He’s overtaken it, he’s fixed it, he’s worked on it, and I’m proud of him.”
The second debate was canceled, when Trump refused to engage in a virtual debate after contracting the coronavirus. The third was less hectic but did little to change the dynamics of the race.
This was Biden’s third run for president, and while he was the national polling leader for almost the entirety of the race, the campaign still carried a feeling of improbability. His campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1988 ended in 1987, amid questions of plagiarism. His 2008 bid collapsed after a poor showing in the Iowa caucus, though he would go on that year to be elected vice president under Barack Obama, the first Black president.
Biden routinely attached his legacy to Obama’s in this year’s historically diverse field of Democratic candidates, which included more women and people of color than any previous primary. When Biden stumbled badly in Iowa’s caucuses and finished an embarrassing fifth in the New Hampshire primary, it looked like he might collapse again. But Biden and his advisers argued that the race would turn in his favor in South Carolina, where a majority of Democratic voters are Black — and they were right. Biden’s victory there triggered a mass clearing of the field, just as the coronavirus was beginning its spread in the US. An ideological battle between the moderate Biden and democratic socialist Bernie Sanders quickly flamed out, and Sanders promptly endorsed Biden, emerging as one of his more dependable surrogates.
Trump, during his four years in office, made a concerted effort to repeal legislation and regulations that defined the Obama administration: protections for trans and gender nonconforming children in schools and adults in the military, the DACA program for young people brought to the US as children, housing discrimination protections, and more.
How Biden, 77, will govern is a major question after a campaign so overtaken by both the pandemic and the current president. Before the pandemic, and before police shootings of Black men in Minneapolis and Kenosha, Wisconsin, Biden leaned heavily into reputation as a pragmatist more than a progressive. But as crises multiplied, Biden signaled he’d be more open to systemic and structural changes he never explicitly outlined.
Young progressive Americans for whom this summer’s protests were among the first defining political movements of their lives will be watching what Biden does as president to address insidious institutional racism, as well as crises such as climate change and gun violence.
“I don’t think Biden’s age has to necessarily be the limitation on him being a transformational leader, but it’s going to be up to the decisions he makes and those directing him make,” Chokwe Lumumba, the 37-year-old mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, told BuzzFeed News in June. “We can’t play it safe and assume the energy around Donald Trump will go away.” ●
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