The promise at the heart of Joe Biden’s campaign wasn’t simply that he would beat Donald Trump, although his entire candidacy was premised on the idea that he could do that better than any of the dozens of Democrats vying for the party’s presidential nomination. It was also that the 2020 election was an opportunity to send a stinging rebuke to Trumpism itself.
In the weeks leading up to the election—during which Trump was hospitalized for Covid-19—America seemed on the cusp of doing just that. In the language of pollsters, Biden was awash with paths to victory. Trump had basically one way to win: The way he won in 2016, give or take a state or two. Biden had a lot. There were scenarios in which the former vice president took Georgia and Texas, pipe dreams only four years ago. The Senate seemed like it would flip to Democrats. Seats in the deep-red Deep South, in South Carolina and Alabama, were in play.
This vision augured a break from the past and a better future. With control of both houses of Congress, Democrats could aggressively fight climate change, reform the judiciary, and end gridlock. America’s slide toward petty authoritarianism would be stopped in its tracks, then reversed. At the same time, the teeth-grinding anxiety of the Trump years would also be behind us. This would, paradoxically, be a time when Democrats could achieve hitherto unimaginable goals and when many Americans could simply stop worrying about politics all the time.
There is a great deal that we do not know right now. As expected, the vote count will drag into the night. Final results in decisive states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin may not arrive until Wednesday or even later, and legal challenges could mean that the election drags on for weeks. The Democrats have retained control of the House of Representatives, but it’s not clear yet who will win the Senate, though Democrats’ hopes have been dashed in Kentucky, Alabama, Iowa, and South Carolina, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in spending.
But it is clear, even at this early juncture, that the 2020 election will not break Trumpism. Trump entered Tuesday having mishandled a deadly pandemic and presided over economic collapse. The catalog of his horrors—the racism, the misogyny, the cruelty, the corruption, the disdain for democracy itself—do not need to be rehashed in detail here. And he still remains a formidable force in politics, which means Trumpism is here to stay.
His apparent success in Florida and Ohio, his ability to drive out his rural base to nearly unimaginable levels, his apparent in-roads with Black and Latino voters—all make him a model for future Republican political aspirants. Trump’s never-ending parade of cultural resentment is the Republican Party. We saw it in the election’s victors: Madison Cawthorn, a 25-year-old who celebrated his election to the House of Representatives by tweeting “cry more lib,” and QAnon promoter Marjorie Taylor Greene are not outliers—they are Trump’s heirs.
Even if Trump loses, Biden will likely preside over a closely divided Senate. Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans will stymie Biden wherever they can, aiming to succeed where they failed in 2008 and make Biden a one-term president. Republicans across the country will have gotten the message, and Trump will goad them by never going away, claiming the election was snatched away from him illegally. With Trump showing significant strength even in the face of multiple challenges that would have obliterated most candidates, Republicans will be incentivized to continue emulating Trump, not disown him. Republicans will contend for congressional seats and, eventually, the party’s presidential nomination by playing up their connection to and deep reverence for the president.
And if Trump ends up winning, whether legitimately or by way of a barrage of dubious legal challenges, then the last four years will only be a prelude of what’s to come. The president does not have a second-term agenda; there are no policy goals or plans. The only thing guaranteed is that Trump will use his come-from-behind victory as an excuse to purge his administration of any remaining nonsycophants and sic his Justice Department on his political rivals—the last four years, only more so. It is almost too terrible to imagine.
Election Day was an opportunity not only to elect another leader but also to break Trump’s hold on the Republican Party, and on America. That didn’t happen.