Before Democrats begin their reckoning over their apparent failure to take the Senate and their reduced numbers in the House, before the intraparty recriminations between centrists and progressives, let’s take a moment to appreciate what’s before us. After four grueling years, President Donald Trump has been defeated.
The fact that the election came down to the wire in the swing states, that around 70 million Americans looked at the last four years and opted for more, is an ominous sign for the future of the republic. It is also a reminder of how much worse this could have been.
Trump, it turned out, was far better at pumping up his side’s turnout than we might have assumed from polling data. The president lost Pennsylvania, but he received far more votes in the state — close to 3.3 million, when last I checked — than he did in 2016, when he won it. Joe Biden got more votes in Texas this year than Trump did in 2016, and it still wasn’t nearly enough for a flip. There was in fact a red wave; it just wasn’t big enough to carry Trump to victory.
This increased red turnout was a boon to down-ballot Republicans in some states. They appear to have benefited both from people who love the president but haven’t been consistent Republican voters in the past, and from the smaller share of anti-Trump Republicans. Republican senators outperformed Trump in Maine, Texas and, in the case of David Perdue, very slightly in Georgia.
A Republican Senate is not yet a lock — races in Alaska and North Carolina still haven’t been called, and there will be two runoffs in Georgia — but it’s a likelihood. The implications for Biden’s first term are dire, and the sort of pro-democracy reforms that would stave off a future of minority rule are, for the moment, off the table. It’s understandable that many on the left are dispirited.
But that should not distract from the monumental accomplishment of ending Trump’s malignant presidency. It is rare for American presidents to be defeated after a single term. This is the fifth time it happened in a century. It’s also, we shouldn’t forget, the first time a woman, in this case a Black woman, will become vice president.
Because of the Electoral College, the deciding states in this campaign were to the right of the country at large. The president tried to muster the power of his office against his opponent. He pressed Ukraine’s government to defame Biden and got his allies in Congress to launch bogus investigations. He corruptly used government resources for his reelection, even turning the White House into a stage set for the Republican National Convention. In an unprecedented move, he put his name on stimulus checks, making it seem as if the money came from him.
Trump installed a lackey atop the Postal Service who slowed down mail delivery during a pandemic in which a disproportionate number of Democrats were relying on mail-in ballots. The president stacked the courts with judges who would likely rule his way if his margin in tipping-point states were close enough to challenge.
This year, V-Dem, an international project tracking democracy around the world, wrote, “The United States of America is the only country in Western Europe and North America suffering from substantial autocratization.” As The Washington Post reported, the group’s data shows that only one in five democracies that start down such a path is able to right itself before full-blown autocracy takes hold. Another Trump term would have furthered America’s transformation into an illiberal state like Hungary, Poland and Brazil.
Beating the odds required an extraordinary coalition that ran from Angela Davis to Bill Kristol. It required young progressives disappointed by the primary losses of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to nevertheless mobilize for Biden. It required some traditionally Republican suburbanites to put the good of the country over partisanship.
And while exit polls showed that Trump improved his margins among Black and Latino voters — especially Cuban-Americans in Florida — we still owe Biden’s win to people of color. As I write this, he’s ahead in Arizona, which is possible only because he got an enormous share of the Latino vote there. He has a tiny lead in Georgia — a state that was solidly red when Trump took office — in large part because of the heroic work of Stacey Abrams and her New Georgia Project, which has registered and organized Black voters in the face of relentless voter suppression.
Because of the perversities of the Electoral College, and because some pivotal states counted mail-in ballots last, the election was a nail-biter — but it wasn’t close. As Nate Silver tweeted, “Going by the popular vote, this will probably be the second-least-close election since 2000.” The American people decisively rejected Trump.
There will be time later on to argue over what, if anything, Democrats can do to win back people who like demagogic strongman politics. There will be time to start thinking about how to address the damage wrought by a president who, along with Fox News celebrities and other right-wing figures, is going to convince a large part of the country that their loss is illegitimate.
Trumpists believe that they represent “the people” in a quasi-mystical sense; they speak as if they have an organic connection to the country that their enemies lack. Reconciling them to a system in which they are but a loud minority won’t be easy, if it’s even possible.
Yet for now, an existential threat to liberal democracy in America has been vanquished. Trump will almost certainly continue to vandalize the country during the lame-duck phase of his presidency, but soon he will no longer be able to rule over us. He will be cast out of the White House, disgraced, to meet his creditors and New York criminal investigators.
The next chapter of American politics won’t be easy. But this one — squalid, terrifying, degrading, tragic — is almost over.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.