Nashville • For at least a week before Election Day, I was too anxious to focus. Donald Trump was running a re-election campaign founded in lies, and I had no faith that my fellow Americans would throw him out. The polls were reassuring, but I wasn’t reassured. Polls were reassuring in 2016, too, and this country still ended up in an abusive relationship with the most corrupt and dangerous president of my lifetime.
I had no faith, but I held out hope. The ubiquity of the anti-Trump ads created by The Lincoln Project, a group of Republican operatives endorsing Joe Biden, gave me hope. A change of heart in so many of my conservative friends — disgusted by Trump’s greed and deception and boorish behavior, disgusted by his inexplicable subservience to foreign despots, his encouragement of outrageous conspiracy theories, his loyalty to his own interests and no one else’s — gave me hope. Above all, the massive registration and get-out-the-vote effort in Black communities across the country gave me hope. Change was in the air — I could feel it. An uprising was upon us. A great repudiation was at hand.
A plan for containing the pandemic was finally coming. A serious reckoning with climate change, a fair approach to immigration, criminal justice reform, a strong health care safety net, a renewed emphasis on voting rights — all suddenly possible.
On election night I was quadruple-screening the coverage — The Times on my laptop, PBS on our television, Twitter on my iPad, half a dozen text threads going with friends on my phone — and the news kept getting grimmer and grimmer. “This is exactly the way I felt four years ago,” my brother texted as early results came in.
But it wasn’t the way I felt four years ago. This time I felt far, far worse.
People have had four years now to find out just how truly terrible Trump is. How indifferent he is to the norms of civil discourse and to the responsibilities of democracy itself. How transparently racist he is, how divisive, how selfish. We know he’s a chronic liar who, when caught out, simply doubles down on the lie. We know that he is using the levers of government to enrich himself. We know he delights in and urges on the most violent impulses of his most dangerous followers. We know he has let 237,000 Americans die on his watch and still has no plan for saving the rest of us.
Yes, there’s immense relief in knowing that Biden has won the presidency and that reclaiming the Senate is still possible. And, yes, there are hopeful signs of change, even here in the American South. In Georgia the count continues, but voters there appear to have flipped their red state to blue. And last week, Alabama voters approved an amendment that would begin the process of removing racist language from the state Constitution. Mississippi voters approved a new state flag, one that no longer features the Confederate battle emblem. And for the first time ever, lawmakers from the LGBTQ community — one Democrat and one Republican — will serve in the Tennessee General Assembly.
I don’t discount for one instant the progress such news represents, and I celebrated as joyfully as anyone when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won. I celebrated their win, and I celebrated the resilience of our democracy. I celebrated the chance to right so many of the wrongs that have been done during the last four years. Mr. Biden can do an enormous amount of good, even if he ends up having to do it without the Senate.
But the 71 million people who voted for Donald Trump despite his incompetence, despite his lying, his bullying, his cheating, his racism, despite all the moral failings he proudly flaunts as virtues? Those people aren’t going anywhere, the poison-spewing right-wing media that created them isn’t going anywhere, and Donald Trump himself isn’t going anywhere. And it’s not remotely clear what the rest of us can do about any of that.
In a speech on Saturday night, Biden did what Trump refused to do in 2016: He acknowledged the people who did not vote for him: “To those who voted for President Trump, I understand your disappointment tonight,” he told them. “I’ve lost a couple of elections myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance.”
It was the right thing to say, the only possible thing to say at the end of a brutal fight won by the barest of margins. But it’s hard to imagine people wearing shirts that say, “Make Liberals Cry Again” giving the new president-elect even half a chance. Biden had a front-row seat to the obstructionist agenda of Republicans in Congress during Barack Obama’s presidency, and it’s hard to believe things will be any different for him. This is just what we are now: a country divided by a schism more stalwart and enduring than any border wall.
On Tuesday night, when I thought all was lost, the grief of the past four years was right there, spilling out in hot tears. I feel that same grief now, side by side with the joy I feel at the end of Donald Trump’s presidency. It is a great gift to see a future full of possibility again. But the fact that 71 million people voted for Donald Trump should be, for everyone who voted for Biden, a cause for profound and pervasive grief. I don’t know if this country can ever be healed, but I do know that people whose hearts are full of grief have no room left for hatred. And that might be a place to start.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”