Romantic illusions die hard in America. So many fell on Election Night 2020 that it will be months, maybe years, before we compile a full inventory. We can start by acknowledging a paramount reality that contradicts the idealistic Obama-Biden catechism: There is a Blue America and there is a Red America, but there is no United States of America.
Joe Biden’s victory cannot mask the fact that this country is divided, regardless of the Democratic margin in the presidential popular vote. The fundamental schisms pitting American tribes against each other would remain intact even in the fantastical event that the Electoral College were by some political miracle abolished in the interest of democratizing what we are overly fond of calling the world’s greatest democracy.
Much of our immutable disunity is about race, of course. A lot of it is about the long-running class and cultural wars in which the coastal elites square off against the aggrieved who resent and despise them. Next to these intractable conflicts, the traditional ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats over governance and foreign policy seem secondary. Indeed, our disunity has proved immutable even as party identifications (and ideologies) have shifted on both sides of the chasm over the decades.
For all the durability of this discord, liberals have long had a habit of telling ourselves that peace is at hand. After the election of 1964, in what the historian Rick Perlstein has called “one of the most dramatic failures of collective discernment in the history of American journalism,” the reigning pundits at the Times and The New Yorker, not to mention the esteemed historians Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and James MacGregor Burns, declared the conservative movement and the GOP dead. Hadn’t the Lyndon Johnson juggernaut humiliated Barry Goldwater and the states of the old Confederacy that were his only visible electoral base? The legislative triumphs of the civil-rights movement that LBJ brought to fruition were celebrated as further proof that America had overcome the original sin that had prompted the Civil War. But as surely as the truce of Appomattox would give way to Reconstruction and Jim Crow, so the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was followed by a hail of assassins’ bullets and ensuing waves of racial unrest that would help propel the rise of George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.
So as we cheer a Biden win, please let us not tell each other now that we are on our way to “healing.” Or that what Biden framed as a battle for the soul of America has been won, or even placed on hold. Yes, there was record voter turnout. But even as we congratulate ourselves on our enduring faith in the franchise, we must recognize that one of the two political parties is routinely engaged in sabotaging free elections with voter-suppression efforts aimed at the minority voters it cannot win over at the ballot box. These anti-democratic power grabs became a GOP staple decades before Donald Trump, culminating in the actions of a George W. Bush–anointed chief justice, John Roberts, whose Supreme Court shredded the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As Roberts famously wrote in 2007, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Since then, discrimination on the basis of race has only expanded in states like Georgia and Florida, where Black voting rights have been cavalierly undermined and trashed.
Once Biden survives the GOP’s legal and extra-legal efforts to rob him of his electoral success and is sworn in as president, let’s skip the sanctimony about how “the system worked.” The system is teetering. Trump — in what may be his signal accomplishment — has exposed every weakness in its structure. It turns out that a president can even monkey around with the Postal Service to manipulate election results. He can lie, steal, self-deal, corrupt the legal system, coddle dictators, alienate allies, violate all the internal safeguards intended to prevent executive malfeasance, mismanage a public-health catastrophe that kills his own voters, and get away with it for four long years.
The good news that comes with the potential Biden presidency is that there will be an honest and decent man in the White House, buttressed by a professional and at least nominally bipartisan triage team, who will try to undo the damage. There are a lot of rocks to overturn in every Cabinet department, for they are all stocked with grifters, hacks, and lobbyists who did the bidding of their Dear Leader, his kleptocratic family, their cronies, and their donors. Scientists, as opposed to the quack faux epidemiologist and Russian-propaganda stooge Scott Atlas, will be back in charge of fighting the coronavirus at the federal level. If the Democrats end up with 50 seats in the Senate — a big if — some constructive legislation rise above the prevailing gridlock, though the Democratic losses in the House, not to mention Mitch McConnell’s nihilistic obstructionism, will table any grand ambitions.
Most of all, the nation will have dodged a bullet. What would have happened during an unchecked second Trump term is too horrific to contemplate. But let’s not kid ourselves. If there’s a honeymoon in Washington, it is bound to be short-lived. The center does not hold. Any notions that Trumpism will vanish after Trump’s departure are wishful thinking. His base was angry, is angry, and will be angry. It has been empowered by its victories in down-ballot races all over the country this week; the Democrats’ strenuous effort to flip state legislatures was a debacle. Trump’s unofficial militia will be ginned up by his and his media claque’s undying efforts to delegitimize the election as a “hoax” right up until Inauguration Day and past it, with potentially violent consequences that mimic the criminality that Trump encouraged and countenanced against Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan.
The Trump faithful will still be listening to him and following him through whatever media he chooses as a platform once he’s out of the Oval Office. While it’s true that many of the Vichy Republicans who enabled him these four years will be happy to see him leave Washington, nothing that happened in this election will make them less fearful of his base, because that base is their party. The likes of Ben Sasse, Mitt Romney, and MSNBC’s crowd-pleasing coterie of Republican Never Trumpers (some of whom promoted Sarah Palin, a Trump in embryo, as John McCain’s running mate) will never inherit the GOP’s grass roots.
What we’ll see instead is the ambitious next generation of right-wing Republicans — Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Nikki Haley, Marco Rubio, Mike Pompeo (Trump enablers all) — pander to their party’s Trumpist base just as they have been doing for four years. They have no shame. Cruz rallied to the cause even after Trump mocked his wife’s looks and smeared his father as a supposed conspirator in the Kennedy assassination. Rubio, often characterized as a centrist in this crowd, could be found exclaiming “We love what they did!” when a caravan of MAGA cars courted violence by harassing a Biden-campaign bus on a Texas highway the day before the election. These presidential hopefuls are not going to let any moral compass force them on a detour from their most direct path to their party’s nomination. Sure, they will try to sand down a few rough edges to woo back some of those “suburban housewives” who defected in 2020. But that will enable them to be more insidious in both managing the Trump constituency and furthering its objectives.
Biden and those around him must bear this in mind if they occupy the White House. This is not a time for a replay of Gerald Ford’s magnanimous post-Nixon interregnum. Our long national nightmare is not over. Amnesty is not an option. Anyone who broke the law in the Trump administration must be prosecuted, not pardoned. Public officials who encourage mob violence as Rubio just did must be called out, and the groups they incite directly or with dog whistles must be investigated (as that Texas MAGA caravan is being) by the FBI.
Those of us who work in the so-called mainstream media must also be circumspect. One place to start is with our reliance on polling. In the morning-after judgment of the Republican polling kingpin Frank Luntz, this election was “devastating” for his industry. He told Axios that “the political polling profession is done.” That’s no doubt hyperbole, and, in any case, polls didn’t get everything wrong this year any more than they did in 2016. But they got a lot wrong. Too many in the media, me included, took them too seriously and read too much into them. Nearly every major news organization gave them primacy in their election coverage. Whatever the election’s fallout on the polling industry — surely among the least of our country’s problems right now — the often smug mainstream-media canonization and hyping of flawed political polling has helped feed the right’s assault on empiricism in far more consequential realms, like climate science.
A larger issue is the one that Perlstein identified when he called out the liberal Establishment for its failure to recognize that the radical right was here to stay after Goldwater was crushed by that landslide. In its pre-election editorial “R.I.P., G.O.P.” last month, the Times (and it is hardly alone) faintly echoed the premature obituaries for the 1964 GOP by speaking of the party’s “demise” and arguing that Trump’s “presidency has been an extended exercise in defining deviancy down — and dragging the rest of his party down with him.” But the Republican Party wasn’t hijacked by Trump and dragged down to his level. Trump’s voice gave powerful expression to the views that it had been harboring for half a century.
The GOP won’t be chastened by a Trump defeat. The Republicans are more unified than ever and certainly more unified than the Democrats. The Supreme Court has their back. There is no reason to think that a setback in a single election will cause America’s conservative movement to either dwindle in size or compromise its views no matter what transpires in a Biden presidency. We harbor any illusions to the contrary at our peril.
*A version of this article appears in the November 9, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!