2020 elections

How We’re Feeling As the Presidential Race Finally Ends

Photo: Dominick Reuter/AFP via Getty Images

After four long days of waiting for election results and four extremely long years of Donald Trump’s presidency, it’s over: On Saturday afternoon, Joe Biden was elected the 46th president of the United States. On Tuesday morning, we checked in with Intelligencer editors and writers about how they were feeling as we headed into Election Day. Now they’re sharing what’s on their mind as the 2020 election finally comes to a close and we look ahead to the start of the Biden-Harris administration. Their answers, below.

Josh Barro, business columnist

I am wildly relieved. I’ve been a huge fan of Joe Biden’s the whole way through this process. He’s a very good man and he’s going to be the sort of calming, uniting president we need right now. And we will be rid of Trump. Especially seeing how he ran ahead of Democratic candidates for Congress — and how resilient the president’s polling on the economy was, in spite of everything — I am so glad we nominated him, instead of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, who would have turned the election into a referendum on the economy and lost. The breadth of Biden’s appeal saved us.

Jonathan Chait, political columnist

I’m going to answer this very literally. On Election Night 2016, I experienced a strange physical sensation. I didn’t want to eat very much (a VERY unusual condition for me) and I felt this charge of energy, as if my body sensed a threat. It think it was some sort of fight-or-flight response. After a few days I got back to normal, but not completely normal. I think I was somehow compressed and tensed up to a degree for four years, because now I feel almost unrecognizably calm.

Chas Danner, editor and writer

While I, perhaps foolishly, always expected Biden to win and have been confident that would actually happen since I stayed awake to watch him take a pre-dawn lead in Wisconsin on Wednesday, I have to admit the full reality of Biden’s victory hasn’t really hit me yet. The past four years have been a long, bizarre, horrifying, exhausting, infuriating, hilarious, unsettling, maddening, and (as an American and a journalist) challenging four-year odyssey. And it was capped off with what feels like the longest work week of my career. I’m tired, but I’m also deeply satisfied, whenever I’ve had a chance to catch my breath. I expect that the significance of what just happened is going to wash over me, one wave at a time, for a while. They won’t all be happy waves — there are so many challenges ahead, and few clear paths to tackle them — but most of them will be. As I said earlier this week, Election Day worked out in the most critical way it had to, but it also revealed just how divided this country of ours is, and how inadequate our existing tools, like polls, are for getting a good handle on that. I thought I understood these dynamics as well as I could, or needed to, but it’s now pretty clear I didn’t. It’s exciting to be faced with such big questions, but it’s also sobering. (Let’s reinvent political journalism! Again? But also … how?)

Another thing: I think it’s really important to realize, now that the end is finally in sight, how much worse this could have gone. Election Day and what followed, Trump’s presidency, all could have been so much worse had Trump been at all competent, or willing to surround himself with competent people, or listen to the few around him who sort of were. In the end, Donald J. Trump’s narcissism, complete lack of curiosity, and inability to understand basic politics saved us from many of the worst possible consequences of President Donald Trump. This was a four-year, five-alarm fire drill for our democracy, and for our decency. That has to make a difference. We’re going to need a bigger boat, and more than norms, and more than just reforms, to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Lastly, I’m so incredibly proud of my colleagues, and wish I could be with them in person tonight — which would be the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. This has been such a difficult, isolating year. One crisis is now ending. Another is still getting worse.

Benjamin Hart, associate editor

As we’ve learned once again over the last few days, a certain kind of liberal is great at locating the downside in an enormous victory — and I certainly include myself among that group. Tuesday’s results were, after all, disappointing in many ways: the prospect of a Democratic Senate is hanging by a thread after another polling catastrophe, Republicans defied every expectation in the House, and (as you’ve heard ad nauseam) the most important swing states did not deliver the overwhelming repudiation of the demagogue-in-chief many of us were longing for. The country is a puzzling and often-frightening partisan battleground, and far too many of our fellow citizens seem just fine with leaders who have no respect for it or its institutions.

All that, plus the purgatory that has characterized the presidential race for the last four days — even as we all knew where it was going — meant it was easy to lose sight of the bigger picture: that the man who has injected a slow drip of poison into our public life would soon be relegated to sideshow status. And that’s why Saturday was so damn refreshing. From the moment CNN made the official call onward, we finally got the catharsis that had been so sorely lacking on Tuesday night, and I think it felt just as good as it would have on November 3. The celebrations in the streets of Brooklyn, where I live, and in cities across the country were reminders that unalloyed political joy is still possible. That joy will, and should, last for a while. We all deserve a few days at least to bask fully in the knowledge that this benighted era of cruelty, incompetence, and daily embarrassment for our country — during which it has never felt quite possible to relax or even unclench — now has a definitive expiration date.

Margaret Hartmann, senior editor

On Tuesday, even before the polls closed, I started experiencing strange flashes of an old familiar feeling. Eventually I realized it was normalcy — a world where I did not need to check my phone every 20 minutes to see if the president was threatening another world leader via Twitter and there was no chance that the commander-in-chief would hawk canned beans from the Resolute Desk. Later that evening my soul would leave my body several times as the blue wave that was prophesied failed to materialize. But as the week dragged on and Trump’s loss appeared more and more certain I felt like I was slowly waking up from a long, bizarre nightmare.

Yet, I’m surprised by how much this feels like heading into a new day, not a return to our pre-Trump political reality. It’s not entirely about Joe Biden; I think he’s a decent man who understands the gravity of the situation we’re in and wants to take action, but he’s still a politician who was first elected to the Senate 11 years before I was born. Regardless of what Biden is or is not able to accomplish, I can’t go back because I see the country, its history, and our role as citizens in a radically different way than I did four years ago. It’s cliché for politicians to tell supporters after an election win that the work is just beginning, but for the first time I really feel it.

Sarah Jones, staff writer

I took my first full-time job in journalism six weeks before Trump won in 2016, which means that I’ve spent nearly my entire career writing about his presidency. So I am very excited to no longer do that. But I’m worried about what comes next — what Trump might get up to as a lame-duck president, and the eventual direction of Biden’s presidency, and the persistence of fringe movements like QAnon. Which means, I suppose, that my feelings haven’t changed all that much from what they’d been before the election. The sense of acute crisis has faded, but I believe complacency is dangerous, and the prospect of a Biden presidency that still clings to old fantasies of bipartisanship and a functional “team of rivals” is both real and disturbing. I hope we internalize the lessons of the last four years.

Ed Kilgore, political columnist

I am very relieved that Trump and his people proved too incompetent to engineer a challenge to the election results that other Republican officials would back. It was all set up when Trump spoke in the wee hours on Election Night: He was ahead in enough states to win if all counting stopped or was disregarded. But then he descended into incoherent ranting and the legal strategies his people deployed went for capillaries instead of arteries and wouldn’t have mattered even if they had succeeded. I finally relaxed Thursday night when GOP legislative leaders in Pennsylvania swore off any effort to bypass the voters and name electors.

My main thought after all the networks called the election for Joe Biden is that we can all finally put the experience of November 8, 2016 behind us. The nightmare nearly recurred, to be sure, but the country finally woke up.

Eric Levitz, senior writer

I am listening to honking horns, clattering pots, cheers, and joyful shouts. My neighborhood — circumscribed along race and/or class lines in normal times, atomized into a collection of masked individuals in the COVD era — is sharing a collective experience of joy. Beneath the mutual suspicions, poisonous power imbalances, bigotries and species of self-absorption that color social life in this place, there is a low hum of shared values and solidarity, and today, Trump’s defeat made it loud enough to hear.

I can give you a long list of reasons to think we’re just in the eye of the reactionary storm. I can look into the future and see a Republican Senate stomping on a human face forever. But when I went to vote early last week, in the pitch-black pouring rain of predawn, the line at the precinct wound round the block. People waited for an hour without umbrellas to make their opposition to cruelty heard, their state’s “blue” status be damned. And now, they are finding joy and fellow-feeling in the experience of political triumph. If there is a way to get from this place to the polity that Americans deserve, it begins with this discovery of ecstatic community in democratic action.

Justin Miller, politics editor

I freaked out over the weekend when I saw a caravan of vehicles with Trump flags attempt to stop a Biden bus in Texas, even ramming an apparent bystander. Then Trump in his typically reckless and half-ass way, condoned it by calling them “patriots” on Twitter. The template, I thought, had been sent: Sporadic violence by Trump supporters would be whipped into a concerted effort by the president to intimidate voters and election officials in order to snatch victory from defeat. That would be on top of chaos with Democratic mail-in ballots being voided by errors or arriving too late en masse to be counted.

It was like feeling chest pain that makes you think a heart attack is coming. The tension got worse on Wednesday night when he said “we want all voting to stop,” meaning no more counting of ballots that had been cast.

What I felt turns out to have just been agita.

Election Week has been mercifully free of violence. Mail-in ballots were nearly flawless and rarely late. Republicans will not be able to marshal the legal system with lies about voter fraud as pretext to intervene in the election process and deliver Trump victory under the pretext of restoring integrity to the system.

Though Biden has been declared president-elect, there will still be more than two months before Trump is out of power and who-knows-how-long until his malign influence ends, if ever in our lifetimes.

It feels overwrought now to have written on Tuesday morning that this week would either be the end of Trump’s term or our democracy, but the latter is like good health — you don’t appreciate it until it’s gone.

Lisa Miller, New York contributing editor

I think a lot about how our kids will remember this era, and I am so grateful that the process worked. That people were motivated to change the bleak and hope-ending reality. They worked hard and gave money and marched and insisted and then took their grievances to the polls. My biggest worry, which I could not even articulate to myself until yesterday, was that we would have to interpret nihilism for our kids and normalize cruelty, that we would have to raise them a in a new medieval period of cynicism and hopelessness and disbelief in science, education, progress, fairness. With the help of our kids and so many young adults — with their insistence — we have pushed that back, for now. I’m not so naïve to believe that our problems have gone away. But I woke up in a world I can recognize again.

Jonah Shepp, foreign-affairs columnist

One of the benefits of going into this election with diminished expectations is that it makes both the good and bad news easier to absorb. Notwithstanding my dour mood on Election Eve, I now find myself more optimistic than my peers, rather than less. Yes, the election revealed some ugly truths about the enduring popularity of Trumpism throughout white America, while the outcomes in the Senate, House, and state legislatures are not what Democrats were hoping for. On the other hand, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we caught the biggest fish, and that Donald Trump will no longer be president of the United States as of January 20. His efforts to taint, discredit, and obstruct the election process via Twitter, Russia, the post office, and a corrupt judiciary have failed — though they may have kept Biden from winning by even greater margins. The election went surprisingly smoothly; local election officials stayed true to form in taking their jobs seriously and performing them competently. Our system proved resilient to an unprecedented attempt to undermine it.

And so the nonconsensual presidency will come to an end. Trump, who never once enjoyed majority support before or during his four years in office, and who was installed in the White House through an undemocratic Electoral College fluke, will finally find out what it’s like to get evicted. We will have a sane, decent, empathetic person for a president again. Democrats need to stop kicking themselves in the shins for a minute and recognize the enormous impact of this victory on our national psyche, our democratic institutions, and the fate of this country and the world.

Biden may not be able to act on any legislative agenda, up against a Republican Senate and a federal court system packed with right-wing activist judges. Still, having a president and vice-president who are capable of compassion and actually interested in the business of governing will be a vital change. We will have a transparent, science-based national strategy for combating COVID-19. The intelligence community will be free to monitor and combat the activities of white supremacist terrorists and Russian information warfare operations, no longer hampered by a president who views them as allies and assets. The government will no longer seek to enable discrimination, promote revisionist history, or take as much aid away from as many poor people as it can. If the Biden administration accomplishes nothing else except to audit the federal government and shed full sunlight on the corruption and mismanagement of the past four years, it will be a tremendous service to the nation. Biden should know better than to repeat Obama’s mistake and “move forward” from the Trump era without a full accounting, and that is the first thing we should demand of his administration.

Matt Stieb, politics writer

It’s hard to call anything surprising anymore, but to quote the Republican senator whose reelection may dictate Democratic policy for the next six years to come, it is extremely “concerning” that close to 70 million Americans were ready to sign on for another two years of a pandemic response led by a president who considered the coronavirus a hoax. As President-elect Biden and his administration put together a more competent COVID team — handicapped by the usual limitations of public health and health care in this country — I’m very concerned with how the most conspiracy-minded of Trump’s voters voters will respond to more robust pandemic measures, and how he might fuel that doubt out of spite.

As for feelings adjacent to warmth, I’m confident that even in the absence of sweeping climate policy, Biden can undo some of Trump’s more heinous executive actions on the environment: We may have an intact rain forest in southeast Alaska just yet. A big chunk of the damage from Trump’s time in office was closing the window on effective climate action before more disastrous results were baked into the planet’s future. That window has now been cracked open.

How We’re Feeling As the Presidential Race Finally Ends