I am writing this column while all signs are pointing to Joe Biden winning the 2020 U.S. election. The Dems have won Michigan, some media outlets have called Arizona for Biden as well and it appears quite likely that Nevada will follow.
Unlike 2016, I am extremely stoic this time around. Admittedly nervous, but resigned to letting democracy — as convoluted, messy, and often disappointing as it has been lately — take its course. How stoic? When I realized on election night that it was impossible they would call it that evening, I went to bed at 11 p.m. and slept like a baby.
I woke up at 6 a.m. and immediately reached for my phone, hoping for something definite. Donald Trump was already “declaring” victory, even though votes hadn’t been counted in key states and mail-in-ballots (favouring the Democrats) could be counted well into Friday. Again, I remained calm. I went about my business and I urged others to do so as well.
When Trump issued irresponsible statements, implying that mail-in ballots now being counted (ironically, because Republicans blocked laws that would have allowed the counting to begin earlier) was “fraud” and “stealing the election,” I reminded my friends that counting all the votes is literally how democracy works. I shared playwright Tom Stoppard’s line: “It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.” I let them count. And they did, and the more ballots they counted, the more Biden’s numbers went up.
Eventually, those initial numbers in favour of Trump made room for more numbers in favour of Biden to start trickling in. It was close, but not that close anymore. Despite Trump’s fallacious tweets (so many that CNN reporter Daniel Dale, who’s been relentlessly fact-checking Trump for years, had to resort to tweeting out a resigned, “Almost everything the President is saying is wrong”), the writing was slowly appearing on the wall. Biden had received the most votes for a presidential candidate in U.S. history and a clear majority in the popular vote by a significant margin.
2016 traumatized me
I’m still traumatized by the 2016 election. As a women’s rights advocate and an ardent feminist, I had pinned so many of my hopes on watching a female president finally be sworn in. I wanted to see history be made. I also couldn’t fathom that such an unintelligent, unrefined and incompetent man, a man with so much questionable history and conduct, a man with such visible disdain for minorities, immigrants and women, a man prone to tantrums and narcissism, who acted like a thug on the podium and showed none of the grace and the tact of his predecessor, could even come close to the presidency.
I remember staying up late, desperately hoping that Hillary Clinton would manage to pull a late-night upset, only to wake up in disbelief to a world where the U.S. had voted for a misogynist, racist, possible rapist, a grifter of the highest order who cared little about decorum and even less about values. It was a brutal wake-up call. I knew women’s reproductive rights, human rights, the civil rights of immigrants, migrants and BIPOC Americans were in danger. I knew he would inflame racial tension, class warfare and bigotry. I knew that, backed by ultra-religious Mike Pence, he would attempt to decimate access to abortion and discriminate against the LGBTQ community.
A deeply polarizing figure
Nothing that has transpired in the past four years has made me change my mind about Donald Trump and his presidency. He has proven to be exactly who I feared him to be. A dangerous man who has polarized and divided a country. A man consistently against raising the minimum wage, expanding health care for low-income families, protecting the Affordable Care Act and any attempts at environmental legislation. An unempathetic man who supported deporting undocumented children, separating migrant families and keeping kids in cages.
Then COVID-19 struck, and I couldn’t think of a worse leader at the helm of a country because this unprecedented crisis required both compassion and competence, two things he was in short supply of. Close to a quarter of a million Americans have now perished because of Trump’s inability to handle a deadly pandemic the way it needed to be handled. Cases soared while he denied its existence, then downplayed its severity, then tried to discredit scientists, and finally blamed everyone but him for his abject failures. His popularity started to plummet.
Some good news and some bad news
First the good news. Never in the history of the U.S. have so many Americans voted in an election. That’s good for democracy. Democracy requires participation to work effectively. More than 74 million Americans cast a vote against an incumbent president. Even with COVID-19, even with the Trump machine’s misinformation and attempts to discredit the media reporting and the electoral process itself, and even with a Democratic candidate many didn’t consider up for the job, they came out, they lined up (sometimes for hours) and they voted. Biden broke the record for the most votes ever received by a presidential candidate. That’s significant.
Now the bad news. After four years of Trump, the fact that a resounding and clear majority of Americans didn’t outright reject him and his policies and achieve a clear win for Biden is, itself, dispiriting. The fact that this race has been this close, this much of a nail-biter, this much of a coin-toss, this much of an unknown is a colossal failure of its own. A failure of epic proportions that will require some serious soul-searching from the Democratic party about the chances they are willing to take and who they consider to be electable. As for the Republicans, this time around, those who voted for Trump knew exactly who they voted for. And they voted for him anyway. They boarded up business storefronts and stocked up on guns and ammunition and cast a vote for four more years of chaos. That’s a legacy they will have to reckon with.
A symptom, not the problem
Like Buzzfeed’s Scaachi Koul wrote, “What does it mean that more than 68 million Americans voted to keep the status quo of the last four years?” What does it mean that millions of Americans looked at what this man has done and said and decided they wanted four more years of that? I’m not sure. But I know it reveals a lot of things about the United States, of which Trump is only a symptom.
White supremacy, racism, American exceptionalism, individualism, homophobia, misogyny… None of those will disappear just because Biden will take over the White House. There is, however, something terribly depressing about the knowledge that Trump has unleashed onto the country, or perhaps allowed to manifest, the kind of hate, petty selfishness and self-absorbed narcissism that define him as an individual. He’s normalized what should have never ever been acceptable.
How does one retract that kind of ugliness? How does one put the toothpaste of Trumpism back in the tube when it’s already squeezed out all over the place and made a terrible mess of things? How does the next candidate conduct themselves with decorum and dignity when Trump has shown them that, not only do thuggery and outright lies not get punished, not get repudiated, but sometimes they help win the race?
I don’t know what the next few months hold. The Trump campaign has already requested a recount in Wisconsin, and everything points to Trump not leaving the White House without a fight. And knowing him, it will be a dirty one.
But for now, I am breathing a sigh of relief. Upon learning that he won Michigan, Biden’s first order of business was to give a speech where he stated that the presidency, itself, “is not a partisan institution,” but “the one office in the nation that represents everyone and it demands a duty of care for all Americans.” That already feels like a huge improvement. ■