A ‘country grappling’ with just about everything seeks answers

By Matt Flegenheimer

From the start of his 2020 campaign, Joe Biden insisted that President Donald Trump was an aberration, his norm-breaking, race-baiting tenure anathema to the national character.

“It’s not who we are,” Biden often said, “not what America is.”

And at the end of the 2020 campaign, an anxious, quarrelsome country is turning a question back at him: Are you sure?

For millions of Trump supporters, the past four years have been a time when things changed for the better, when they felt they had a president who knew exactly who they were. They cheered pre-virus jobs success, shifts in the tax code, trade fights with China and the emerging rightward tilt of the Supreme Court. But they often responded more viscerally to the fury than the finer points: Trump’s eager brawls against elites and institutions, against threats to conservatives’ preferred social order, against shared enemies.

For many Democrats, the story of this White House is far uglier: division for its own sake and for Trump’s personal aggrandizement, coaxing an American backslide that harnessed the levers of government to settle scores and buoy white supremacists, international strongmen and anyone else who spoke well of the man in charge.

On Tuesday, this abiding conflict — over which vision of America will endure, over whether this president is more protector or destroyer — was put to the voters at last.

But even before that verdict was to be rendered, before a single state projection came down, this election season had already supplied some answers to the question of who we are — evidence of all that Trump has changed, and all that he hasn’t, and all the work that will await Biden if his bet is rewarded.

America is now a nation where businesses in many cities boarded up their windows in anticipation of election violence. It is a nation where partisans daydream about seeing their political opponents in jail and where the sitting president has pressed his own Justice Department to follow through. It is a nation where Black Lives Matter protesters have pressed their cause in the streets and where caravans of Trump backers have filled highways and waterways with a procession of MAGA flags.

It is a nation where faith in institutions, already dismal, was not helped by a year in which federal authorities could not safeguard their own people against a deadly disease.

And it is a nation, if voter turnout levels are instructive, that was moved as never before in modern memory to stand and be counted, in defiance of contagion and ostensible suppression. Americans braved polling places in masks and gloves, hand-delivered mail ballots just in case, waited in lines that zagged and folded over themselves across whole neighborhoods — a kind of small intestines of democracy.

“I honestly can’t say I know any institution that is working,” said Aalayah Eastmond, 19, a survivor of the Parkland, Florida, massacre and a first-time voter who has spent much of the year in Washington protesting racism and police violence. “But one thing I do know that is working is the power of the people.”

How much of the recent past can be undone, and how much the electorate wants it undone, is a question no campaign can resolve in full. There is danger in any sweeping assertion about the ideals of a country that narrowly chose to follow its first Black president with the man who pushed a racist conspiracy about that president’s birthplace.

But in some ways, given the distinctiveness of the choices, the decision in this election will be especially revealing about how America sees itself and what it expects of its leaders.

In interviews this fall, voters supporting each candidate described fears that the nation would soon appear unrecognizable to them, if it was not already. This campaign, they suggested, had doubled as a national X-ray, with both sides distressed about what might turn up on the scan.

“You learn a lot about yourself and other people and the country,” said Luke Hoffman, 36, standing outside the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in a “Vote” mask before a recent televised forum with Biden. “The sheer polarization is terrifying.”

Katherine Smarch, 51, who traveled to Lansing, Michigan, to see Eric Trump speak at a gravel pit last month, said that any pro-Trump sentiment she might express on social media was doomed to be met with taunting and hostility.

“It just feels so foreign,” she said. “This is the kind of thing that happens in a foreign country.”

Yet there is maybe some comfort, at least, in the idea that the electorate appears to be operating with mostly full information about its options.

While the stakes of a Trump presidency could still seem theoretical four years ago — “What do you have to lose?” he asked his audiences — the magnitude and responsibility of the office are by now impossible to misconstrue.

There had once been a thought that the gravity of the job might transform Trump, that America’s guardrails would check him, that the “adults in the room” (as they often liked to call themselves) would head off his most reckless impulses.

Little of it took. He is who he has been.

The institutions often bent to him, aided by Republicans in Congress. Advisers and aides came and went, and often never much disagreed with him anyway.

And in the run-up to Tuesday, Trump left little doubt that a second term would look very much like the first: chaotic, retaliatory, uninterested in unity.

Even in the shared suffering endemic to this year of virus and relative isolation, Trump presided over partisan clashes concerning once apolitical subjects like adherence to public health guidelines, fostering divisions that trickled down to the national rank and file.

If the whole of Trump’s tenure has often felt like a rolling challenge to precedent, the coming days may stand as a kind of super exam, particularly if the president makes premature claims about the outcome.

Of course, how Trump chooses to conduct himself has never been up to the American people. The tautological lesson he learned from his own rise always seemed to be this: If no one had the power to tell him no — or even bothered trying — it was a yes.

Trump also understands well that many millions of people are with him, win or lose, holding him up as the figure girding the nation against would-be decline and leftward creep.

“We didn’t vote for him to be our pastor or our husband,” said Penny Nance, chief executive of Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian group. “We voted for him to be our bodyguard.”

Biden has presented himself as the kind of “transition candidate” capable of guiding the nation through that grappling, a bridge to whatever should come after. He outlasted a large and historically diverse primary field as the Democrat most singularly focused on removing the president and worrying about the rest later. He hammered Trump on matters of competence and integrity and asked Sen. Kamala Harris to join his ticket, keeping a pledge to name a woman as his running mate and nodding to the overwhelming support Biden has enjoyed from Black voters since his election as Obama’s vice president.

It was not lost on his allies that Biden, a man of institutions, was offering himself up to a country that seemed to be losing its trust in them, one where crises of confidence have touched Congress, law enforcement and the courts.

The work of repair, he argued, was not as simple as removing Trump. That was merely a prerequisite. And while he has long professed affection for a bygone era of bipartisanship, Biden has also already run up against the realities of the moment, navigating progressive calls to expand the Supreme Court and watching Republican former Senate colleagues entertain misleading attacks on the Biden family.

If anything, the campaign’s final frames included often ubiquitous reminders of the rupture that will persist after the election — and perhaps only widen once the winner is clear.

Last week in Texas, vehicles with Trump flags and signs surrounded a Biden-Harris campaign bus and appeared to be trying to slow it down and force it to the side of the road.

Trump called the drivers supporting him “patriots” who did nothing wrong. The FBI said it was investigating. Biden sounded something like a disappointed parent, waiting for the collective tantrum to pass.

“We are so much better than this,” Biden said over the weekend. “It’s not who we are.”

For better or worse, he seemed to believe it.

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