What a crazy time this is. You knew that when you began the fall term taking classes online. Whether you were living at home or in a dorm, you could not get through an average day without at some point putting on a mask and practicing social distancing. The presidential election has only added to the craziness. It took five days for major news outlets to call the election. The pollsters were wrong about Donald Trump’s chances in 2016, and they seemed to have missed the mark this year as well.
The fears so many of us had that Trump would get a second term are over. The networks’ call of the election on Saturday opened the way for dancing in the streets, like the celebrations in The Wizard of Oz that come with the news that the Wicked Witch is dead. But neither Trump nor his enablers were repudiated in a way that suggests we won’t have Trumpism around for years to come, or that he doesn’t speak for today’s Republican Party. The bipartisan congressional majorities that in the 1960s allowed Lyndon Johnson to pass Medicare and successfully champion the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are no longer present. Republicans may have kept control of the Senate, and they gained seats in the House of Representatives.
The president’s refusal to concede the election is not mere petulance. It is the groundwork for the narrative of a new “Lost Cause.” South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has encouraged Trump to take to heart the example of Grover Cleveland, who won the presidency in 1884, lost it in 1888, and re-won it in 1892. Whether Trump runs again or not, he is sowing grievance with his supporters that will far outlast 2020.
What made the Republican Party under Trump so frightening was not just the bad policies it supported, but the danger it posed to democracy in a multiracial country. Republicans did not play by the rules we have taken for granted, and in so doing they exposed how fragile our democracy can be when politics divides people in a way that makes compromise feel like surrender. Trump made clear his contempt for political norms early on with his nicknames for his opponents: Marco Rubio was “Little Marco,” Elizabeth Warren was “Pocahontas.” But the personal insults were nothing compared to the contempt he and his supporters showed for political traditions both parties once respected. The Senate under the direction of Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prevented President Obama from naming a Supreme Court justice on the grounds that presidents do not have the authority to do so in their fourth year in office, and then, with barely any attempt to justify their inconsistency, approved the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the court just before the 2020 election.
Most serious of all was the Republicans’ willingness on a number of occasions to play fast and loose with the law. The president and key members of his cabinet refused to comply with subpoenas from congressional committees, sought to cripple the Postal Service in order to limit the timely arrival of mail-in ballots, and authorized the use of federal agents in uniforms without identifying insignias and name badges to police demonstrators in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.
All of this came as COVID-19 was decimating the country, with Trump doing little to stop its spread. Would the president have won the election had he undertaken anything approaching a serious response, or simply made a point of wearing a mask in public? It is sobering to think how easily the president could have improved his chances. A CBS exit poll showed that by a 51 to 43 percent margin, voters thought Joe Biden would handle the coronavirus better than the president. A dent in those figures could have made a significant difference in the election results.
Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, has explained Trump’s support by arguing that for many “he’s the only middle finger available—to brandish against people who’ve assumed they have the whip hand in American culture.” But he also appealed to those who have been hurt by our trade policies and the erosion of our industrial base. The 76 percent of white evangelicals who supported the president this year turned a blind eye to much that had to have offended them.
The good news is there is a lot to build on in order to make this election about more than the defeat of Donald Trump and the triumph of Joe Biden. We need only think of this summer’s funeral service for congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis. President Trump did not attend the service, but in a moving display of unity and respect, three former presidents, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, eulogized Lewis. A similar sense of coming together has been part of this year’s multiracial Black Lives Matter marches. It was moving to be part of the marches and equally moving to watch the reaction, like that of the doctors and nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital who came outside in their scrubs to applaud those of us marching down Fifth Avenue in New York following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt observed that his generation of Americans had a “rendezvous with destiny.” Whether they liked it or not, much would be asked of them. The same may be said of your generation. This is the first time most of you voted. In addition to your political organizing, the stories you tell, the films and podcasts you produce, the writing you do will be essential for understanding how we coped with an election held during a pandemic. By the efforts Republicans made to suppress the vote, it is clear that they do not see demographic change favoring them. They are, I am glad to say, on the wrong side of history. By the time your children are ready for college, you and they will be part of an even more diverse America.
Nicolaus Mills is a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America.