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Column: Celebrate Trump’s defeat. But don’t delude yourself about the future

Donald Trump and Joe Biden
Defeating Trump is only a baby step on the road to healthy American politics.
(Associated Press)

Can it be that our long national nightmare is over? Is President Trump going to concede defeat and leave office on Jan. 20?

If it happens, Democrats will of course be euphoric, celebratory, relieved beyond expression. So, for that matter, will many Republicans. Ding, dong, the worst president in modern memory will be gone.

Savor the feeling by all means.

But don’t delude yourself. Trump’s ouster, while absolutely necessary, is only baby step number one. Don’t expect a sudden return to “normalcy” the moment he vacates the White House. The country’s problems, unfortunately, go far deeper than Trump, who has always been as much a symptom of what’s wrong with American democracy as a cause.

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Perhaps you’re feeling good because Joe Biden has positioned himself as a great uniter whose empathy will allow him to connect with Americans from Scranton to Santa Monica and whose pragmatism and bonhomie will help him kick-start a new era of productive politics.

“United we can, and will, overcome this season of darkness in America,” he said in his speech at the Democratic convention.

But good intentions and a genial personality alone won’t suffice. I don’t mean to be a downer, but even if — in the best-case scenario — Trump slinks off into obscurity to lick his wounds and mutter angrily to himself about voter fraud, the same enormous fissures and fractures he exploited to win office four years ago will live on, and new ones will arise.

Start with this fundamental challenge: Biden’s victory comes at a turbulent moment when unemployment is at about 7% and a pandemic that has killed more than 234,000 is still raging. It is a time of racial division and social unrest, of partisan rancor, skepticism and tribalism.

Now think of the millions of Trump supporters who were driven by frustration and grievance to vote for him in 2016, and who did so again Tuesday. Many of them have seen their bank accounts shrink and anxieties rise in a time of increasing globalization and rising income inequality. They have felt “ignored, forgotten or taken for granted,” says Frank Luntz, a pollster and consultant who has worked on many Republican campaigns.

They’re not going away.

Joe Biden wins election and calls for national unity as President Trump continues to vow to fight the results.

Their partisanship, and everyone else’s, has risen over the last few years, fed by social media bubbles on Facebook and Twitter, and by the ideologically driven TV news and talk radio that allow everyone to hear the version of the truth they already agree with. Americans have been siloed too by geographical segregation, so you have a coasts-versus-heartland divide, as well as rifts between urban, suburban and rural voters.

That’s not going away either.

Trump, of course, has made it all worse, in ways that will last. His assaults on facts, science and truth have left Americans without a clear, shared understanding of the world. He has encouraged fear and resentment, turning his supporters’ anger toward immigrants and people of color. He has demonized opponents, helping foster “a new equation of ‘I’m right, you’re evil,’” according to Mike Murphy, a GOP consultant and co-director of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future. “That’ll require a big cultural repair job.”

Biden has repeatedly promised to be the president of red state voters as well as blue state voters. But his efforts to reach across the aisle will clash with the demands of his own party’s left flank. If Democrats win the Senate — unlikely, but still possible — the pressure to move forward aggressively will be intense. There will be efforts to do away with the filibuster, to pack the Supreme Court, to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, all in order to pass controversial policies like higher taxes, single-payer healthcare and sweeping, costly climate change programs. Such actions — whether you support them or oppose them — are at odds with bringing a new spirit of bipartisan cooperation to the nation’s capital.

Now the hard work of rebuilding our democracy and economy begins.

And if Democrats don’t win the Senate, much of the Biden agenda will be dead on arrival.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party will itself be in angry disarray, with factions — including the Trump old guard — fighting to determine the party’s direction and identity. Trump himself may remain a disruptive force in conservative politics.

There will still be right-wing militias and nuts like the ones who wanted to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. There’ll still be hundreds of thousands of QAnon cultists. And now, these conspiracy-minded fringe groups are likely to feel they were cheated on Nov. 3.

On the left, there will still be protesters in the streets of Portland, Ore., Seattle and elsewhere.

And of course the deep structural flaws in our system will remain: the corrupting effect of big money and corporate influence in politics, the disproportionate power of low-population states, the often undemocratic redistricting process, the civic illiteracy and political disengagement of many voters.

Kamala Harris will be the first female vice president, as well as the first Black and Asian American person to occupy that post.

“We’ve got a very rough transition ahead,” says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

So by all means celebrate today. But remember that the “battle for the soul of America” that Biden has been talking about won’t be over when the votes are counted. Trump — the irresponsible, bullying, transactional, self-dealing narcissist — will soon be gone, but it will take more than that for the U.S. to reemerge as enlightened, progressive, fair and just; bold enough to solve its pressing problems, but also committed to bridging the chasms that divide its citizens.

We need more civility and compromise, but also real change. We must reject Trumpism and extremism, but also find common ground. We need to end partisan paralysis and find a path forward.

It’s a tough balancing act.

Biden has run for president three times over 30 years. Now let’s see what he can do once he’s actually won.

@Nick_Goldberg


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