Not with a shout but with a whisper, America said: Enough.
The election represented more of a hush-toned repudiation of the leadership and record of President Donald Trump than a bellowing mandate for former vice-president Joe Biden and his portfolio of liberal-leaning proposals.
But the implication of the Biden victory was clear enough: Enough with the insults and invective, enough with the mendacity and the menacing comments and, above all, enough with the denial of the virulence of the virus.
As a result, Mr. Trump – peculiarly uninterested in presidential history but preternaturally interested in his image – now faces the dispiriting destiny of being recorded in the same sentence as the three modern presidents he most deplores: Herbert Hoover, pilloried for his restrained reaction to the Great Depression; Jimmy Carter, remembered as a feckless and failed president; and George H.W. Bush, the reviled symbol of the Republican establishment that he challenged and whose policies and priorities he defied and defiled.
All were one-term presidents – recalled as figures of obloquy as they departed the White House, though the three were perhaps the most productive ex-presidents in American history, presenting Mr. Trump with a standard he may not seek to equal. The reckoning of history also will place an astringent asterisk on Mr. Trump – grouping him, along with Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, as the only presidents to bear the stain of impeachment.
As Election Day approached in 1968 – the year of crisis and contention that often prompted comparisons with 2020 – the Republican presidential nominee, former vice-president Richard Nixon, said “There’s nothing wrong with America that a good election won’t cure.”
Fifty-two years later, with an incumbent President who himself often has been compared to Mr. Nixon, America did not have a good election.
Conducted amid bitter conflicts over the act of wearing a face mask; fought over whether one candidate was a tyrant, the other a socialist; and contested over which of the two contenders was more crooked, the 2020 election exposed rather than ameliorated the country’s divisions. It set rural versus urban, college-educated Americans versus non-college-educated Americans, the coasts versus the farm belt, the stalwart states of the Union versus the rebellious states of the old Confederacy, even the people who vote by mail and the people who vote in person.
Those divisions will persist long after the meetings of the Electoral College on Dec. 14 and the official counting of the votes in a joint session of Congress Jan. 6.
Beyond the denial of a second term to Mr. Trump, Tuesday’s election was a portrait of a country in transition – on its views on race, on its views of the role of the country in the world – that barely turned at all. Outside of the industrial heartland states that were a 2020 battleground, the electoral map hardly changed, the agricultural Midwest a swath of Republican red, the coasts twin brush strokes of Democratic blue.
To be sure, Mr. Biden, who won more votes than any presidential candidate in American history, will face formidable challenges when he enters the White House in mid-January. He will lead a country that remains bitterly divided and a party that itself has strains of division. He will take the oath of office before a country that numerically and perhaps emotionally is far more wounded than it was after the terrorist attack 19 years ago.
Mr. Biden will have to deal with a virus that flared anew around Election Day and that likely will not have dissipated by Inauguration Day. He faces huge budget deficits, enormous hurt among America’s traditional allies, and a rump of domestic skeptics, some in Congress, many in rural areas.
Meanwhile, the Republicans face a bleak winter of introspection and internecine battles. Do they remain an instrument of insurgency – or do they return to their posture as a redoubt of custom and tradition? Do they isolate and alienate those who threw themselves in with Mr. Trump?
Or does the GOP future lie with Trump acolytes such as possible presidential candidates Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, and figures such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida.
The Biden victory, moreover, prompts a situation the country rarely confronts – a transition in leadership that the incumbent president regards as a hostile takeover.
It happened in 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt rebuffed efforts by President Herbert Hoover to assist in fighting the Great Depression, and again in 1953, when President Harry Truman had little regard for Dwight Eisenhower, who in turn refused a preinaugural courtesy cup of coffee with his predecessor.
But generally the torch of government has passed with grace.
Lyndon Johnson gave way to Mr. Nixon with little rancour, and George W. Bush gave way to Barack Obama with genuine graciousness. In his inaugural address, Jimmy Carter, who defeated Gerald Ford in a bitter contest in 1976, began his remarks by saying, “For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.” The crowd’s applause prompted Mr. Ford to rise to his feet in thanks twice. Some thought they saw tears in his eyes.
Mr. Trump described his predecessor, Mr. Obama, as a “good man” after their first meeting since the election – an assessment of his hated rival that he seldom repeated. “I believe that it is important for all of us, regardless of party, and regardless of political preferences, to now come together, work together, to deal with the many challenges that we face,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Trump.
“Most of all, I want to emphasize to you, Mr. president-elect, that we now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed – because if you succeed, then the country succeeds.”
That sentiment now seems antiquarian. Republicans in North Carolina’s legislature restricted the actions of incoming Democratic Governor Roy Cooper after he was elected four years ago, and Wisconsin’s Republican legislature did much the same thing to thwart the mobility of Democrat Tony Evers two years later, when he was preparing to take office.
Democrats believe Mr. Trump will use the remaining two months in office to issue executive orders that will further reduce the purview of Washington regulatory agencies and manoeuvre Mr. Biden into positions of political difficulty.
In modern American politics, the elections may end but the politics continue.