It ended the way it began: with a lie.
At his first press conference after his inauguration as president, Donald J Trump gestured at a table stacked high with papers, which were allegedly documents detailing how he had relinquished control of his business interests. Those papers were, as it turned out later, all blank.
At his last press conference before the end of the elections four years later, Trump made spurious allegations of "fraud" without any evidence and claimed victory well before all the votes were counted. That victory, as later became apparent, actually belonged to Joe Biden.
With that monumental lie, one that decisively revealed Trump as the autocrat he never pretended not to be, we saw the official end of a presidency that can only be described as one long string of false claims – from the bizarrely narcissistic (about the so-called “record breaking crowds” at his inauguration) to the downright life-threatening (about how the coronavirus would just go away on its own).
All in all, Trump spurred more than 20,000 presidential falsehoods in less than four years, according to the tally kept by The Washington Post – averaging more than 15 a day. In his last year, that average even peaked at around 50 (!) misleading claims a day.
The unceasing flood of fables and conspiracy theories ultimately culminated in an ironic, almost surrealistic tableau: while Trump supporters in one state (Arizona, where Trump was lagging behind Biden at that time) headed out on to the streets to demand that all votes be counted, they gathered in another state (Michigan, where Trump was in the lead at that time) to demand an immediate stop to vote-counting.
The ultimate finish line for four years of fabulation: even his own voters had ended up in irreconcilably different realities.
The bitter, inescapable reality that decided the matter
But in the end, the bitter reality in which the United States finds itself proved just a bit more pressing than even the most delusional one-term president.
No matter how many times you claim that a deadly virus is “totally under control", “will go away on its own”, and is no worse than “the common flu” – at some point, over 230,000 deaths and records of more than 130,000 new cases every day can no longer be imagined out of existence, not even by a pathological liar with 87 million followers on Twitter and Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda machine on his side. The pandemic proved to be the deciding factor in the vote for Biden.
It wasn’t Biden’s electoral promises or future prospects, but the raw, inescapable reality that decided this year’s US elections in favour of the Democrats.
Compounding that, at the peak of the pandemic, we can count 26 million lost jobs, unemployment that more than doubled, and the biggest drop in GDP since the Great Depression.
To say nothing of the “Chinese hoax” of climate change: the biggest forest fires in recent history, the most powerful hurricanes in years, and temperatures breaking one record after the other eventually take on the inexorable force of gravity – difficult to keep denying.
Add all that up, and it becomes painfully clear just how raw the reality is in which the US finds itself.
No ‘yes we can’ this time
It’s safe to say, therefore, that Joe Biden’s election as the 46th president of the richest poor country in the world is anything but a return to a stable and self-aware United States – let alone a return to hope, change and “yes we can”.
In any case, the deciding factor this time around wasn’t the stirring speeches and lofty ideals that brought his Democratic predecessor to electoral victories and a Nobel Prize thrown in for free.
Biden’s greatest advantage was as simple as it was negative: he wasn’t Trump
No, Biden’s greatest advantage was as simple as it was negative: he wasn’t Trump. US elections have never been a shining example of voting on the actual issues, but this time it really wasn’t ever about tangible plans.
Can you name three? How about two? One?
The return to a basic sense of reality
Still, the world can catch its breath for a moment – albeit cautiously and with some reservations. Because the fact that Joe Biden beat Donald Trump not only is the consequence of a bitter and inescapable reality but also marks the return of some basic and sorely needed sense of reality in the White House as well.
When middle-of-the-road pragmatist Joe Biden won the primaries, beating revolutionary radical Bernie Sanders, many progressives were overwhelmed by a sense of disappointment: is this the man who will bring the change that we need so desperately? By now, Biden’s win must have given way to something more positive, possibly even some enthusiasm: at least Biden believes in the most rudimentary facts.
After four years of Trump, that itself is revolutionary.
This basic sense of reality could make a huge difference. Symbolically, almost ironically, just a day after Election Day, the US officially completed its own Pexit: on the Wednesday right after the national elections, in an unseasonably warm November, the country withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, by executive order of the ousted president.
The fact that Biden has pledged to bring the US back into the Climate Accord as soon as he enters the White House should not be considered much more than symbolic as far as official policy is concerned – the agreement is non-binding – but it does have huge political significance. In doing so, the United States will be rejoining a world in which science – basic facts – still have meaning and authority.
Combine that with the fact that Biden’s promised climate policy is the most ambitious that has ever been propagated by a US president – an investment of $2tn in four years, aiming to achieve a CO2-neutral economy in 2050 on balance – and that restored sense of reality may actually be accompanied by a fresh spark of hope for the world.
If he manages to keep his promises, that could mean the difference between an inhabitable or uninhabitable planet for billions of people.
Still, a bitter reality remains unchanged
The crucial word in that sentence, of course, is “if”. Because as improbable as it seemed four years ago that Donald J Trump would be elected president, the likelihood that Joe Biden will succeed when he follows him into office is similarly slim.
The bitter reality that even the fantasy world of Fox News could not withstand, and that allowed Biden to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat, will still be very much in force tomorrow.
Biden will inherit a country that lies in ruins in almost every respect
In fact, Biden will inherit a country that lies in ruins in almost every respect. A country without any functional public sector to speak of, constantly balancing on a knife-edge of race riots, no longer surprised by daily shootings on the streets and in schools, groaning under the heavy burden of untenable differences between the haves and have-nots. A country that cannot even afford the most basic expression of civilised society: affordable health care and a bare minimum of social securities.
A country, moreover, that was rapidly sliding towards autocracy. It would be an illusion, a huge mistake even, to think that the political system has suddenly started functioning according to democratic principles again, simply because Trump has been voted out. On the contrary, the Russian-American journalist and autocracy expert Masha Gessen says, “reinventing the American democracy” will be Biden’s main task when he takes office.
And he has to do so in a country that – make no mistake – voted in massive numbers for a would-be autocrat. Biden may be the brand-new record-holder in the highest number of votes ever (73.6+ million), but Trump also broke the record previously set by Barack Obama, bringing in over 70 million votes. Nearly 26% of those votes came from people of colour: more than any of the Republican candidates in the past 60 (!) years.
Those votes, and the reality – imaginary or not – that they represent, will not vanish in January 2021, when Biden steps into the White House. The undeniable reality may have helped Joe Biden achieve victory over his political arch-rival, but it will become his biggest opponent in the years to come.
To head off disappointment and complacency, realism – about the fundamental change that the United States and the world need right now, and about how improbable it is that Joe Biden will bring that change about – is the best we can expect to achieve.
Realism – that is what we can hope for now.
Translated from the Dutch by Joy Phillips.