The America that we know — this sprawling, beautiful, hideous mess of a country — is likely not what the founders had in mind. The men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1776, who represented a small number of their fellow elites clustered in a collection of colonies hugging the Atlantic, wouldn’t recognize the United States as it stands today.
The U.S. won’t heal automatically from the last four years, nor will it be easy going forward — but now there’s at least a chance that we come out on the other side a better, stronger, more united people.
On Saturday morning, millions woke up to the news that former Vice President Joe Biden had built up enough of a projected lead in Pennsylvania to decide the election in his favor. NBC News made the call soon after 11:00 a.m.; CNN and other outlets followed soon after. With President-Elect Biden’s defeat of President Donald Trump, it’s worth reflecting on what we almost lost — and what needs to be rebuilt, or built for the first time. The U.S. won’t heal automatically from the last four years, nor will it be easy going forward — but now there’s at least a chance that we come out on the other side a better, stronger people.
The country that was twice brought into existence in Philadelphia — first in 1776 with the world’s most revered press release; then in 1787, with the drafting of the Constitution — has strained and groaned and nearly collapsed more than once. The system that they built was, by design, exclusionary, carefully crafted and edified in the lurid compromises meant to buy the compliance of the slave-holding states.
It’s a system full of contradictions, enshrined in a document that has been the justification for thousands upon thousands of injustices. But as the country has grown, little by little those rough edges began to be smoothed away, until they no longer bit as harshly at the hands of the people who have clung to the idea of America despite its mistreatment of them.
That’s what has made the last four years seem so cruel to so many: the deliberate, unending, mind-numbing pace at which the Trump administration has hammered away at what little protections the system has come to provide. Trump and his legions have wielded their supremacy as a cudgel, with their insistence that this is not a land for you — you who are different, you who are darker, you who will break this utopia which we have built for ourselves. It’s taken the form of a longing to a return to America at its palest.
Their determined blows — echoing like gunshots, wearing away at the foundations, each new crack deepening a fissure that had been there long before any of us were born — have kept us up at night. Each order, each measured strike at the humanity of The Other has chiseled new abrasions into the country, rending our flesh and encouraging new suffering overlain on old scars and callouses. At times the Trump administration couldn’t hide its delight at the new blood welling up in the hands of a people who refused to loosen their grip on their hard-won freedoms.
At times the Trump administration couldn’t hide its delight at the new blood welling up in the hands of a people who refused to loosen their grip on their hard-won freedoms.
It feels fitting that in the end we were all watching Pennsylvania and Georgia, two of the original 13 colonies, to set the deadline on the Trump era. The histories of both states reflect all the horror and hope that the country has entailed and endured.
Pennsylvania is Biden’s first home, bastion of Quaker ideals and notions of freedom. The state has remained a patchwork of identities. In the east, its principle city stood centuries ago as a symbol of the urban future that America would someday inherit. The west holds the scars of the nation’s industrial growth and collapse. Its rural expanses are home to conservative communities of a people who are afraid and feel abandoned as the country has shifted beneath their feet, both economically and culturally.
And Georgia, proud and genteel, at the time of the nation’s birth a stalwart advocate for and eager participant in America’s original sin, a killing ground. The already rich soil of the state was fed for over a century with the blood of enslaved Black people. It’s a state whose need for subjugation of a people it deemed subhuman brought down avenging fire from the North, only for it to be welcomed back into the fold all too soon, the unfinished work of Reconstruction quickly unraveled. The brutality that lingers in the nation’s collective memory makes it all the more fitting that its redemption will be once again channeled and harnessed and willed into existence through the labors of Black Americans.
Standing at the White House press room’s podium on Thursday night, Trump did what he does best: he lied. Looking tired and sounding hoarse, he tried as ever to take his own pains and force them upon all of us in his trademark abusive need for projection, drawing the poison from his own system only to foist it upon an unwilling victim.
As he’s promised to for months, he said the election was rigged against him, and claimed without evidence that his many enemies had conspired against him once more to try to deny him a victory. On Saturday morning, less than an hour before Biden won Pennsylvania, he tweeted out “I WON THE ELECTION, BIG TIME” to his millions of Twitter followers. He immediately afterwards went golfing.
Trump’s Thursday night address was a bridge too far, finally, for some — but not nearly enough — Republicans. Perhaps it was his attacks on the election, perhaps his willingness to tear down the country behind him if he was forced to admit defeat. We now have to see whether Saturday’s decision is enough to fully break with their receding champion.
The most important part is that we will get to do this all over again in four years, as much as that sounds like a threat now, when our collective psyche is on the brink of total exhausted collapse.
The ballot counts in Pennsylvania and in Georgia have been a testament to the faith in our country displayed by the beleaguered, fatigued poll workers. For four days, they have been grinding through the night to ensure that every voice transcribed on a ballot would be heard, no matter who they chose as their next leader. In the midst of a pandemic, with the weight of the future on their shoulders, they kept their pace, offering up their tallies in batches of hundreds or thousands, as we all waited, transfixed, with each new count. It’s been a reminder that for all the pain and suffering that this country has endured, we also still hold the keys to our own salvation: the idea that we have an unalienable right to choose who represents us, who we place in the public trust to do well for us, protect our families, and lead us to a more perfect union.
There will be no sudden transformation in January 2021. We will still be reeling from Covid-19 and systemic racism and crushing poverty and all the other ills that have converged upon us. Trumpism will live on, even if the man at its core is no longer in the White House. Now, in the present, the Trump campaign has promised to take unspecified legal action on Monday, and whatever terrors the last gasps of this administration may still bring await us.
The most important part is that we will get to do this all over again in four years, as much as that sounds like a threat now, when our collective psyche is on the brink of total exhausted collapse. In four years, we’ll get to cast our ballots again, something that wasn’t a guarantee if President-Elect Biden hadn’t prevailed. It’s that guarantee of a future that is the greatest legacy of this election — the spark of hope that comes with the knowledge that we still have time to try again, to make this country actually live up to its promise.