Donald Trump won the White House in 2016 because he wasn’t a conventional politician. Joe Biden won the White House in 2020 because he was. After four years of presidential rage-tweeting, name-calling, gaslighting, race-baiting and all-around norm-breaking, an exhausted electorate decided this week that it was ready to return to politics as usual.
Former Vice President Biden ran on a detailed policy agenda, a long record of Washington service, and a poignant narrative of pain and endurance. But his central promise was more basic: to restore decency, civility, empathy and most of all stability to the White House, so Americans wouldn’t have to think about their president every day, or wake up worrying about his tweets.
Trump tried to portray his 77-year-old opponent as a radical extremist and doddering geriatric who would destroy America, but the over-the-top insults never seemed to resonate beyond his most dedicated followers. Trump called Biden “the most boring human being I’ve ever seen,” and a majority of the country seemed OK with that.
Ultimately, Biden’s election was less about what he’ll do than who he isn’t. Trump summed up the race at one of his final rallies, when he started reading some self-deprecating political boilerplate that had been written for him, then made it clear that he didn’t believe a word of it: “This isn’t about — well, yeah, it is about me, I guess, when you think about it.”
Trump’s approach was always about Trump, ever since the reality-TV star descended that golden escalator to announce his first political campaign in June 2015. He quickly learned that he could dominate the political landscape just by launching politically incorrect outrages: calling Mexicans rapists, fat-shaming a Miss Universe, pledging to ban Muslim immigration. His rants sucked all the oxygen out of a huge Republican primary, drawing eyeballs and clicks every time he suggested Justice Antonin Scalia had been murdered or accused Ted Cruz’s father of participating in the Kennedy assassination. Jeb Bush complained that Trump was a chaos candidate, but that sounded just fine to Republican voters.
Hillary Clinton then provided Trump with the perfect foil for his attacks on scripted Beltway politicians who parroted dull talking points. He promised something different, like ass-kicking and fun. He refused to kowtow to the gatekeepers who enforced Washington’s traditional rules, who insisted a candidate couldn’t refuse to release his tax returns or mock his opponent’s health. He made it clear he could do and say whatever he wanted, which to his fans felt daring and thrilling. And many voters who weren’t fans but shared his disdain for Clinton figured he’d pivot to a more sober and “presidential” approach in the White House.
Trump never pivoted, of course, but he was the president, so he got to decide what was presidential. And that meant four years of unrelenting middle-finger politics — a style that had been growing at the edges of Republican politics, but which Trump took to a new extreme, with all the power of the White House to amplify it. He trashed popular enemies like John McCain and John Lewis while pardoning extremist supporters like Dinesh D’Souza and Joe Arpaio; he bashed democratic allies like Canada and Germany, while embracing monstrous dictators in North Korea and Russia. He defied the scientific warnings about climate change and the coronavirus and looking directly at an eclipse. He got impeached for trying to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden, then publicly urged China to dig up dirt on Biden. When his former aides got indicted, which happened often, he defended them; when his former aides denounced him as unfit to lead, which happened even more often, he bullied them. When fact-checkers called out his fictions, which happened daily, he unapologetically repeated the fictions, over and over.
Through it all, his loyal supporters remained loyal. They loved how he skewered the liberals and immigrants and condescending eggheads they resented. They love his unrestrained war on Blue America, his portrayal of Democrats as effete traitors and Democratic states as foreign adversaries. They didn’t mind his brazen flip-flops and swashbuckling lies — claiming credit for laws passed before his presidency, libeling bureaucrats who testified about his transgressions, calling all kinds of real things hoaxes — because they believed he spoke a larger truth, or at least that he was lying on their behalf.
And he continued to expose the pretenses of conventional politics, the fibs that vote-hungry suck-ups routinely tell. Part of Trump’s closing message in Iowa and Michigan was that he’d never return to those states if they didn’t break his way. He inverted the disingenuous candidate trope about the importance of voting no matter whom you support. He urged voters who didn’t support him to stay home.
That one didn’t work. As it turns out, they voted.
Biden had no army of die-hard fans, and no talent for monopolizing the nation’s attention. But he had a secret weapon: the unpopularity of the incumbent.
Trump is the first modern president whose approval rating never topped 50 percent. And if his daily servings of what-did-he-do-now alienated voters while the economy remained strong, helping the Democrats take back the House in 2018, his provocations became especially annoying as the country became mired in a pandemic, a recession and a fraught racial and social reckoning. It was notable that Trump’s “all about me” observation was delivered at a packed rally in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the flashpoint where a police shooting had inspired social unrest that had in turn inspired a Trump supporter to shoot protesters. It symbolized the chaos of the Trump era — and so did the president’s mockery of public health restrictions at a moment when Wisconsin’s Covid-19 hospitalizations had reached a new high.
Trump narrowly won Wisconsin in 2016, and he narrowly lost it this week. The difference wasn’t any disappointment from his MAGA base, who came out even stronger against Sleepy Joe than it had against Crooked Hillary. It was exhaustion from college-educated white suburbanites who had figured a businessman couldn’t do any worse than a politician in 2016. Biden was in some ways an even better foil for Trump’s war on traditional politics, a back-slapping Washington insider who had already spent 44 years as a senator and vice president, but swing voters were sick of the war. They were like the guy in the cartoon who says he wants things to be different, then smashes up his room with a bat, then surveys the wreckage and says: “Oh no.”
Last summer, I spent an afternoon with a fifth-generation Iowa corn and soybeans farmer named Dirk Rice, a 57-year-old Republican who had voted for Trump in 2016. He was tired of Trump’s constant trade wars, which were depressing demand for his products, even though Trump was sending farmers billions of dollars in handouts to offset the damage.
Mostly, though, he was just tired of Trump, tired of having to check his phone constantly to see if the president had said anything that would discombobulate the grain futures market, tired of seeing his face on TV all the time.
“As this wears on month after month, there’s just a certain fatigue that a lot of us feel,” Rice said. “The constant bombardment of news, all the drama, it just gets hard to take.”
Nov. 3 might go down in history as a revolution against all the drama. While Trump’s great-again message evoked a certain kind of nostalgia for an America before diversity workshops and gender-neutral bathrooms, Biden evokes a different kind of nostalgia for an older brand of politics. He is a throwback pol who actually believes what long-ago Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield taught him about seeing the good side in extremist adversaries like Jesse Helms. He is a moderate pragmatist who actually believes in the art of the deal, which is why current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted on negotiating with him during the Obama administration, rather than enduring lectures from Barack Obama himself.
Biden is a creature of the Senate who actually appears to believe it’s the world’s greatest deliberative body, and it’s easy to caricature him as a back-slapping blowhard who gave the eulogy at Strom Thurmond’s funeral. But whatever else he does, he won’t declare war on Red America, or dismiss sexual harassment victims as too ugly to harass, or bash his fist into the establishment’s face.
Biden is, after all, the establishment. He respects the norms that Trump has violated, and a majority of Americans now seem to wish those norms were norms again.
Unlike Trump, Biden is a true child of the working class, a Scranton kid who grew up with a stutter and went to a state school. While Trump is a cynic who alternatively portrays America as a sucker nation that’s always been taken to the economic cleaners and a brutal nation that’s never been any purer than its foreign rivals, Biden is an optimist who genuinely sees America as an exceptional nation, a beacon of goodness to the world. He’s corny about his faith in America’s ability to come together and overcome adversity and achieve whatever cliché suits the particular speech he happens to be giving.
Younger political insiders often mock Biden’s tongue-twisting gaffes, his “malarkey” and “literally” and “c’mon man” and other folksy Bidenisms, his tendency to drone on and on as if he were filibustering legislation on the Senate floor. Once while Biden was holding forth during a committee hearing, then-Sen. Obama passed an aide a note that read: Shoot. Me. Now. And it’s hard to think of a new idea that Biden has developed or even championed in more than four decades in politics, with the possible exception of the Violence Against Women Act. He is not an entrepreneurial politician or an unpredictable politician or a particularly exciting politician.
But America no longer seems to be yearning for a blow-stuff-up guy. It’s more interested in a put-stuff-back-together guy. And it’s seen the downsides of politics as 24-hour entertainment. Biden lacks Trump’s outsize performative talents but also his outsize personal flaws. His speeches are usually pretty forgettable, but they don’t usually spark global freakouts. His talent is personal connection, which doesn’t always translate on TV, but his warmth and compassion is obvious enough. Politically, he’s always been a middle-of-the-road Democrat, wherever the middle of the Democratic road has been at the time.
Trump ran in 2016 as a photographic negative of Obama, and Biden ran as the ultimate anti-Trump. When it comes to the pandemic that has killed 230,000 Americans, Biden promised that unlike Trump, he’ll do what the scientists recommend and take responsibility for the response. When it comes to the recession that has wiped out 7 million jobs, he promised that unlike Trump, he’ll be a steady and active negotiator to help Congress work out an ambitious new stimulus bill. And when it comes to the day-to-day workings of government, he promised that unlike Trump, he’ll appoint competent people and manage them effectively so that ordinary Americans don’t have to think about what’s happening in Washington all the time.
Most Americans dislike politics, and it’s understandable that many of them gravitated toward Trump’s promises to drain the swamp and make everything great again. Objectively, though, he didn’t. The swamp got swampier and just about everything got worse, and some Americans got tired of all the not-winning. But Trump’s worst political sin may have been dragging a nation of political agnostics into his never-ending political battles — and dragging apolitical American institutions like the NFL, Harley Davidson, General Motors and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into his us-vs.-them political culture war.
On Election Day, the Miami Herald interviewed 28-year-old Alex Garcia, who woke up planning to vote for Trump but changed his mind in the voting booth, deciding to support Biden so America could “go back to normal.”
“I just want my Instagram to be about me again, and how good I look,” Garcia said.
Americans may be self-obsessed, but that doesn’t mean we want a self-obsessed leader constantly inserting his furies and insecurities into our feeds. Normal is underrated in politics, and norms are underappreciated until they’re gone. That’s when Americans realize that the stilted conventions of politics, where senators refer to their enemies as “my friend from Texas” and candidates at least pretend that elections aren’t all about them, help keep the system from falling apart. It’s easy to mock “the experts,” but there’s a reason you don’t want a loud critic of cardiology to perform your open-heart surgery. Biden is a career politician who likes politics, cares about managing the government, and has proven over his career that he’s pretty good at both.
In November 2016, America was enjoying solid growth, low unemployment, record-high graduation rates and record-low uninsured rates and crime rates, but Trump successfully portrayed the country as a dystopian hellscape that he alone could fix. He said inner-city minorities should vote for him because their neighborhoods were savage killing fields: “What have you got to lose?” But his four-year assault on conventional Washington turned out to be an excellent advertisement for conventional Washington. It answered his own question.
It was exactly a century ago that Warren Harding won the presidency after promising “A Return to Normalcy” after World War I, a slogan as uninspiring as it was ungrammatical. “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration,” he declared. A century later, many Americans who once thought they wanted heroics and revolution decided they wanted healing and restoration. They certainly hope Biden will do better than Harding, an ineffective president who oversaw a corrupt administration. But they mostly hope he’ll make Washington boring again, so they can go back to ignoring politics.
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