In a crystallizing moment at the last presidential debate, Donald Trump and Joe Biden fielded a question about people of color who live alongside chemical plants and oil refineries that seem to be making them sick.
As is his way, Biden responded with I’ ve-been-there empathy. He recalled growing up so close to Delaware refineries that when his mom drove him to school in a morning frost, the wipers spread an oil slick on the windshield.
Trump responded in his own way, too. “The families that we’re talking about are employed heavily, and they are making a lot of money,” he presumed. “More money than they’ve ever made … tremendous money.”
These men were true to form, authentic in that exchange. They offered voters a distinct choice between a red-hot president who put the bottom line before all else and an unflashy Democrat on debate night and through the campaign. The latter invited Americans to cool down and come together.
Biden promised straight talk and sobriety on the lethal pandemic, respect for the facts (if you don’t count his flubs), aspirations for racial justice, and a revival of the realities of American democracy that Democrats said Trump was tearing apart.
And the nation pivoted, embracing at least the chance of reconciliation in this deeply riven country. Will Americans accept the olive branch Biden extends? The election was far from a comprehensive repudiation of the polarizing president.
While Biden drew the most votes of any presidential candidate in history, Trump pulled the second-most ever — each over 70 million and some 4 million votes apart. When Pennsylvania sealed his Electoral College win, Biden’s victory Saturday had Trump crying foul, refusing to concede and feeding the false sense among his supporters that a corrupted vote cheated him.
After nearly five decades in public office, Biden was never going to be the most energizing candidate in the field. He had no pithy slogan like “Hope and Change” to rouse excitement. Audacity isn’t his thing, man.
Instead, he tapped a majority’s desire to stop the noise, to reject the bleating on Twitter, to turn the page from a period marked by confrontation, division, and chaos, often driven by the White House itself. “Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end, here and now,” he told his excited crowd, and the country, in his victory speech Saturday night.
The Trump years had all been too much for lifelong Republican Edward Drnach, 61, of Ellicott City, Maryland, who voted for a Democratic president for the first time.
“I’ve just had it,” Drnach said of Trump. “Whether he says something stupid, or whether he breaks ties with an ally, or whether he kisses up to a dictator, I’ve had it, and the whole boatload of things that come along with him, his whole family, etcetera.”
It was all too much for Biden voter Cynthia McDonald, also, in Sandy Springs, Georgia. “I want to wake up and not have this sense of doom,” said the 52-year-old consultant. “I just want to wake up and feel like there’s an adult in charge.”
“It’s kind of like a train wreck that you can’t look away from,” she said. “Then you realize you’re not watching the train wreck. You’re on the damn train.”
At least some of Biden’s victory was driven by an animus toward Trump that was far greater than the rejection of Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush, the only two other elected incumbents to lose since Herbert Hoover in the Depression. It was significant enough that the left swallowed its disappointment at their party’s choice of a conventional candidate and swung behind him.