Some years loom larger than others. The year 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression. Then 1945 and the end of World War II. In 1968, we saw a year of social unrest across the United States. More recently, we lived through 2001 and the enduring memory of 9/11.
The year 2020 will join those years. We will never forget it. It was a year of unimaginable suffering, of lives lived as we had never imagined them, and in the end of a victory that will resonate for decades to come.
It is, of course, impossible to look back on 2020 and not think of the catastrophe of COVID-19, and of the administration’s criminal mishandling of it. The scale of the human tragedy has been unimaginable, and the economic aftershocks have themselves been knee-buckling. But amid all this, we should not lose sight of the fact that perhaps the most consequential story of the year, especially in political terms, is that in 2020 the American people came face to face with despotism, with the end of our democracy, and they rejected it.
As this dark and deeply challenging year drew to a close, Americans won a victory like no other in our history.
It was not just a triumph of one politician, Joe Biden, over another, Donald Trump. Nor was it a win by one political party over another. The stakes were far higher.
The choice we faced was between preserving the U.S. system of government and gutting it. And now, as it is clear that the Trump-created chaos in the wake of the election is doomed to failure—but call it a coup attempt, because that is what it is—we should savor the fact that the American people rejected not only Trump but the malignant core of Trumpism.
Voters, after four years of seeing first-hand what Trumpism really meant, said no to its aspirations to autocracy, its contempt for the rule of law, its rejection of the core principles of our Constitution. They turned away its corruption, its lies, its distortions, its destruction of our infrastructure of government, its debasement of our high offices, its assaults on freedom of expression.
American voters recognized that were he re-elected, the man and the ideology would have transformed our country into an authoritarian nightmare, the kind of failed state we have seen produce despair and chaos whenever they occurred worldwide. The past six weeks have only served to reconfirm their good judgment.
From the moment he entered the political arena, Trump has been attacking our system of government. As soon as he entered office, he sought to place himself above the law, to weaken constitutional checks and balances, to stifle opposition voices and to make himself all powerful. In the run-up to the election, he worked to suppress votes, to spread disinformation, even to slow the mail to blunt the impact of mail-in balloting. After the election, the disinformation continued as Trump deployed armies of lawyers to literally cancel the votes of those who voted against the president.
The majority of the American people understood that by voting for Trump you were not voting for a man or the platform of an American political party. You were voting for his view that one man was above the law, that one man and not the people would hold the power, that our country existed to serve him, his family, his friends, and his supporters.
But the people would not have it. The people saw Trump for what he was. The people answered the call. The people would have the last word.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris received more votes—nearly 81.3 million—than any candidates for president and vice president ever. The majority by which Biden won, nearly 8 million votes, was the largest by which a challenger has beaten an incumbent since Franklin Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover in 1932. Biden, with 51.4 percent of all votes cast, won the highest share of eligible voters since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide in 1964. Only Johnson, FDR, and Eisenhower have gotten a higher share of eligible voters in the past century.
But given the threat Trump posed, it was clear that people were voting not just for the Democratic ticket, but they were with their ballots voting to live the words of the oath Trump failed to uphold. They were voting to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” And they were sending a stark reminder to Trump and to all those who might emulate his example, that in our system, the voters, not the president, are the highest authority.
In the wake of his crushing defeat, as the powerful often do, Trump worked to find a loophole. As his life story reminds us, core to who he is was a belief that rules and laws were for “little people”—for those among us who could not afford batteries of lawyers. He launched almost five dozen court cases. He appealed via his lawyers and social media to the justices and judges he appointed to ignore the will of the electorate. He tried to pressure state officials to throw out the ballots that went to his opponents. He tried to get legislatures to ignore the laws they themselves wrote and appoint electors who would do his bidding rather than do what the results at the ballot box required. And he failed. And he failed. And he failed again.
He failed because, in the end, Trump never understood our system. In it, courts are important. A free press is vital. The executive and legislative branches of the federal government wield great power. So do the governors and legislatures of the states. But in our system of government the ultimate power lies with the people.
Trump may still plot with the small band of corrupt and inept advisers who humor him, feed his paranoia and dangle fantasies of convoluted last-minute plans by which he can cling to office. But, outside that group of seditious misfits and the fringe bands of racists and losers who impotently parade about in XXXL camo uniforms at poorly attended rallies, it is clear that our democracy’s near-death experience under Trump is over.
That is something to celebrate. Not just because we rebuffed an attack on rights, privileges, and principles we hold dear. But because Trump’s defeat should send a message to the world about the resoluteness of the American people and the resilience of our system. And because it should serve as a warning to Trump or others who might try again in the future to attack our system. And, perhaps above all, because it has served as a reminder to all of us that democracy is not something guaranteed by a few words on a document. We must be ever-watchful of it, and we must be active within it if we are to see it continue to survive the shocks and challenges of the transformative years to come.