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Joe Biden Got Exactly What He Wanted

And a few other things we learned from the 2020 election.

Joe Biden speaks after winning the 2020 presidential election

What are some of the things we have learned, now that the dust from the 2020 election has settled a bit?

We have learned that it feels really, really good for Donald Trump to lose an election. I felt absolutely nothing about Joe Biden winning the presidency, but I adored Donald Trump losing the presidency—even more than I thought I would. The purity of the joy in New York City was a lovely and infectious thing. How could you not let all that spontaneous jubilation wash over you? It was mass catharsis on a scale I can’t remember experiencing in quite the same way. A thing to remember.

We have learned that it’s actually pretty difficult to steal an election in America when you are losing in about four different states. The U.S. has been really good throughout its history in cutting off votes before elections. We are the country of the poll tax and the literacy test, of the gerrymander and the closed polling place, of the steady destruction of the Voting Rights Act. There has also been some real skill acquired in terms of stealing very, very close elections, as George W. Bush showed in 2000. But clearly, there is a little bit to go before someone can successfully coordinate a stolen election in so many different places at once, and when it is so obvious that the vote-counting is good and proper. It’s a low bar to clear, I know.

We have learned that it’s also difficult to steal an election if you are a bunch of complete fucking idiots. Maybe someone smarter could have gotten away with the kind of sabotage Trump kept promising, but someone as dumb as him and his crew won’t be able to. The Four Seasons thing alone, my god.

We have learned, yet again, that the media is an incredibly powerful force. In the end, one of the hardest things for Trump to overcome was the fact that CNN and the AP are, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent of election officials. The whole world kicked into motion on Saturday not because all the votes have been counted, but because the Associated Press had (sorry) seen enough. That’s power!

We have learned that Joe Biden, like Barack Obama before him, is quite skilled at winning a presidential election, and not particularly good at taking the rest of his party along with him. In the end, the glide path Biden had been on for the better part of two years concluded exactly where it had begun: with him comfortably ahead of Trump and bound for the White House. Biden’s stubborn refusal to engage with controversies of the day and his resolute adherence to his milquetoast message proved successful, just as he’d predicted. (His total embrace of the status quo probably contributed to the failure of Trump’s attempts to take the election from him. Why would you do a coup against Joe Biden? What is even the point of that?) But his campaign was a huge success for him and him alone. Democrats either failed to make gains or went backward at just about every other level of government, from the Senate down to the state legislatures. As a consequence, he will enter office with a broad popular mandate and a severely curtailed ability to act on that mandate.

We have also learned, though, if not in the past few days than throughout the campaign, that that’s probably right where Joe Biden wants to be. Of course he would prefer, on balance, that the Democrats capture the Senate in January. It would make some things, like Cabinet appointments and judges, much easier for him. But either a 50-50 Senate with Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker or a closely divided but Republican-controlled Senate is pretty perfect for someone as inherently adverse to deep systemic change as Joe Biden. Either formulation gives him the perfect get-out-of-jail card. Want to end the filibuster or pack the courts or do anything big that requires action beyond the executive branch? Either he can’t do it because Joe Manchin thinks it would be too much or he can’t do it because Mitch McConnell won’t let him. The question of whether he ever wanted to do it in the first place need never come up. Instead, Biden gets his ideal world: he’s in charge, he can do what he wants on the world stage, and he can cut a few deals with Republicans back home and concentrate on restoring the system to its former glory. What fun.

The biggest thing that we hopefully should have learned by now is that Joe Biden and the rest of the Democratic establishment are banking on people to disengage from politics. They have literally told us that one of the benefits to their ascension is that we won’t have to think about them as much anymore. Let the grown-ups take it from here, and we’ll sink back into happy apathy, content in the knowledge that the bad man lost and the good man is probably doing the right thing, or trying his best. We should not take them up on their offer. That way lies disaster. Things will only ever improve if Democrats know that electing them is not the ultimate expression of political will, but is rather the trading of one group of people the American system is comfortable with for another group of people the system is comfortable with. They will only improve if Democrats lose that comfort and gain a little more fear.