Donald Trump, a former reality television star and failed real estate magnate, has officially lost his campaign to be reelected president of the United States for a second term, the merciful conclusion of a grueling election and ballot-counting process that stretched on for the better part of a week. The president has so far refused to concede. It is unclear if he ever formally will.
For weeks leading up to November 3, the president and his advisors repeatedly suggested that Democrats would attempt to steal the election, foreshadowing a predictable if somewhat clumsy bid to delegitimize Trump’s loss. In a speech at two in the morning immediately following the election, a stunning White House address in the twilight hours of the race, and, naturally, a series of all-caps tweets, the president and some of his allies condemned vote-counting efforts as fraudulent and falsely claimed states in which he was losing had “dumped” and destroyed ballots. The Tuesday that never seemed to end finally concluded on Saturday morning, when the AP called the election for Biden, after a win in Pennsylvania finally granted the Democratic nominee 273 electoral college votes.
Through the weekend, stories of Trump’s humiliation have spread through liberal circles with glee. And it is objectively funny, for instance, that Rudy Giuliani’s “big press conference” was staged at the Four Seasons Total Landscaping storefront and that both Jared Kushner and Melania Trump are reportedly advising their patriarch with some urgency to admit that he lost. But something that’s been muted in this early celebration of the democratic process is what actually happened during one unlikely president’s single term: It turns out that Trump was right, almost exactly four years ago, when a leaked clip threatened to derail his first presidential bid and it seemed inconceivable that a man who bragged of grabbing women by the pussy could be permitted to ascend to the highest office in the country: When you’re a star, they let you do it. They let you do almost anything, in fact, even if the electoral college doesn’t give you four more years.
Providing a succinct overview of Trump’s impact on American politics is nearly impossible, by design: For four years, his administration has bludgeoned the public with a barrage of hateful policies and stunning displays of vitriol masquerading as take-no-prisoners leadership. The tactic was meant to numb and confuse, and it often worked.
In four years of office, Trump functionally reimagined the American presidency as a for-profit autocracy, gifting unqualified allies and family members political appointments as he’s surrounded himself with sycophantic aides. The feeble hope that he might ever stop campaigning, or grow into a more traditional politician, was wishful thinking from the start: The litany of horrors enacted since the chaos of his first executive order announcing the “Muslin ban” was torrential, stretching the scope of a single politician’s power and will to do harm beyond what was previously imaginable.
In his first term, Trump pardoned corrupt allies, remade the Supreme Court with partisan lifetime appointees, harassed and spread misinformation about his opponents, used taxpayer dollars to prop up his failing businesses, dismantled entire agencies on a whim, took money from foreign governments, and repeatedly demanded his political rivals be jailed. In the last month of his campaign, he directed an FBI loyalist to release previously classified documents of dubious origin with the goal of criminalizing his opponents. He spoke openly about using the Supreme Court he had built to prevent votes against him from being counted. He signed an executive order allowing him to purge civil servants for disloyalty to his regime.
On immigration, his polices were barbaric as he encouraged the white nationalists in his administration to concoct ever more cruel “punishments” for the undocumented or even those hoping to escape violence by entering the country legally. Making good on the racist promises that defined his campaign in 2016, he built portions of a border wall, separated families, detained undocumented immigrants indefinitely, and staged massive immigration raids, fueling an uptick in hate crimes against Black and brown Americans along the way. His impact on environmental policy was disastrous: His administration stripped protections for vast swaths of land, encouraging extractive industries in the name of the economy and withdrew from the historic Paris Climate Accord, an action finalized in the last weeks of his reelection campaign. Civil rights for entire categories of Americans were gutted as the keys to crucial agencies were handed over to religious zealots and right wing pedants, who in turn doggedly worked to roll back discrimination provisions for queer and trans populations and defunded decades-old programs providing healthcare to women.
Though it appears to have made little difference to the around 70.3 million Americans who voted for him, Trump’s 2020 campaign was temporarily marred by his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, a failure of such staggering magnitude it shocked even his allies. While Trump appeared to have understood the dire threat covid-19 posed to the country as early as February, when he referred to it as “deadly stuff” in a private interview with Bob Woodward, he publicly downplayed the issue repeatedly, reassuring the public the threat was “no big deal.”
His dismissive tone and refusal to institute federal guidelines around mask-wearing and social distancing are widely understood to have killed, conservatively, hundreds of thousands of people. As entire hospital systems converted into covid-19 units and dead bodies were loaded into refrigerated trucks, the president dangled aid and necessary protective equipment as a bargaining chip. Shipments of PPE to hard-hit states were mysteriously seized by the federal government while the president tweeted that governors should stop complaining and re-open their states. The efforts to cover up this unprecedented failure were characteristically cowardly: Trump fired or discredited most anyone offering sound medical advice, stopped the CDC’s efforts to accurately portray the scope of the pandemic, and then insisted on personally signing the paltry $1,200 checks offered to the some 22 million Americans who were then unemployed.
As in all things, Trump’s own brush with the coronavirus simply became a stage on which the pageantry of fascism was set. When he survived the disease that has killed nearly 300,000 of his constituents and credited a cocktail of drugs largely unavailable to Americans for his recovery, he reportedly wished to emerge from the hospital and rip open his shirt to reveal a Superman “S” underneath. Such tendencies have become a primary draw for Trump’s base, who turned even more frenzied as the demagogic leader pandered to their beliefs: In the last desperate months of the close race, the president openly courted white nationalist groups and winkingly refused to disavow a conspiracy cult based on the belief that he is personally breaking up a pedophilic cabal. As the Trump administration desperately sought to find legal loopholes to contest legitimate election results and spread conspiracy theories about Democratic voter fraud, these supporters prayed in front of polling sites.
The Republican party, once eager to distance itself from the vile politics of their least likely presidential nominee, has embraced Trump’s willingness to disengage with reality and pummel dissent into submission. Ted Cruz, who once referred to Trump as a “maniac,” joined Senator Lindsay Graham this week in parroting the administration’s stunning lies about poll-watchers in Philadelphia. An incoming class of GOP senators has adopted the Trump family’s penchant for bad-faith conspiratorial fervor while they pander to racism as the defining characteristic of their base.
And it only took for years. Until this moment, nothing stopped him: Not our politicians, not Robert Mueller, not Nancy Pelosi, not the litany of anonymous Hill staffers pledging to work for justice from the inside, not the viral video clips of his rambling babble, not the credible rape allegations, not the public, not the protests. He was barely stopped by the vote.
The election wasn’t the moratorium on the last four years Democrats hoped for: Nearly half of the country voted to keep Trump in office, and there wasn’t much in the way of a “blue wave.” The centrist presidential candidate the DNC favored, carefully calibrated to appeal to conservatives, didn’t actually flip that many Trump voters at all. And in response to this failure, Democrats are moving further towards a shifting “center” defined almost entirely by the Trump era. In a caucus call this week, prominent Democrats blamed progressive messaging on their losses, “don’t say socialism, ever,” they said; we’re not going to win if we “run on Medicare for All, defund the police.”
What’s possible to imagine is being redefined, in real-time, but the brutal far-right sensibility of a Republican party molded by Trump. The political spectrum has been narrowed until it’s simply a dot. Joe Biden may have won, but Trump is the center prominent Democrats are defining themselves against now. We’re going to be living in the world he built for a long, long time.