Whoever ends up winning the US election—an answer we may get tonight, or not for weeks if some state results get bogged down in litigation—one of the most important takeaways from the race is that it was so close. Far from the landslide that polls seemed to predict, it's come down to a nail-biter.
The big question now is what these results mean for the country. Pundits have tried to explain away President Donald Trump's show of strength by pointing to lockdown fatigue or voters' appreciation for his perceived success on the economy—at least until the pandemic came along and cratered it.
But these rationalizations don't tell the whole story. Most important, they don't account for the fact that, whoever ultimately wins the White House, nearly half of all US voters endorsed a white-nationalist serial liar who has spectacularly botched the most serious health crisis in a century. They also knowingly ignored, or willingly embraced, Trump's flagrant cruelty and sexism, his lack of curiosity or knowledge about the government and the world, his disdain for traditional US values such as fair play and the rule of law, and his eagerness to tear down the institutions of governance at home and abroad—institutions that, while flawed, have provided much peace and prosperity over the years. Back in 2016, some Republicans voted for Trump because they didn't know much about him, or because they hoped that the responsibilities of the office would transform him into a statesman. No one can make that argument today. We all now know exactly who Trump is.
When you factor in the facts that Trump has won more votes this time than in 2016, that he improved his standing among Latino and Black voters, and that the Republican Party may well hold the Senate, you're left with one conclusion: 2016 was no fluke. Whoever wins this one, we're all living in Trump's America now.
Why do I say that? For starters, Trump and his party's show of strength means that win or lose, Trump isn't going away and the GOP won't abandon him after all. Before the election, the end of Trumpism seemed like a sure thing. More and more Republicans were arguing, quietly, that the party needed reform and that four more years of Trump would doom them all. Even stalwart supporters such as Sen. John Cornyn were starting to edge away from the president. Now that Trump, and those supporters, have done so well, it's hard to imagine many Republicans giving up on Trump or Trumpism anytime soon.
With his party and close to half the public behind him, an empowered Trump—whether as president, opposition leader, or freelance tweeter and media star—will continue to draw huge levels of attention and support, which he'll use to hector and undermine Democrats and to push the same peevish, counterfactual, us-versus-the-experts-and-everybody-else message that he has for the past four years. Republican "Never Trumpers"—former GOP officials dedicated to process, competent governance, the importance of institutions, and at least some basic form of national unity—will remain marginalized or will leave the party altogether.
The results will be dire. Should the GOP win the White House, or lose it but hold the Senate, the policy paralysis of the past four years will continue—or even worsen. And things may not be much better under former Vice President Joe Biden. Even presidents who control Congress rarely get more than one or two big things done before their first midterm election, when they often lose legislative support. It's hard to imagine that a President Biden, should he earn that title, will get even that far unless he manages to eke out a Senate victory (which, as of this writing, seems unlikely).
That's a recipe for big trouble ahead. While Biden may seek to change the tone in Washington, the years of Barack Obama's presidency showed that despite Biden's lifelong dedication to bipartisanship, so long as Republicans remain the party of no, the chances of achieving it are close to zero. Under a divided government, we're likely to see more inaction on huge problems such as the pandemic (though Biden could make some improvements using his executive authority) and the economy (where he can't do much without Congress). Should Biden fail to pass major pandemic relief and other government spending, markets will flounder and financial instability will increase. Without coordinated action by all branches of the US government, the pandemic will get much worse.
Thus no matter who wins the White House, Trump's America—a country that has now spurned its best chance to resoundingly repudiate him—will mean more self-perpetuating dysfunction. Rage at the failure of government to help, or Republicans' rage at the government's attempts to help (through restrictions meant to limit the spread of the virus) will only intensify the country's already vicious polarization, further reducing the chances for bipartisan cooperation and possibly leading to violence.
Biden's goal of healing the nation's divisions and governing in a way that brings everyone together seems like a very tall order now. Obama's attempts to do the same only fueled Republicans' obstreperousness and drove a large share of the public into the dangerous fantasy land of birtherism and other conspiracy theories (some of which ultimately morphed into QAnon). Now that Trump's approach, for all its ugliness, has received a dramatic embrace from nearly half the country, it's hard to imagine a President Biden making things better enough to make a difference. And it's impossible to imagine a President Trump even trying.
Jonathan Tepperman is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement