HARRISBURG, PA — I was walking along the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg on the Saturday afternoon that we, and the world, learned that Joe Biden had bested Donald Trump to become the president-elect of the United States. The November sun was unseasonably warm on my face, and a cool breeze blew in from the west.
I took a deep breath and exhaled. And in that moment, the tensions of the last four years seemed to go with them. There was a sense, however briefly, that, after four years of chaos, division, and just plain mean-spiritedness at the very top of our government, that maybe we were finally going to be all right.
I was hardly alone.
From Pittsburgh to Harrisburg to Philadelphia, which delivered the Keystone State to Biden only hours earlier, people took to the streets in celebration, reveling in Biden’s win, and celebrating the undeniable reality that Trump, for whom cruelty is both a calling card and a brand, was on his way to becoming the first American president to be ousted after a single term since President George H.W. Bush.
And true to brand, in defeat, Trump was rage-tweeting a barrage of falsehoods that do not bear republication here. I’ll link to them, and you can read them yourself, if you want. But there’s no longer the necessity to gaze on this rhetorical car crash.
So, instead, the nation turns its eyes to Biden, the former, two-term vice president, who historically served under the nation’s first Black president, and who historically brings into power with him not only the nation’s first woman vice president, but also the first person of Black and South Asian descent to serve in that position: U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, of California.
During a speech in Wilmington, Del. on Saturday night, Biden reiterated and expanded on the themes that had underpinned his candidacy: a plan to fight an out-of-control pandemic that has claimed 237,000 American lives; to rebuild an American economy ravaged by this historic public health crisis; to restore America’s standing in the world, and, perhaps, most importantly, to begin moving a divided nation down a long road of healing.
There’s no doubt that the latter will be the hardest challenge for Biden and Harris to surmount. While 75 million Americans voted for Biden, 70 million of us, undeterred by the fact that the current president had quite clearly shown us who he was, decided they wanted four more years of Trump and his heartless regime.
“I pledge not to be a president who divides, but unifies, who sees not blue states or red states, but the United States,” Biden said in Wilmington on Saturday night. He called the work ahead, “the task of our time.” He called on Americans to stop seeing opponents as enemies, to look toward a time to heal.
The nation, he said, had been called to “marshal the forces of decency.”
A rally at the state Capitol in Harrisburg on Saturday afternoon speaks to the magnitude of the task confronting the septuagenarian president-elect. On the building’s west front, masked Biden fans, bearing “You’re fired” signs gathered mostly peaceably along Third Street.
Behind the Capitol, on its east side, a seething throng of more than 1,000 Trump supporters stood shoulder to shoulder, mostly unmasked, some carrying handguns, spoke openly of refusing to accept the results. They were egged on by speakers saying much the same.
In some ways, it was if the election had never happened; that a result had been handed down, and then one warring faction had immediately gone back to its normal order of business.
By then, the November sun had begun to cool some, and I left feeling a little deflated, worried that perhaps that earlier optimism had been misguided.
It wasn’t long after I got home that a colleague at a Canadian network where I often offer analysis and context on our very strange politics, texted me.
“Democracy prevails,” she wrote. “Decency prevails.”
And that’s when it hit me: Americans aren’t the only ones longing for healing. The rest of the world, which looks at us and sees the America we’re all taught about in school, is looking to us to resume being the nation that we believe, in our best moments, ourselves to be: One that is kind, caring, open-handed, welcoming, and a protector of the vulnerable.
Yes, we’ve often fallen far short of that goal, as our tumultuous and tragic summer has taught us.
But it’s also undeniably true that Black women who looked at Harris, and saw themselves, and Native peoples, who have the least reason to trust the American government, played a critical role in Saturday’s result. And if they can get past their legitimate grievance, what excuse do the rest of us have?
Decency prevails? Not yet.
But maybe we’re on our way to getting there. And maybe that’s enough.