After 1,460 days, the news finally came. When you have waited four interminable years to experience a wished-for verdict, conjured in fantasy over many a sleepless night, the moment of its stark arrival still felt unfamiliar. In fact, once it came to pass, it felt randomly arbitrary, even strange.
When the television networks finally and mercifully declared Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory over President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential race, I was at home in Miami with my wife and my kids awaiting the news we were denied in November 2016. It was a Saturday morning, and the skies swirled with the distant menace of the approaching tropical storm Eta.
That’s when the avalanche of text messages and phone calls hit.
“We did it!” “Congratulations!” “He’s gone!”
As an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, I had spent the last months of the 2020 campaign marshaling every resource within my reach to secure his defeat. A defeat that was now reality. But what surprised me most was how little actual joy I felt at the news. Happiness certainly, and a sense of satisfaction undoubtedly upon learning of our fellow citizens’ rejection of Trump and Trumpism. But it was difficult for me to tap into that spirit of joyous celebration that so many were experiencing in our country and around our world.
The only way I can explain it is that, for me, the vanquishing of Trump felt like surviving a near-death experience.
The United States had come agonizingly, uncomfortably close to cavalierly igniting its democracy—jettisoning an experiment in representative self-rule that had inspired the world for more than two centuries, and had set my own family in search of its sanctuary more than 60 years ago, that seeing it inch back from the brink brought no outbursts of joy, only sober, contemplative relief.
Marveling, these last four years, at the normalization of authoritarianism in America, questioning my own sanity in response to the collective shoulder shrugging by nearly half the country as norms, rules, and laws were trampled to satisfy the needs of a lawless, narcissistic leader, the only physical response to the emerging staccato of neighborhood car horns blasting in celebration over the demise of Trump was a protracted, deep sigh. It certainly didn’t enliven my mood that the move away from Trumpism, though decisive, was hardly overwhelming.
Far from the baptismal Democratic blue tidal wave the public opinion polls promised, the actual results delivered, as someone joked, “a blue ripple.” After living through the onslaught of Trump’s America with a debased democracy, poisonously false rhetoric, unprecedented corruption, open warfare on the free press, white supremacists and neo-Nazis placed on even keel with peaceful protestors, caged children forcibly separated from their parents in the name of the United States government, and a quarter million American souls needlessly lost to a mismanaged pandemic, 73 million of our fellow Americans still proclaimed, “Yes please, I’d like another helping of that.”
For me, the loss of freedom and the destruction of the rule of law were far from abstract concepts; they were the very backdrop to the development of my political identity. I often wondered if there was something about my own personal background that made me more keenly aware of the dangerous path our country had set upon under Trump from the moment he descended on the golden escalator in the summer of 2015. I am the grandson and son of Cuban refugees—people who came here escaping a generally prosperous society that crumbled under the weight of authoritarianism fueled by a narcissistic autocrat and his rabid cult of personality. I grew up in a family, and a community, that bore the scars of that collapse. The echoes of the cruelty, lawlessness, and perversity of Fidel Castro’s dictatorship that splintered Cuban society and cast its exiled residents across the shores of the United States reverberated throughout my entire life.
My antennae for dictators, real ones and wannabes, came with the Cuban-American pedigree.
It wasn’t difficult to link the hostility toward opposing points of view, the exercise of power for ideological gain over the good of the nation, the frontal attacks against the press and the independent judiciary and the coziness with fellow traveler foreign strongmen embodied by Trumpism to so many of the stories I had heard from Cuban exiles since childhood. None of this was hypothetical or speculative to me: It was concrete, palpable, and real.
It is often said that immigrants, especially those hailing from nations battered by the scourge of authoritarianism, appreciate our country’s freedoms and democracy more than those who have known nothing different. I had spent an entire life asking what I would do if I were ever called upon to fight in the face of looming authoritarianism, if I had it in me to make the kinds of sacrifices that so many had made, and continue to make, in the fight against Cuba’s totalitarian regime. I am glad that, so far, a great deal less has been asked of me than of them.
Yet in a twist of irony bordering on farce, one of the things that will linger with me forever, a deep wound that may never fully heal, was seeing my own Cuban-American community in South Florida overwhelmingly support the reelection of Donald Trump. One might think that people who had experienced the ravages of totalitarianism would recognize the threat presented by an illiberal lawless demagogue like Donald Trump. Yet a clear majority of Cuban Americans in Florida again cast their vote for him in 2020. Books may be written on that phenomenon going forward; the visceral trauma of our shattering experience with communism cannot fully be understood by those who have not been immersed in our culture and our history over the past decades. Still, it was an inexplicable disappointment to see so many of my Cuban-American compatriots succumb to the siren song of an authoritarian extremist who cast himself as the champion of liberal democracy abroad, while his own commitment to its utter destruction right here at home was so prevalent and precise in his every word, deed, and tweet.
Late evening on that Saturday when they were crowned the victors, as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and President-elect Joe Biden addressed the nation, I allowed myself the first few moments of flickering optimism. There was a woman, of African-American and Asian-American ancestry no less, thanking the voters for granting her the opportunity, for the first time, to occupy the second highest elected position in the land. History was unfolding as Kamala Harris addressed the world. She even spoke of joy, and at that time, I understood, and may have even fleetingly felt, glimpses of the joy of which she spoke, for progress indeed had been made.
Then Joe Biden took the stage as the President-elect, and, once again, I felt I was living in the America I had always known and loved. He spoke of unity, togetherness, and purpose, like so many of our country’s presidents had done before. As Biden’s remarks concluded, an idea unspoken by him, dominated and echoed throughout my own thoughts—in denying Trump a second term, we had just averted the greatest catastrophe our nation and its democracy had ever faced.
Donald Trump and his complicit co-conspirators in the Republican Party managed to damage the political lines of communication, tenuous as they may have been, that had made it possible to occasionally forge ahead and make admittedly halting progress in our quest to improve the lives of everyday Americans. As a nation we have now fully withdrawn from dialogue and debate over policy. We belong to one of two tribes, responding to different realities reinforced by a fragmented press environment and the ideological segmentation that has ironically emerged from the age of social media.
And with the surrender of the Republican Party to the whims of a lame duck Trump, the most disturbing question of all, about the condition of our hard-fought American democracy, comes down to this:
How does our democracy survive in a two-party government system where one party works in service to preserving democracy, while the other party is now openly dedicated to destroying it?
In the end, it may be the realization of the titanic task ahead of us that is most responsible for my own sense of muted joy as Joe Biden prepares to be sworn in as the nation’s 46thPresident. I am under no illusions that we have categorically defeated the real enemy; just its most recent and extreme manifestation. There is still so much work to do. We must somehow, in the face of a Republican Party that now delights in its newfound hostility to democracy and the 73 million Americans who voted for the orange-tinged author of its would-be demolition, reconstruct all those democratic institutions that have been grievously wounded in the era of Trump, then buttress our system of government against a future authoritarian tide in election contests to come.
An American presidential election in 2024, which was not promised if Trump was reelected, and which we may have earned back with this outcome, now summons us again. Only then perhaps, will I allow the relief felt over Trump’s defeat in 2020 to transform again into the pure celebration of joy that can come again only after an election result where the fate of our democracy itself does not hang in its balance.