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A Return to Decency

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. addressing the nation from Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 7. “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again,” he said. Credit Angela Weiss/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. addressing the nation from Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 7. “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again,” he said. Credit Angela Weiss/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Trump is not yet gone, but he’s muted, marginalized and moribund. American democracy was challenged by Mr. Trump at its very heart — respect for truth — and resisted. Joe Biden will take office in January as the 46th president of the United States. Decency will return to the White House, a fundamental moral shift. Dictators the world over will no longer have carte blanche to do their worst unchallenged.

Mr. Biden, with 306 Electoral College votes — the same number that Mr. Trump won in 2016 when he called his victory a “massive landslide” — won with a little room to spare. All the protest and bluster from Mr. Trump cannot undo the facts. The obscenity of the president’s refusal to concede feels less stark in a nation inured to outrage. Still, it demonstrates the extent of Mr. Trump’s attempt to subvert the institutions and traditions of democracy.

An American authoritarian lurch posed a real danger. Europe already felt isolated in its defense of the rule of law and human rights. That insidious, wheedling, plaintive voice from the Oval Office, oozing self-obsession, got inside everyone’s heads. Mr. Trump’s political genius lay in his feel for the dark side of human nature and his ferocious, social media-propelled energy in appealing to it. The volume has dropped as the nightmare recedes. Suddenly there is mental space to think again.

There is plenty to think about. The post-1945 American-led world order is gone; the Biden presidency will not revive it. With the United States AWOL and the United Nations Security Council ineffectual, the pandemic revealed a leaderless world. The barriers the virus has erected will not be quickly dismantled. Nor will the economy based on remote work disappear, accompanied by the potentially devastating psychological impact of loneliness. Western societies face insistent challenges to their democratic model from a rising China, with its repressive surveillance state, and the Russia of President Vladimir V. Putin, for whom liberalism is “obsolete” because it presupposes that “migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity.”

Mass migration, the disruptions of technology, virus-linked economic hardship and the hollowing-out of the middle class create conditions in which nationalism and the scapegoating it depends on thrive. These conditions will continue to spur illiberal movements of the kind Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin and Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, have led. The core challenge to liberal democracies is to fashion a response that must involve broader economic and educational opportunities, as well as fiscal equity, as starting points. Impunity for the rich and widening inequality have broken “society,” understood as a community with certain shared interests.

In the United States, the cultural chasm between urban elites and the heartland remains stark. Mr. Trump’s almost 74 million votes reflected more than “America first” chest-thumping. Barack Obama, in a recent interview with The Atlantic magazine, said, “We are entering into an epistemological crisis.” The former president observed that Americans are losing the capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood, and in such conditions, democracy fails.

OK, but I tried to imagine how “epistemological crisis” would go down in Rifle, Colo., where I’d recently been doing some reporting at the Shooters Grill, owned by Lauren Boebert, a 33-year-old hard-right Glock-carrying Republican just elected to Congress.

Even language itself has broken down between liberals and the other America that thinks differently. Mr. Trump, an artful impostor, saw the political space this opened up for him. His nostalgia is for some unidentified moment of American greatness, when white male property owners ruled alone, women stayed home and the nation’s global dominance was unchallenged. He thrived on the unease and sense of humiliation that rapid demographic change and a shifting economic landscape brought. He is unlikely to go away; and if he does, perhaps to a prison cell, Trumpism will find some other exponent.

Mr. Biden will get certain things done quickly: rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change; reassert the importance of American values, including the defense of democracy and human rights; rebuild shaken ties with the European Union and other allies across the world; restore the place of truth so that America’s word is worth something again; and reject the zero-sum approach of Mr. Trump which failed to grasp the mutual benefits of open trade and a rules-based global order.

In the Middle East, Mr. Biden will steer away from Mr. Trump’s uncritical support of Israel toward a more balanced American approach to the conflict with the Palestinians and seek ways to revive the Iran nuclear accord. He will restore process to American policy. In fact, he will reinstate policy, in the place of gut and urges, Mr. Trump’s modus operandi, not least when it came to the chaotic response to the pandemic.

This Biden makeover is all well and good, but the world has moved on, and the quest for the status quo ante cannot be the new president’s compass. Mr. Trump’s belligerence and Brexit have galvanized Europe in the direction of what Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has called “strategic autonomy.” For the first time, Germany has allowed the federalization of European debt, allowing the union to borrow like a government, an important step toward a stronger, more integrated Europe. It’s time for a “New Deal” between Europe and the United States that acknowledges European emancipation and shifting American priorities, while cementing an alliance of values and often overlapping interests.

Europe’s evolution has been evident in relations with China, which used to be purely commercial. Now, the expansionist China of President Xi Jinping is seen as a systemic rival.

The European Union has been critical of China’s human rights record, imposing sanctions in response to its repression in Hong Kong, and is rightly skeptical of Chinese boasts about its superior response to the pandemic. Still, European nations want to work with China. One of the major challenges for the West as the Biden administration takes office will be finding the sweet spot that confronts Mr. Xi’s China with firmness while avoiding outright confrontation.

China is an explicit threat to the Western liberal model. This threat must be recognized and resisted. Chinese technology, for example, is not neutral. It channels information to Beijing. But China is also an integral part of the global economy. An angry “China first” swing away from engagement would benefit nobody. Mr. Trump’s gratuitous and incoherent belligerence has needlessly complicated the difficult relationship between the world’s great power and the power that would replace it.

The American election was a turning point. It illustrated once again that those who write off democracy do so at their peril. Democracies are slow to react, often cumbersome, inherently messy. They are also stubborn and, when provoked, resolute. They know that the diktat of the autocrat is irreconcilable with the quest for human dignity and freedom. They can summon themselves to say to a bully, “You’re fired!” — words Mr. Trump still cannot bear to hear. The result is the rebirth of hope, however tenuous, for the 21st century.

Vaccines may be coming. A decent American president certainly is.

Roger Cohen has been a columnist for The Times since 2009. His columns appear Wednesday and Saturday. He joined The Times in 1990, and has served as a foreign correspondent and foreign editor.

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