One very important thing — maybe the most important thing — changed in American politics this week. But several other important things seem to have stayed the same.
So Justin Trudeau and millions of other Canadians can now look forward to relaxing a bit come January 20, when Joe Biden is expected to be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States — notwithstanding the recent fuss and fury from the 45th president and whatever else the incumbent might try to do to protest this result over the next two months.
But neither Trudeau, nor anyone who aspires to be prime minister at some point in the foreseeable future, can allow themselves to believe that the last four years were just a strange aberration.
The implicit promise of Biden’s candidacy was a return to normalcy — or at least to the way things were before Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower in New York and launched his candidacy for president with a speech that promised to build a wall along the American border with Mexico to keep “drugs,” “crime” and “rapists” from entering the United States.
After four years of panic, a little peace
As far as Canada is concerned, Biden should be able to fulfill that promise. For at least the next four years, there should be no reason to worry about what the American president might tweet. There should be no reason to think he might try to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement on a whim or launch a trade war premised on the idea that Canadian-made aluminum presents a national security threat to the United States.
It’s unlikely that Biden will throw a public tantrum if Trudeau publicly disagrees with him at an international summit — or that one of Biden’s senior advisers will condemn Trudeau to hell for doing so. It’s hard to imagine Biden would call Trudeau and rant about how much he dislikes Chrystia Freeland and refer to her as a “nasty woman” — as Trump did during a phone call in June 2018.
“It is as difficult a moment as we have ever faced as a country,” Bob Rae, now Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, wrote that same month, at the height of this country’s battle with the Trump administration over a new trade deal.
It’s also possible that Canada will be able to count on a better response to the COVID-19 pandemic, at least after January 20 — and the United States getting itself in order would surely help Canada’s recovery.
What Trumpism did for Trudeau
There are any number of things that Donald Trump might still try to do between now and January 20. But Trudeau can take comfort from the fact that he and Canada seem to have gotten through these last four years with modest injuries. The time and energy the Trudeau government previously spent thinking about Donald Trump can now be put towards literally anything else.
It might also be argued that the Trump years gave new purpose and relevance to the political project Trudeau started when he ran for leadership of the Liberal party in 2012. The election of a populist nationalist who campaigned on xenophobia, provoked racial division and denied the science of climate change put into stark relief a Liberal agenda that promised to pursue economic inclusion, lower greenhouse gas emissions, diversity and pluralism.
Trudeau might have benefited politically from that contrast. But historians also might judge him now on how well he navigated what feels like a pivot point for the future of liberal democracy.
Trudeau will now (and once again) have an American president whose stated worldview is broadly similar to his own. They will not agree on everything. The Keystone XL pipeline might die again. Softwood lumber seems destined to be a bilateral issue forever. But Canada should have a more helpful ally with whom he can readily cooperate.
Biden is likely to restore many of the environmental regulations that the Trump administration rolled back and rejoin the Paris accord on climate change. The United States presumably will now recommit to the world’s other multilateral institutions — or at least stop trying to tear them down. Biden might still promote “Buy American” policies, but he’s unlikely to target this country in a trade war.
A nation at odds with itself
But the verdict that American voters have delivered is not a wholesale repudiation of the last four years.
Biden’s advantage in the popular vote likely will surpass that of Hilary Clinton in 2016. He will have flipped at least a few states that voted for Trump four years ago. When all the ballots are counted, Biden’s victory probably will look not insignificant — on par perhaps with Barack Obama’s win over Mitt Romney in 2012. And Biden now becomes one of the few candidates in recent American history to defeat a one-term incumbent.
But this was not a landslide. Biden’s margin of victory is unlikely to match Obama’s breakthrough in 2008 and it will fall well short of historic blowouts like Ronald Reagan’s triumph over Walter Mondale in 1984 or Lyndon Johnson’s defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Control of the Senate remains up in the air, though the final standings will depend on run-off elections in Georgia.
After everything that has happened over the last four years, that might seem astounding. But this election result confirms that the United States is not the country it was in 1964 or 1984. It is profoundly polarized — so much so that not even the deaths of more than 225,000 Americans in a public health emergency could crush the incumbent’s support.
A Republican-controlled Senate would make it much harder for Biden to implement his campaign commitments and might completely forestall any meaningful political reform. But the larger result is evidence that the forces that created a Trump presidency will not go away easily.
And now, because the result is close enough, Trump and his campaign are doing everything they can to cast doubt on the process — an effort that could do untold damage to America’s institutions and social fabric.
The next four years might be quieter — at least for Canadians.
But there will be another presidential election four years from now. Canadians can’t assume that someone like Donald Trump won’t become president again, with everything that entails for continental trade, the global order and American democracy.