It doesn't feel like 2020 ever really ended, does it? Many of us looked forward to the new year as, hopefully, something really new — a clean break from all the misery the last 12 months brought, a chance to start over with something like a clean slate, an opportunity to get it right this time. So far, though, 2021 feels like more of the same, full of doomscrolling, death, and demagoguery.
I suspect a similar dynamic will be at play with Donald Trump.
Trump's presidency will end at noon on Wednesday. Joe Biden will take the oath of office while soon-to-be-former Vice President Mike Pence looks on. Trump himself — now all but completely discredited after inciting the Capitol insurrection — will fly home to Florida. Even though the Trump administration is at an end, we are not quite finished with the Trump era.
Whether he wants to or not, Biden will open his term focused on cleaning up Trump's mess. He inherits a pandemic that is killing as many as 4,000 Americans a day, a vaccine distribution system that has so far proven frustratingly inadequate, and a teetering economy. Biden has plans to fix these problems, of course — a goal of distributing 100 million vaccine doses within the first 100 days of his presidency, plus a new round of stimulus that would send another $1,400 per person to eligible families. Biden's success as a president will depend upon whether he can implement those plans, and how successful his solutions end up being.
Complicating those challenges, of course, is Trump's other mess. Sometime soon, the Senate — controlled by the Democrats, but just barely — will take up the ex-president's impeachment trial for his role in the insurrection. Congress will have to juggle that effort with the need to pass the legislation to advance Biden's agenda, and Republican infighting over Trump's legacy probably won't help matters.
Lurking in the background is the possibility of more violence by Trumpist dead-enders.
There are reasons to hope that the extended Trump era will be over quickly. Twitter's permanent ban of Trump from its platform, for example, is already making a huge difference: One research firm found the amount of misinformation online dropped 73 percent in the week after the president and 70,000 QAnon aficionados were shut down by the platform. Reality itself might make a difference, too: When Wednesday comes and goes and Trump is no longer president, surely some (but probably not all) of those conspiracy theorists who support him will realize they have been duped and quietly recede from activism. It's also possible that multiple civil and criminal legal issues will leave Trump too occupied to make trouble over the next few years.
And if we're lucky, a successful vaccination effort will also bring down the national temperature by a degree or two. Many observers have pointed out that the QAnon conspiracy became more popular because of the COVID-19 pandemic. "We shouldn't underestimate how the imposed social isolation of the pandemic and our pivot to social media for community has fostered the spread of such conspiracies," Tablet's Yair Rosenberg points out. As people emerge from isolation — to return to their churches, their workplaces, and other communal spaces — they may find they don't have time to indulge in dark political fantasies.
Of course, the Trump era could be extended if events take a turn for the worse. Violence could beget more violence. The "dark winter" of high COVID-19 deaths could help ensure that right-wing discontent continues to amplify. Newsmax, OAN, and Fox News aren't going anywhere. A number of Republicans — some of them fools, some liars — are eager to keep Trumpism's flame alight. And Trump is probably going to lose what few restraints he had. Establishment-minded Republicans have largely deserted the president in his final days in office; going forward, he will probably be surrounded by sycophants eager to enable his wildest provocations.
Epochs such as the one we have just lived through don't end neatly. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) was censured for his anti-communist witchhunts in 1954, for example, but the Hollywood blacklist he helped inspire persisted for years thereafter. The Civil War ended in 1865, and we're still fighting over slavery, the war, and its enduring ramifications. The Trump era might fade away gradually, or it could persist in various forms for years to come. More than 81 million Americans voted to put an end to this presidency, but America is not through dealing with the errors and crimes of the last four years. We haven't earned our sigh of relief yet.