WASHINGTON — When future historians close the books on the misery of 2020, a grueling year of disease, death, racial strife, street violence, economic collapse and political discord the likes of which have not been seen in the United States in generations, they may look back on Monday, Dec. 14, as a pivotal juncture.
It was on that day that Americans began rolling up their sleeves for a vaccine produced in record time to defeat a virus even as the death toll crossed 300,000. And it was on that day that members of the Electoral College gathered in each of the 50 states to ratify the end of the most polarized election in more than a century.
None of that erases the enormous damage of the past 12 months, nor does it mean there will not be pain and protest to come. Many Americans will get sick and die in the months before the vaccine is universally available. Many Americans will remain aggrieved by the result of an election they wish had gone the other way. It is still an era of hardship and division. But after so much uncertainty, after so much doubt, the way forward appears clearer at least in two major respects.
“It is a cosmic convergence,” said Benjamin L. Ginsberg, a leading Republican election lawyer who has been critical of President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the vote that he lost. “And what’s good about both of the events occurring on the same day is it really can provide a turning point for a nation that really wants a turning point.”
The day played out in a remarkable fashion as television viewers watched images of health care workers receiving lifesaving injections juxtaposed with live shots from state capitals around the country showing electors casting votes formally confirming the victory of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
It was the definitiveness of both developments that stood out after months of political, medical and economic turmoil: At last, Americans can look ahead to the day when they will be immunized from the COVID-19 virus even if takes until spring. And now they know despite all the postelection noise from the White House and its allies who will be the next president.
“I honestly can’t recall two independent events of such extreme importance occurring on the same day,” said David Oshinsky, a professor of medicine at New York University’s Langone Health and a historian who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the development of the polio vaccine that eliminated a scourge of the 20th century.
He said it was as if one were to combine the seminal election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson that set the precedent for presidential contests with the day that President Dwight D. Eisenhower thanked Dr. Jonas Salk for developing the polio vaccine. “In our bitterly divided country, Dec. 14, 2020, should remind us of who we are and what we are capable of,” Oshinsky said.
For Trump, the dean of denial who has refused to accept either the election results or the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, the clarity of Dec. 14 was not entirely welcome. He had reason to celebrate the debut of the vaccine, which he made a top priority and will surely count as a major part of his legacy even though he otherwise has played down the threat of the virus and undercut public health efforts to stem the outbreak through masks and social distancing. “First Vaccine administered,” he wrote on Twitter. “Congratulations USA! Congratulations WORLD!”
But he was not so ready to congratulate Biden, or accept the verdict of the Electoral College, even though it is vested by the Constitution with the power to determine the next president by majority vote. Trump remained out of sight all day, offered no concession and continued to pump out false claims of fraud supposedly so prevalent that it would justify overturning the will of the people.
Indeed, in what came across as an effort to distract attention from his loss in the Electoral College, Trump just minutes after California’s electors meeting in Sacramento put Biden over the top abruptly announced the departure of Attorney General William Barr, who had angered the president by refuting his fantastical assertions about widespread election corruption.
With that process complete, Trump’s refusal to accept defeat became little more than railing against the weather. There may be more futile lawsuits filed to go with the dozens that have already been dismissed all the way up to the Supreme Court, and some of his allies may object when Electoral College votes are officially counted by Congress on Jan. 6, but none of that will change the outcome.
Never in American history has a majority vote by the Electoral College been reversed. Like it or not, Biden will be sworn in on Jan. 20.
“This day feels like a turning point because in both cases we have reality breaking through — a legally mandated deadline to end the election cycle being met in an orderly way and a carefully reviewed and tested vaccine being brought into general use,” said Yuval Levin, director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“In both cases,” he added, “institutionalism and professionalism have made it through the storm and are functioning under pressure. It’s a relief, and also an indication of what we need more of in the years to come to recover our balance as a society.”
Not everyone was quite ready to write off the tumult of 2020, which has been marked by the deadliest pandemic in a century, the most cataclysmic economic collapse since the Great Depression, the worst racial strife since the civil rights era and the most divisive and contested aftermath to an election since shortly after the Civil War. Some were not sure a corner had really been turned.
“It’s a good day,” said Jill Lepore, the prominent Harvard University scholar who has written sweeping books on American history. “But these last years, it has often felt as though the country is falling down an empty well. You keep thinking, OK, finally, we’ve hit bottom, and can begin trying to crawl our way up and out. But then you realize, we haven’t hit bottom; we’re just on a ledge, and then we start falling all over again. A few weeks ago, it seemed like the bottom. And today, maybe someone has sent down a rope. Two ropes! Hard to trust, though.”
It is only in that context that such normally prosaic acts as a nurse giving someone a shot and electors casting votes become so noteworthy. With America having failed so miserably at controlling the virus, which is now at or near records in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths, the mere promise of a vaccine had television news crews tracking trucks delivering the miracle doses as they began making their way across the country.
The Electoral College has never merited wall-to-wall coverage before either. What is typically a ministerial process simply translating the Election Day results into 538 votes divided among the states and the District of Columbia became a daylong event for CNN and MSNBC — CNN even had a graphic at the bottom of its screen tabulating the votes as they came in as if there were any actual suspense.
But it is still a polarized country. Over at Fox News, even as California sealed the victory for Biden, the hosts were busy instead hashing through the latest in the investigation of his son Hunter Biden, although some of them did refer to his father as the “president-elect.” The new president-to-be sought to ignore that and to focus on the day’s events.
Even as Trump remained cloistered in the White House, Biden emerged to try to pivot the country forward. “Now it’s time to turn the page, as we’ve done throughout our history,” he said. “To unite. To heal.”
At least for one day.