On the morning of Nov. 7, I was watching CNN, fervently hoping that they would finally call the election in Joe Biden’s favor. When they did, at 11:26 a.m., I let out a whoop that was likely heard throughout West Ghent. Van Jones—a CNN commentator whom I deeply admire—had a different reaction: As he began to speak about the historic moment, he broke down crying, struggling to express his central thought: “Decency matters,” he said, “and this is a vindication for all of us who believe that.” 

Jones hit the nail on the head. Most elections in my lifetime have been about the issues. Even in 2008—when the prospect of electing the first African-American president was a major factor—it boiled down for many people to a contest between an old school Republican and a moderately progressive Democrat. 

This election, however, was different. It was a battle for the soul of our nation—a referendum on the question, what kind of nation do we want to be? Do we want to strive to live in harmony with “the better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln put it in his first inaugural address? Or do we want to be a nation defined by fear, hostility, bigotry and ignorance? 

Donald J. Trump has spent the last four years appealing to the latter while actively mocking those better angels. His list of sins is far too long to innumerate, but some are worth remembering. Here is a man who made fun of a person’s disabilities, in the manner of a 12-year-old schoolyard bully; denigrated war heroes while claiming to “support our troops”; encouraged violence at his rallies (“I’d like to punch him in the face”); insisted that there were “good people” marching with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and curried favor with a range of other white supremacists; bragged about grabbing women by their “pu%#sies” and repeatedly denigrated individual women (“she was bleeding from her…wherever”); ordered a police assault on a crowd of peaceful protestors outside the White House; treated our international allies as adversaries while cozying up to brutal dictators; supported a policy of ripping children from their parents’ arms and locking them in cages; sowed seeds of distrust in our election process and encouraged Russia to interfere with it; called members of the press “enemies of the people” (I took that one personally); came up with insulting, juvenile nicknames for his opponents, even in his own party; made fun of people for wearing masks and dismissed what his own scientists were saying about Covid—and told more documented lies than any other president in modern history. 

Whatever you may think of Joe Biden’s positions on the issues, one thing is clear: He is the polar opposite of Trump—a man of decency, with a demonstrated capacity for empathy; a man who exudes sincerity in his expressions of desire to heal the Trump-inflicted wounds on our body politic and to unify the nation.

The sad reality, of course, is that we will remain a deeply divided nation for a long time to come. In the short term, Trump will not go gently into that good night. On the contrary, over the next two months he will continue to sow the seeds of doubt, division and rage. By all indications, he will also try to undermine the democratic process by tying it up in the courts—and truth be told, I cannot entirely rid myself of the fear that his sycophantic Supremes will find a way to overturn the results. 

I’m optimistic that he will fail, since there is absolutely no evidence of widespread fraud and Biden’s margin in Pennsylvania is large enough to survive any recount. 

That said, there are longer-term challenges—and they are formidable. Trump has done immeasurable damage over the last four years. This should be clear to anyone. At the same time, we must acknowledge that he didn’t cause our nation’s ills—he simply exploited them and made them worse. 

The pervasive racism that has plagued our country since its inception, for example, became more glaringly evident during the Obama administration when the most hideously racist memes began to circulate on social media. Moreover, for decades, I’ve encountered many white people who adamantly refuse to acknowledge subtle forms of racism, even while insisting that they don’t have a “racist bone” in their bodies. 

It’s important to note that Biden himself has participated in this denial. Even during the campaign, he insisted that the 1994 crime bill—which he supported—did not contribute to mass incarceration of black men. And yet, I earnestly believe that Biden has grown. In many respects, he reminds me of Bobby Kennedy who started his career as a narrow-minded product of white male privilege but was transformed into a person of profound empathy after the death of his brother. The excruciating pain of loss that Biden has endured has deepened his capacity to feel the pain of others. 

This is what we desperately need right now—empathy. And not just for traditionally oppressed minorities. Biden must reach out to Trump’s base, as futile as that may sound. We can safely assume that the base’s hard core will resist; they are too immersed in their racist and xenophobic passions to listen to any reason. It is my impression, however, that many people who voted for Trump did so for other reasons: fear of exorbitant tax hikes on the middle class; fear of a national lockdown in response to the persistent pandemic; fear of creeping “socialism.” 

I have faith that Biden will rise to the occasion by reaching out to every sector of our society with good will and a desire to listen and learn.  

Biden was not my first choice. He is far too conservative for my tastes. But it should be clear by now that this was not the time to push a truly progressive agenda. Our country was in critical condition. If Trump had been reelected the American experiment as we have know it would have died. This was a time for emergency measures. The glorious news is that the patient has been stabilized, and we can now begin the slow process of healing.