Episodes of The Apprentice highlighted the moment when a fired contestant would trudge out of Trump Tower, head down, shoulders slumped, resignedly dragging a wheelie suitcase across the lobby. This Reject-in-Chief is not likely to follow his own script.
Whatever happens next—and for a thin majority of voters, Biden’s victory was a huge relief—this crisis is not over. Friday night, Biden promised to mend the nation, saying, “There is no reason we can’t own the 21st century.” That was soothing and about as persuasive as when he stated earlier this week that ours is “a system of governance that’s been the envy of the world.” Um, no. It’s not even the envy of the Third World.
American “exceptionalism” has been so cut down to size in the last four years that our election is being likened to those in Latin America, Beirut, and even Iran. But there was another election like this one, and it holds warnings for us: the 1996 vote in Russia, when a chaotic, corrupt Boris Yeltsin was running for a second term, and the Russian press—worried about the outcome—ghosted his Communist challenger, a party hack named Gennady Zyuganov.
There, the roles were reversed from the U.S. election: the incumbent, not his opponent, was the safer choice for a country that had not yet emerged from years of chaos and was struggling for normalcy. The polls were close, but Russian reporters didn’t cover Zyuganov’s rallies, talk to his supporters, or read his policy papers. That’s because doing so could have dignified his candidacy and increased his chances of overturning Russia’s fledgling democracy and restoring Communism.
Young reporters who were born under Soviet rule viewed the campaign not as a horse race to be covered but as a fight for their own survival. Yet foreign correspondents in Moscow couldn’t help feeling dismayed by their advocacy journalism, and also a little smug. I covered the Russian election for The New York Times and took the newspaper’s motto “Without fear or favor” seriously. Surely American journalists would never compromise our ethics in order to influence events.
There was another election like this one: the 1996 vote in Russia, when a chaotic, corrupt Boris Yeltsin was running for a second term, and the Russian press ghosted his Communist challenger.
Then Trump was elected and blew up any notions of fair play, decency, or precedent. His lawlessness and perfidy drove the mainstream press to rethink—or, in some cases, actively disregard—their own long-held standards of fairness: and so, unlike 2016, when The New York Times and other media outlets rummaged through every drawer in Hillary Clinton’s life and career, this time editors held back.
Let’s be honest: Biden’s worst flaws were airbrushed. Profiles were thorough but respectful. Reporters looked into past missteps and potential scandals on tiptoe. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal didn’t publish deep, investigative stories about his son Hunter Biden’s louche business dealings in Ukraine and beyond. That’s because doing so could dignify Trump’s hysterical lies and increase his chances of overturning America’s battered democracy and doubling the chaos in a second term.
After four years inside the Trump hall of mirrors, what the press did seems commendable. But for the media to put a thumb on the scale is not just wrong; it’s dangerous. More than 70 million Americans voted for Trump, despite the coronavirus pandemic, record unemployment, and an economy in free fall. Biden managed to defeat him, but it was hardly a resounding victory.
Trump, who labeled the media “the enemy of the people” (again with comparisons to Russia!), tore apart any notion of an even playing field. And yet the press is expected to cover elections without fear or favor in bad times as well as good, because when they don’t, all too often the next cycle breeds even deeper cynicism and dysfunction: just look at the escalation of discourtesy and norm-breaking in Supreme Court nominations. Sometimes what’s seen as a short-term cure—or a corrective—can be worse than the disease.
Back to Moscow, July 3, 1996. Thanks to a complicit media, backroom American campaign strategists, and the money of Kremlin-aligned oligarchs, Yeltsin won re-election, and Russian democracy, however threadbare, seemed safe. But the country was in shambles, and Yeltsin was not strong enough to lead. Four years later, Russia ended up with Vladimir Putin, a Soviet-style despot who puts opponents and journalists in prison, in the hospital, and in the morgue.
Biden, though experienced and well intended, is an Establishment lifer and may be too old and too compromised to clean out the rot inside the political system. (In fairness, maybe nobody can.) For starters, how can it happen that in the middle a pandemic-driven recession, candidates for the White House and Congress in 2020 spent more than $14 billion vying for office? Without real change, who knows who, and what, comes next. We saw what happened under Trump, and it is horrifying. But what if there is someone worse than Trump lurking ahead?
There are a thousand Russian ways to say, “Careful what you wish for,” but my favorite was uttered by Yeltsin’s prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, in 1993, to explain why the Kremlin’s attempt at monetary reform failed. “Мы хотели как лучше, а получилось, как всегда”—We wanted the best, but it turned out as always.
One thing this election has taught us is to view our democracy with humility and an asterisk.