Long after the final vote had been cast, long after the verdict of the electorate was clear, a curious thing began happening recently within the space-time perplexity of Trump-era politics: At last, it started to feel as if the election might be over, really and truly.
The 2016 election.
Such closure was never a given. For the balance of President Trump’s term, that first contest has hovered, like a James Comey-size ghost, over every inch of the proceedings — the incumbent recounting his triumph at any opportunity, investigators combing through the campaign that got him there, Democrats organizing their resistance (and consistent internal squabbling) around questions of how they managed to lose in the first place.
Those questions have faded, mostly. New questions, bleak ones, have replaced them.
What if 2020 — wretched, endless 2020 — is doomed to become the new election season that won’t quit? What if the post-2016 churn of revisitation and recrimination was not a one-off but a precedent?
Of course, any election cycle is important, its ramifications felt (and its particulars often re-examined) for years to come. But political races are not intended to be open-ended in a high-functioning democracy. “Four more years” is generally understood as a chant about governance, not campaign relitigation.
Official benchmarks of finality, like the affirmation of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory this week from the Electoral College, are at once essential and insufficient in moving the country along.
Many data points have been less than encouraging. Mr. Trump has led much of his party on a groundless and dangerous dead-end push to overturn his loss, making clear that for this president, there are two kinds of elections: those he wins (and talks about constantly) and those purportedly rigged against him (which he talks about constantly).
In that respect, those weary of Mr. Trump fear, the 2020 election can effectively end in only one way.
“When Donald Trump decides to go away,” ruled Carly Fiorina, who ran against him in the 2016 Republican primary and has sharply opposed his effort to subvert the vote. “And I don’t think he’s planning to go away.”
Other vestiges of 2020 are not, either.
The tensions laid bare in the Democratic primary, when progressives challenged Mr. Biden from the left, appear destined to shadow his time in office, if complaints about some of his cabinet choices are instructive. (Many supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren, among others, still wish that their preferred candidate had won the White House instead.)
After a fall campaign stuffed with Republican accusations against Mr. Biden’s son Hunter, a federal investigation into the tax affairs of the younger Mr. Biden will probably loom over at least the early days of the new administration.
And as a practical matter, the last major front in the 2020 vote has already been kicked to 2021, with two Senate runoffs in Georgia early next month set to determine control of the chamber.
Even those on the winning side atop the November ballot have hesitated to move on, disinclined to abandon the five-alarm urgency with which they have approached each day of the Trump presidency.
“Why are we still working?” Jess Morales Rocketto, a progressive strategist and an aide on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, wondered aloud before answering. “In an election year, historic protests, a pandemic — for people who do this as their job, I think it’s almost like: ‘If we stopped working, what would happen? Could it get worse? It can’t get worse. Please don’t let it get worse.’”
In past campaigns, Ms. Morales Rocketto said, political professionals steeled themselves through the fall by repeating a common emotional salve: At least we’ll get a break when it’s over.
“In 2020,” she said, “I think people stopped saying it.”
Yet if the present sense of democratic wobble — with many millions of voters primed to dwell on a 2020 outcome they view as illegitimate — seems unlikely to abate within a couple of weeks, there is also reason to doubt that Mr. Trump will be able to maintain his current level of ubiquity once out of office.
The pomp and platform of incumbency cannot be replicated. Time lurches on. And while Mr. Trump might well use the months ahead to tease a possible 2024 campaign as he rails against the phantom unfairness of his 2020 defeat, perhaps some would-be rivals in the next Republican primary will show less deference eventually if the alternative is waiting until 2028 for a shot at the presidency.
Many in the party suspect there will be a continued audience for whatever Mr. Trump has in mind regardless, even if what he has in mind is mostly playing the 2020 hits.
“He’s going to be the college freshman who hangs out in the high school parking lot during winter break, wanting to recreate the magic,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist who worked on Jeb Bush’s 2016 bid and the 2018 House elections. “And the students are going to want to come and hang out with him.”
The persistence of the pandemic also seems likely to feed a feeling of lingering, suspending Americans in the thrall of 2020’s grimmest feature.
It was not lost on veterans of this presidential campaign, so defined by the coronavirus, that the Electoral College codified Mr. Biden’s win on the same week that vaccinations began in the United States. Maybe a return to relative normal will prove the year’s true coda, whenever it comes.
In the interim, the next procedural step will arrive on Jan. 6, when Congress meets to ratify the electors’ tally. Four years ago, Mr. Biden presided over the session as vice president, pounding a gavel with impunity and swatting away largely symbolic objections from a smattering of Democratic lawmakers who hoped to deny the reality of 2016.
“It is over,” Mr. Biden said at one point, prompting Republican cheers.
It was, and it wasn’t. But it seems to be now, for better or worse, supplanted by new anxieties and grudges. And how long could those really last?
“I look forward to 2020 ending,” Mr. Gorman said, “sometime in early 2025.”