The commitment of ordinary citizens to democratic ideals is being tested each day—and its enduring strength is containing the damage of Trump’s presidency.
A writer usually itches to rewrite any article that is more than a week old: I confess to no such temptation with my first article for The Atlantic, published a year ago. I stand by every word. I think now as I did then that Trump will not grow into his job, “because the problem is one of temperament and character;” I continue to think that to be associated with him “will be for all but the strongest characters, an exercise in moral self-destruction;” and most importantly, “There is nothing great about the America that Trump thinks he is going to make; but in the end, it is the greatness of America that will stop him.”
That last is the key point, and the one I find myself returning to, a year later. Trump himself is not an interesting human being. In Shakespearean terms, he is no Richard III, but rather the dumb, vicious, lecherous, and unsuccessful Cloten of Cymbeline. Nor is there anything particularly intriguing about the brown-nosing and spinelessness of his enablers among politicians and scribblers. They have no excuses, and when the end comes—and it will, be it in seven years, or three, or sooner than that—they will not have much in the way of reputations left to defend. Nor should they.
No, at the end of a year in which American global credibility and reputation has taken a hit from which it cannot fully recover, in which neo-Nazis have been assured by the leader of the Free World that there are some fine people among them, and in which the ethnic divisions of the United States have been exacerbated by a president who seemed to enjoy baiting hapless American citizens who hail from Puerto Rico and who agitated for the political prosecution of his defeated opponent in the last election, the vital signs of American democracy are surprisingly good.
America’s civil servants, soldiers, diplomats, and intelligence officials, in their overwhelming majority, take seriously their oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, “foreign and domestic.” They did not snap-to when the president decided to toss transgender personnel out of the military, they did not begin torturing terrorists, they did not suspend their relentless investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election in support of Donald Trump. He lashed out at most of them—from the FBI to the judges. They gritted their teeth and continued to work in accordance with the law.
In the country writ large, the Democrats seem to have a new infusion of energy from all kinds of people, to include minorities who now have an even livelier appreciation of what the right to vote means, once-Republican leaning women disgusted by the president’s own sexual predations, and young veterans of America’s wars who want to bring into Congress the spirit of service that they exhibited on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
From a moral point of view, the national Republican Party is in ruins, led by a woman so embarrassed by her connection to her uncle, Mitt Romney, that she dropped her middle name from official pronouncements. Not a day passes without some senator or representative excusing the latest lie or vulgarity, or denying the latest act of moral turpitude. It is an association of men and women conspicuously lacking guts. But there have been a few politicians, and rather more intellectuals and former officials, who have spoken up against their own side. And as time goes on, more will probably shamble shame-facedly into opposition to the administration.
My parents’ generation experienced the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, McCarthyism, Vietnam, and the social chaos of the 1960s. My grandparents—who came to this country from lands that the president would undoubtedly term “shitholes,” left behind pogroms, and survived all that, plus World War I and the great influenza pandemic. Set against those experiences, it is an unworthy whinge to complain about what Americans are living through today. The United States has survived much worse than one contemptible president and a craven political party; its resilience is built into the bones of its political system. What it is going through now is simply a good, hard shake. And there need be nothing to be afraid of in that.
The crisis of America is a moral crisis as much as a political one. To the extent that it breeds introspection among all politically engaged Americans it will be a good thing. If it causes conservatives to think hard about the darker moods and sub-movements that were driven underground but never completely vanquished by the likes of Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley, that is a good thing. If it similarly causes them to think about the moral dimension of conservatism—its traditional adherence to certain virtues like probity, prudence, and thrift, that is a good thing. If it causes liberals to reflect that many Americans turned to Trump as a result of the cultural contempt with which they have been viewed, and the disdain for their problems and values that have long been expressed by bi-coastal elites, that will be a good thing too.
There remain thoughtful individuals who think of Trump as a vulgarian, but cannot bring themselves to turn on him. To adhere to that position they have to believe two things: that words do not matter, and that character does not matter. They have to convince themselves that one can ignore hateful, outrageous, and false speech; they have to convince themselves that scoundrels can still make good policy. They may be sincere; they certainly are wrong.
Americans are learning afresh that such propositions are inimical to democracy. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the Founders declared: Without the truth as a cardinal value, self-government collapses. And while they had no illusions about human nature, neither did they think that the United States could survive without leaders who displayed the virtues so lacking in the current occupant of the White House. A George Washington or an Abraham Lincoln, a Theodore Roosevelt or a John F. Kennedy could approach greatness only because, despite their individual flaws, they had some noble qualities about them, some inspiring vision to raise the American people, some defining largeness of spirit. There is, by contrast, nothing admirable about Donald Trump. The stock market may flutter upwards for a bit, but no enduring good can come of him.
The way ahead will lie for some in political activism, for others simply in calling out the truth as they understand it. But moral crises require moral solutions, and those are not to be found in the voting booth or the public square, as essential as activity in those domains may be. Rather, it is in the daily affirmation of the principles so clearly expressed in the great documents and speeches of the American past, from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to the Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream,” that a way ahead lies. It is in civic education, and a celebration of all that really is great in the American past, that the answer to the bigotry and hucksterism of the 45th president, and the toadying and lies of his sycophants and courtiers is to be found.
This is a political storm, no doubt. But the United States has weathered much worse. And although the damage that has been done will be lasting, it is also entirely possible that the good that will be done will be equal or more so. Ten or 20 years from now there may be much to look back on with pride as well as with disgust. “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks,” Emerson once wrote. Above all, the good news is that it rests entirely on the American people what to make of this clarifying moment in history. And there is good reason to think that they will rise—that they are indeed at this moment rising—to the call.