Don’t Despair

Americans are equal to this moment.

A tattered American flag flying atop a flagpole with a bronze-colored topper
Stan Grossfeld / The Boston Globe / Getty

The most apt coinage of recent years is doomscrolling. Early in the morning or late at night, you can scan through an app on your handheld device for infection numbers, test-positivity rates, and news of vaccine shortages. If your interests range more widely, you can monitor domestic-abuse and murder rates, cases of depression and anxiety, crumbling small businesses, and the lonely snuffings-out of the flickering light of life for hundreds of thousands of the aged and the vulnerable. Or you can scrutinize the latest deranged claims and incitements of a mad and evil president; statements of support made by politicians faithless to the Constitution, intellectuals unimpeded by truth, lawless lawyers, and godless pastors; and the fears of the residents of one city or another swallowing hard at warnings of riots and wild-eyed Proud Boy desperadoes toting long guns. These are cruel facts, not exaggerated one whit.

And yet, I am optimistic.

I say that having been one of the original Never Trump Republicans, who gave up on the GOP the day after the 2016 election and who warned (in these pages, primarily) of the damage and mayhem President Donald Trump would wreak. Whatever my sins, insufficient bleakness has probably not been among them.

There is surely plenty of bad news to come in the next few months—and over the next few years. But if you can force yourself to take a longer view, and if you love America as one should—wisely, and therefore not too well—you have plenty of reason for a prudent hope.

Begin first with how we got here. The United States has been battered in recent years by wars, in the main, unfortunate; by a massive economic shock in 2008; by unrest in response to a chain of police killings of Black citizens; and by a pandemic. And those were merely the crisis events. Under the surface, powerful currents were running: the hollowing-out of manufacturing jobs (although not manufacturing itself); the information revolution, with all of its disruptive ramifications; profound changes in sexual mores and attitudes; and a shift in American power and influence in the world. Add those together, and the United States was certainly ripe for a kind of populism that a gifted, if limited, demagogue could exploit.

Trump’s power was amplified by the American system of government. A president, as head of state as well as head of government, has a unique megaphone, and Trump has used his brilliantly. The arcana of the federal system, particularly an election system that has repeatedly allowed candidates who received a minority of the popular vote to succeed to the presidency, gave him his chance and enabled his party to amass more power than its popularity, as denominated in votes, merited.

And yet the same federal system that enabled Trump contained him; some of the very judges he appointed turned down his absurd efforts to overthrow an election he had lost. He did not try to censor the press, because even he realized that he would fail. Local Republican officials stared down national leaders and ranting mobs to certify results they personally disliked. There were no Trump generals as there were no Clinton or Obama or Bush generals, because by and large the United States does not produce partisan serving officers. And when the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made a misstep—in D.C.’s Lafayette Park in June—they quickly, sincerely, and profoundly apologized for having done so. It is inconceivable that on January 21, anyone other than Joe Biden will be president of the United States.

And if the shocks created the conditions for this disruption, they create the conditions for recovery. We underestimate how much of the bloodcurdling passions of the moment are the result of Americans—a restless, striving, mobile bunch—having been confined for almost a year. Anyone running a large organization has seen how normal quirks, resentments, and even pathologies have been magnified by the pandemic. But it is coming to an end. The vaccines promise to have the coronavirus in full retreat within six months.

Then, if history is any guide, people will be too busy building (or rebuilding) businesses, catching up on education, and partying to obsess about politics. Donald Trump will be a distraction to the main story of economic, educational, and health recovery. Americans will have stuff to do, and that is, ultimately, what most of us prefer to political agitation. Even when, as happened so often in the past, many people are swept up by political passion, we know that eventually those emotions abate, and Americans will get on with their lives.

Meanwhile, some of the subterranean currents of our politics are moving in new and positive directions. Consider one revealing fact: Plenty of Confederate statues are coming down, plenty of Confederate names coming off of buildings. None are going up. Most Americans think some controls against excessive police violence are needed. Most want what they always have wanted for their children—education, prosperity, and freedom. And they are learning, as reporters for The Atlantic and elsewhere have described, that competent local government may be better at bringing those than the federal government.

This is not a story of a triumphant left prevailing over a reactionary and violent right. One of the disconcerting surprises for progressives in November’s elections was that exit polls and county-level returns appeared to show increased support for Trump from Latino and Black voters. The underlying fact seems to be that racial identification is both more fluid and less important than some on the left believe. And that’s a good thing. The more the American population melts and blends, the less opportunity there will be for identitarian politics to divide and inflame. And so we have all the more reason to cheer for our first woman vice president, who has both African and Asian ancestry, and celebrates Hanukkah with her stepkids, to boot.

America’s ills are long-standing. Democrats owned them through the middle of the 20th century, as the party that defended slavery and Jim Crow, and that presided over much of the genocidal drive against Native Americans. Republicans have owned them since. The same United States that produced Washington and Lincoln, both Roosevelts, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan also produced Jefferson Davis and George Wallace, Huey Long and Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump. It has spawned, and sometimes covered up, race riots and lynching, not to mention quotas, housing covenants, and other politer forms of discrimination.

All countries have a dark (sometimes very dark) side to their history. But precisely because the promise of America is so clear and brilliant and its ideals so eloquently framed, this discrepancy is so wounding and the contrasts so stark that we do not know where to look.

There is, for example, the sordid tale of the relocation camps into which some 100,000 Japanese Americans were herded after Pearl Harbor. And then there is the story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in which more than 14,000 men, many of them the sons and brothers of those internees, served during World War II. Those soldiers did not give up on the ideals whose violation had afflicted their own families; their regiment became one of the most bloodied and decorated units in American military history. As attorney general of California in 1942, Earl Warren advocated the internment of Japanese Americans; he later not only expressed profound contrition but, as chief justice of the Supreme Court, delivered a body blow to segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. The United States is a complicated and contradictory country with complicated and contradictory citizens.

Reagan was right when he said that liberty is always only one generation away from extinction. And Benjamin Franklin was right when, asked what kind of a government the Constitutional Convention had given the new country, he said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” These past four years and this week have shown, as no doubt the weeks, months, and years to come will show, that the challenge remains—that free and democratic government was, is, and will always be a fraught and uncertain enterprise. But despite the damage, on the evidence, the people of the United States and their institutions will meet that challenge.