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.