We need to see things for what they are. When a president seeks to undo an election by spreading conspiracy theories and inciting a violent assault on the Capitol, when his every transgression deepens the devotion of his followers, when his party rallies behind him and becomes a battering ram against reality—America is in quite a bind.
Many Americans are, rightly, gravely concerned about the threat posed to our nation by the MAGA movement, which started with Donald Trump but has now engulfed almost the entire Republican Party. In recent days, I have heard from men and women whose level of alarm is rising fast.
“Each morally or legally wrong act only seems to give Trump’s soldiers more energy and cohesion,” I was told by a clinical psychologist who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Their general can do whatever he wants now, and they will take up arms if he tells them to. It’s so, so dangerous.”
Bellevue Presbyterian Church’s senior pastor, Scott Dudley, who has been traveling to Rwanda and working with Rwandans for 20 years, told me that our political rhetoric is getting frighteningly similar to the dehumanizing anti-Tutsi rhetoric that paved the way for the genocide in 1994. Dudley specifically mentioned Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House. When asked about the FBI in the aftermath of the lawful search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, Gingrich said, “We’d be better off to think of these people as wolves”—wolves who “want to eat you, wolves who want to dominate.”
Andrew DeCort, a Christian ethicist who has lived in Addis Ababa, told me that what we’re seeing in America brings up memories of what he’d observed in Ethiopia for years before civil war broke out. The United States isn’t on the verge of civil war or genocide, thankfully. “But the lies, the extremism, the raw hunger for power—it can only lead to pain and loss,” he told me.
Jonathan Rauch, a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a model of equanimity, told me he “feels shaken” by what he has seen from the Republican Party, especially since January 6, 2021. He described the “gleeful barbarism” and “the embrace of performative cruelty” that characterizes so much of the American right and said that it feels as if MAGA has sealed every exit.
I share these concerns; indeed, I have been warning about the threat Trump and his supporters present to American democracy and our political and civic culture since as far back as July 2015 and as recently as two weeks ago. Given that the situation seems to be getting worse rather than better, the temptation to succumb to despair and fatalism is strong.
Hopelessness isn’t warranted. But also unwarranted are false hope and blithe reassurance. What is the proper way to approach this moment?
The first thing to do is to remind ourselves that our responsibility is to be faithful, not necessarily successful. All of us would rather be both, and sometimes we are. But the best any of us can do is to act with a reasonable degree of honor and integrity, defending, even imperfectly, what we believe is right and true. None of us controls what happens beyond that. I have found the words of C. S. Lewis to be meaningful. “It is not your business to succeed (no one can be sure of that) but to do right: when you have done so the rest lies with God,” he wrote. If we don’t act when success isn’t guaranteed, then success will always be beyond our reach.
The second thing to bear in mind is that unexpected inflection points—events that change the way we think and act, that alter underlying assumptions and sometimes the trajectory of history—can occur in the life of a nation. Why they happen is not always clear in real time; it’s typically a combination of the right (or wrong) moment, the right (or wrong) individual, the stars aligning in the right (or wrong) way. Sometimes things are one way and then they are another. An appeal may fall on deaf ears in one season but not another.
Winston Churchill experienced his “wilderness years”; then came the Munich Agreement and Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939.
In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger; the next day, Martin Luther King Jr. proposed a citywide boycott against racial segregation on the public transportation system. Six months later, a federal court ruled that laws keeping buses segregated were unconstitutional. A year after Parks’s arrest, the Supreme Court concurred.
When Andrew Sullivan wrote his 1989 cover story for The New Republic on the conservative case for gay marriage, it was unthinkable; by the early aughts, it was a reality in states such as Vermont and Massachusetts. By 2011, a majority of Americans approved of gay marriage; in 2015, the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to recognize same-sex marriage; and today gay marriage is widely accepted by Americans across the board, including a majority of Republicans. Sullivan, who has said that when he wrote his New Republic essay he never believed he would see gay marriage in his lifetime, later wrote in The Atlantic, “History is a miasma of contingency, and courage, and conviction, and chance.” It rarely moves in straight lines, but it always moves.
A third point in the context of the MAGA threat to the American republic: We are still mid-drama. Acts have yet to be written. And in a self-governing nation, “we the people” are the authors. American citizens are not like corks caught in the current of a raging river. We are not powerless, without agency. At this point, nothing is inevitable about the triumph, or the defeat, of right-wing authoritarianism. After all, Joe Biden did defeat Donald Trump, by a comfortable margin, and our institutions—many of them, at least—passed a serious stress test. The battle has been engaged; it hasn’t been resolved.
In an interview with the blog The Art of Association, Caroline Mehl, a co-founder of the Constructive Dialogue Institute, explained that four main levers exist to strengthen American democracy:
- Redesigning electoral systems,
- strengthening democratic institutions,
- improving our media ecosystem, and
- revitalizing our civic culture.
I would add to that list the transformation of the American Church, and particularly the white evangelical Church, from an instrument of anger and antipathy to one of grace and justice. Thoughtful people are thinking through practical steps that can be taken in each of these domains and others.
In June 1966, Senator Robert Kennedy took a five-day trip to South Africa during the worst days of apartheid. At the University of Cape Town, he delivered one of his most memorable speeches. Addressing young people, he warned about the “danger of futility: the belief that there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills—against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence.” And, using words that would be engraved near his gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery, he said this:
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.
Margaret Marshall, a South African anti-apartheid student activist who became the first woman to serve as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, said, “South Africa in 1966 was as dark a period as I have ever been in. There was this great granite wall of power and privilege of the apartheid government.”
She had been in the audience when Kennedy delivered his speech.
“It made such an impact on me,” Marshall said. “I know it made an impact on others, and I have essentially carried that message for the rest of my life—if we each just do one small thing when we are faced with evil or oppression or discrimination or inequality. You don’t have to assume that you will be able to change the entire world. It was remarkable; it was breathtaking.”
None of us can change the entire world. But each of us can change for the better the world we inhabit. Each of us can “live within the truth” rather than within the lie. We can lean into politics rather than withdraw from it. We can be agents of healing to people whose lives are broken. We can support the institutions that civilize our lives and make democracy possible. And we can speak up for veracity and decency when it matters, including challenging people within our political and cultural tribes, even as we listen well to others. These are not heroic requirements, but they are essential ones. Everything hinges on Americans sending forth ripples of hope.