Democracy’s Dunkirk

The fight to preserve American democracy continues.

Kari Lake speaking during an Election Night watch party in Scottsdale, Arizona, on November 8, 2022
Kari Lake speaking during an Election Night watch party in Scottsdale, Arizona, on November 8, 2022 (Olivier Touron / AFP / Getty)

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The authoritarians at home and abroad have faced some reversals, but Americans should consider the midterm elections as only a respite. Liberal democracy remains in danger in the United States and around the world.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

It’s Not Over

November has been a good month for democracy. Brazil’s autocratic president, Jair Bolsonaro, authorized the transfer of power after losing in national elections to a left-wing challenger. Russia’s murderous army is literally on the run in Ukraine. And American voters went to the polls and defied both history and expectation: They left the Senate in the hands of Democrats, gave the House to the Republicans by only a tiny majority, and crushed the electoral aspirations of a ragtag coalition of election deniers, Christian nationalists, and general weirdos.

That’s the good news. But as relieved as I am that some of my darkest worries did not come to pass last week, democracy is still in danger. What happened last week was an important electoral victory that allows all of us to fight another day—specifically, two years from now. Without the defeat of the deniers in 2022, the 2024 elections would likely have fallen into chaos and perhaps even violence. Both are still possibilities. But voters rallied and turned back the worst and most immediate threats to the American system of government.

Think of last week as American democracy’s Dunkirk: an improvised but crucial escape from disaster. I generally dislike World War II metaphors; most things we do are nowhere near the scale of the fight to defeat the Axis. But I’m going to break my own rule here because I worry about too much complacency among the prodemocracy coalition.

If you’re fuzzy on your 20th-century history, Dunkirk was the beach in France where the Nazis trapped retreating Allied forces, mostly hundreds of thousands of British troops, after the fall of France in 1940. Had these units been destroyed, the United Kingdom might well have faced the prospect of surrender to Nazi Germany. Instead, the Germans hesitated to close the noose, and nearly 350,000 men were evacuated to Britain by a flotilla composed mostly of civilian volunteers, a miraculous feat that protected Britain from invasion and bought time until the American entry into the war.

Like Dunkirk, the midterms were a necessary, but not final, victory. The old saw about “the most important election in our lifetime” turned out to be true this time: Without multiple defeats of the worst state and federal candidates in recent history, the unraveling of American democracy would have accelerated and the security of future elections would be in doubt, at least in the states captured by the election deniers and their associated charlatans.

If you want a vision of what such a nightmare might look like, imagine a close election in 2024. Battleground states are counting ballots with armed people swarming around election sites and state offices. Arizona Governor Kari Lake, Pennsylvania Governor Doug Mastriano, and Wisconsin Governor Tim Michels are all frantically calling and texting one another on Election Night, and ordering their state institutions to hold off on finalizing the results. Meanwhile, Arizona Secretary of State Mark Finchem (a former member of the Oath Keepers) reaches out to his like-minded counterparts—Jim Marchant in Nevada, Kristina Karamo in Michigan—to ensure that none of them will certify Democratic wins, perhaps in hopes of flipping the decision to their legislatures or sympathetic judges. If Karamo misses the call, it’s because she’s busy strategizing with Michigan’s new Republican governor, Tudor Dixon, a conspiracy-theory-spouting flake who thinks that COVID restrictions and the George Floyd protests were an attempt to topple the U.S. government.

Fortunately, all of these people were soundly defeated—except for Lake, who lost in a squeaker and, true to form, still refuses to concede to Democrat Katie Hobbs. But among them, they garnered millions of votes. These 2022 losers and other, similar candidates are still out there, and they will all continue their best efforts (as Lake is demonstrating) to corrode the foundations of our constitutional order.

Which brings us to Donald Trump.

As I wrote a few days ago, Trump’s 2024 candidacy confronts us, once and for all, with a decision about what kind of country we are. I hope that the Republicans deny him their nomination: A spirited fight within the GOP that ends by flushing Trump out of the American political system would be good for the Republicans and for America. But I have no faith in the regenerative power of a party that has devolved into an anti-constitutional, violent movement led by cowards and opportunists. Especially because the current crop of possible GOP contenders is just another collection of poltroons and Trump imitators; the Republican primaries are likely only to replace one authoritarian cult leader with another.

American democracy’s Dunkirk means that the danger to the 2024 election from chicanery and outright attack, both political and physical, is much lower now than even a month ago. Turnout in 2022 was high, as midterms go, but not high enough, particularly—and as usual—among young voters, whose turnout, at just over 27 percent, was actually lower than in 2018 (when it hit its highest level ever). And we’re stuck for years to come with some truly odious candidates who managed to get past the voters. (I am, of course, speaking of J. D. Vance here, among others.) The Kari Lakes and the Tudor Dixons will resurface in two years. If we are going to turn them back once and for all, we must not underestimate their resentment and will to power. We know who they are; we must decide who we are.


Today’s News
  1. Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith, a former Justice Department official, as special counsel to oversee two major criminal investigations involving Donald Trump.
  2. The Justice Department is reportedly conducting an antirust investigation into the owner of Ticketmaster. The investigation predates this week’s frenzy for Taylor Swift concert tickets, which caused the site’s systems to crash.
  3. The Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to allow its student-loan debt-relief program to go into effect. A federal judge froze the program on November 10.


Evening Read
Illustration of person doing pull-up on bar against blue-sky background with head floating with rays like the sun
(Tim Lahan)

An Ode to Pull-ups

By James Parker

Who do I think I am, dangling off this bar?

I think I’m an ape. I think I’m an aerialist. I think I’m Jason Momoa. I think I’m a 54-year-old man with a dodgy shoulder, experiencing—to the pound, to the ounce—the precise terms of my contract with gravity. That’s one thing you can always say for the pull-up: You’re lifting your own weight.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
Ralph Fiennes as Chef Slowik, presiding over a kitchen table in "The Menu"
(Photo by Eric Zachanowich. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.)

Read. Curl up with one of these books that our writers read too late.

Or spend a few minutes with a poem by Adrienne Rich, written before she became known as an advocate and feminist leader.

Watch. Dead to Me is back for Season 3 on Netflix, and The Sex Lives of College Girls has returned for Season 2 on HBO Max. (Both were picks on our critic’s list of 20 perfect TV shows for a short attention span.)

In theaters, see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever if you haven’t already. Plus: The Menu is a pitch-black comedy that skewers class politics.

Listen. On the season-finale episode of our podcast How to Build a Happy Life, the hosts explore a new formula for happiness.

And on a special episode of Radio Atlantic, Franklin Foer and Clint Smith talk about which teams they’re rooting for in the 2022 World Cup.

Play our daily crossword.


There was no way I was going to write about Dunkirk and not mention Darkest Hour, the remarkable film recounting the terrifying days after the fall of France. It is an inspiration, and a reminder of something we now often forget: World War II was, initially, a close-run thing—the Allies could easily have lost. Despite the beautiful sets, special effects, and top-notch battle scenes, what I found most moving were the depictions of political courage in London. This is where the war was won; the men on the battlefields would never have been able to engage in their heroic sacrifices without the determination of leaders back home and the solidarity of the societies that sent them into battle.

For me, the most affecting scene—and one to watch when you feel your resolve fading and your patience with politics flagging—was the impromptu meeting between Churchill and King George VI (played elegantly by Gary Oldman and Ben Mendelsohn, respectively) late one night. Churchill, surprised and half-dressed, sits with his sovereign as they decide the future of their nation. The King has decided to support the prime minister’s determination to stand and fight, which was until that point in doubt—especially after George confessed earlier that Churchill sometimes scares him. Churchill, too, is nearly out of courage. “I have very few people with whom I can talk frankly,” Churchill says. “Perhaps now we have each other,” George answers. Churchill asks if he still scares his king. “A little,” His Majesty answers with a smile. “But I can cope.”

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.