The ranks of Trump’s supporters, meanwhile, are filled with first-time or first-time-in-a-long-time participants in politics. He has given voice to communities long disregarded by cosmopolitan political elites. Heartened by his election and his willingness in office to buck convention, they are now rallying to his defense.
Trump has also generated a boom in popular civic education. Across the country, people are creating political clubs, discussion circles, teach-ins. My organization, Citizen University, has launched regular gatherings called Civic Saturdays—a civic analogue to church—that have drawn overflow crowds. Indivisible, an insiders’ guide to pressuring Congress, has sparked intense local organizing and activism. Google searches for the Emoluments Clause, recusal rules, and judicial review have spiked. And iCivics.org, the civics video gaming platform created by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, has seen a doubling of game-playing this year.
This civic surge, it’s important to note, crosses ideological lines. Many principled libertarians and conservatives, troubled by Trump’s recklessness, are now cheered by rising popular interest in the ideals of liberty and limits on government power.
The conservative Federalist Society is fielding new inquiries from left and right about its Article I Project, which aims to restore congressional primacy against an overreaching executive. Civic start-ups like Free the People are sparking interest among Millennials in a hip libertarianism. The right-leaning American Enterprise Institute held a symposium recently positing that Trump’s arrival is a “Sputnik moment” for civic education.
All this energy, now visible and palpable, had been gathering long before Trump became president and has extended well beyond the borders of the United States. From the Arab Spring to the Brexit, from the Tea Party to $15 Now and Black Lives Matter, we live in an age of bottom-up power: citizens self-organizing to challenge entrenched monopolies and orthodoxies. Trump’s election itself was evidence of this.
The surge will likely outlast his presidency. Americans today are rushing to make up for decades of atrophy and neglect in civic education and engagement. But as they do so it’s important to remember that citizenship is about more than know-how. It’s also about “know-why”—the moral purposes of self-government.
Citizenship in a republic requires not just literacy in power but also a grounding in character. Power literacy means understanding systems of law, custom, and institutions—and acting with skill to move those systems. Civic character is more than personal virtue. It is about character in the collective—mutuality, reciprocity, respect, service, justice—and the prosocial ethics of being a member of the body.