Confronting the Damage of TrumpismRoundup
tags: conservatism, far right, Joe Biden, authoritarianism, Donald Trump, 2020 Election
Mr. Blight is a professor of history at Yale and the author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.
“I speak the password primeval . . . . I give the sign of democracy,” wrote Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself.” “By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.”
One of our greatest poets sought the deepest forms of democracy, where people are completely unleashed to share their fullest humanity. Whitman endlessly sang of rebirth and renewal, in nature and in human society. Near the end of the same poem, he breathed his epitaph: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/ If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”
As a mythic, defining characteristic, the idea of rebirth has a profoundly fertile history in this land. Americans — their nation, their polity, their multiethnic culture — have never stopped being reborn, despite the conflicted meanings invoked by that concept. We admire second and third acts; we endured at least two reconstructions of our Constitution and our race relations. We revived with lasting significance from a colossal Civil War. We confronted a Great Depression and remade the very idea of modern government. We fought the largest war in history on two world fronts and decisively won both. We celebrate, at least some of us, our dream of the assimilated multitudes into some kind of “one from many,” living by the creeds of natural rights.
But like all deep myths, this one has always survived or grown against the grain of experience and taken sustenance in response to the power of its many enemies. Suppress the votes of Americans, and watch them go vote in heroic numbers.
With the victory of Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris, they — and the rest of the citizenry — face a historic task of national rebirth. The challenge of repair from all the wreckage left by Trumpism may be the work of not merely a political season, but of a generation.
First, this task requires an awareness of how long the Trump disaster was in the making and how many people and forces enabled it. And second, it requires a forthright confrontation with the fact that to rebuild a society and a political system, we must admit that they are broken. Institutionally, America is broken.
A shortlist of our broken institutions can seem painful and overwhelming: the presidency; the Senate; the Supreme Court; government agencies that run everything from law enforcement to criminal justice to the environment to public health; the election system, including the Electoral College; the news media; our global partnerships like NATO; and finally, our public schools and universities — places that are supposed to reimagine lives.
Fueling this decline and distrust are not only warring ideologies about the purpose of government, but also hostility to the very idea that facts and truth, as well as respect for scientific and humanistic knowledge, are the basis of a functioning democracy.
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