In the run-up to the 2016 election, my prediction was not much different from the conventional wisdom. I was confident that Hillary Clinton would win, but for a very specific reason.
I was well aware, not only of the danger that then-candidate Donald Trump represented, but also how that danger was vehemently supported by a significant portion of the electorate. The danger of populist authoritarianism is always present, in our democracy as in every democracy. The temptations are clear, and the counterarguments are more subtle than commanding. My conclusion was that although the danger was near, as a nation we were Not There Yet. That was the way I put it. We’re Not There Yet.
As it happens, I was correct. Clinton got the most votes. The people had spoken. Unfortunately, the people did not get the last word on that. The rusty cast-iron machinery of the electoral college groaned and engaged again in its ancient warehouse, and delivered Trump into the Oval Office.
That danger was implicit in the way I put my forecast: the “Yet.” I never thought it couldn’t happen here, just that it wasn’t going to occur in 2016.
As it happens, Trump has done his best to confirm every wary person’s worst fears. He did not move to the center to heal the nation’s gaping wound; he moved to the far right to widen it. He has governed with the classic authoritarian style of “you are either with me, or you are the enemy.” He has labored daily to eradicate any standards of truth or personal accountability and has reaped the dividends of this approach from the craven. The entire Republican Party, after taking Trump’s measure in office, has capitulated and signed on wholeheartedly with the menace. Nobody ever said that the authoritarian model couldn’t be seductive. Only that a nation that chooses it will come to grief.
And here we stand, at the threshold of our national reply to this challenge. On the one hand, Trump’s opponents and lovers of real democracy have mobilized as never before. On the other hand, Trump is doubling down, as he and other authoritarians do. When Americans who fear and repudiate Trump have said this election is about Trump, so now is he saying it, too. He is daring the nation, once again, to choose him, or be the enemy. His crowds still cheer.
But soon enough, the campaign shouting will be over, the voters will get to the polls as best they can, and we will decide.
We will find out if in fact, We Are There Now.