The American experiment has survived slavery, the Civil War, a Great Depression, 32 recessions, two world wars, a ghastly flu pandemic, the global rise of communism, the horrors of Hitlerism, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Watergate and 9/11. Yet many of my friends still fear that our resilient republic will not survive the malevolent reign of an inept reality TV star.
They are wrong.
That is not to say that those fears are unfounded. President Trump has repeatedly shown contempt for the rule of law, disrespected strategic alliances, smeared the free press, dismissed democratic traditions and disregarded common decencies. The language he uses while attacking federal judges and political reporters borrows more from Benito Mussolini than Benjamin Franklin. And although the United States’ democratic institutions have shown their resilience over the past year, Trump’s disregard for constitutional norms has come at a cost.
One college student home for spring break this week passionately argued to her parents and me that “Trump proves democracy doesn’t work anymore.” That suburban insight lines up neatly with recent polls showing that younger Americans are more skeptical of democracy’s staying power than their parents. But even older Americans have their doubts. Maybe that’s why Amazon’s bestseller lists have been peppered with titles such as “How Democracies Die” and Hannah Arendt’s classic “The Origins of Totalitarianism.”
In a political culture defined by tribalism and paranoia, harsh partisan reactions to a disruptive president are hardly surprising. Last year, 51 percent of Republicans told pollsters that former president Barack Obama was born outside the United States. During George W. Bush’s presidency, more than half of Democrats said they believed Bush was complicit in al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks. And though I’ve spent my adult life assuring Republican and Democratic friends alike that American democracy will survive their chosen party’s defeat, the past two years have challenged even my own sanguine views.
Still, I remain resolute in my faith that the dysfunctional presidency of Donald Trump will eventually prove that no man is above the law and that no president is beyond the reach of James Madison’s Constitution. Robert S. Mueller III, Rod J. Rosenstein, the federal judiciary, America’s free press, white voters in suburban Pittsburgh, black voters in rural Alabama, determined women in Northern Virginia and millions of other citizens organizing for November’s momentous midterms can best explain to our disillusioned daughters and sons why we will survive this democratic fire drill.
This week, NBC News’ Vaughn Hillyard interviewed a former Republican mayor from the conservative Pennsylvania district that appears to have just elected Conor Lamb to Congress. When asked how he would vote, the GOP leader said for the Democrat, because “we need a good man in Congress.” That interview brought to mind Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham’s praise of George H.W. Bush’s leadership style :
“There is greatness in political lives dedicated more to steadiness than to boldness, more to reform than to revolution, more to the management of complexity than to the making of mass movements. Bush’s life code, as he once put it in a letter to his mother, was ‘Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.’ ”
That is not the course Americans find themselves on today. But if the past decade has taught us anything, it is that voters quickly correct the country’s direction when events demand change. Just as voters checked George W. Bush’s power by putting Democrats in charge of Congress, Obama spent his last six years in the White House vexed by Republican majorities in both chambers.
While those checks and balances have long frustrated presidents in both parties, that is exactly how the Founders envisioned their American experiment working. It is also why a shortsighted political day trader such as Trump is doomed to fail in Washington.