Like so much else in the Trump era, yesterday’s insurrection was both shocking and predictable. I literally gasped at the image of guns drawn at the doors of Congress, and it is impossible to view such a scene without feeling complete disorientation. And yet this was also the logical and maybe even inevitable culmination of years of provocation, from a psychologically-damaged President who revels in division, disdains the norms of liberal democracy, and is literally incapable of perceiving any national interest distinct from his personal interest.
Fortunately, the rule of law ultimately prevailed. The Capitol was secured, the coup sputtered out, the people’s business continued, Joe Biden will become President on January 20th, and America will move on from a poisonous four years.
Or will we? While a change of President will unquestionably and thankfully remove the most clear and present danger to the Republic, our national pathologies are too deep for a single election to cure:
• Nearly all of the people involved in yesterday’s insurrection, fed a steady diet of lies, truly think of themselves as American patriots acting in defense of democracy. The media ecosystem that produces such a warped mindset will continue to churn out content, and the fears and grievances that leave so many people vulnerable to con men, conspiracy theories, and demagogues will likely intensify. Can we find a way to break the closed loops of information that wall us into alternate realities, and can we engage our fellow citizens in a spirit of understanding, not judging the whole of their humanity by their worst actions and beliefs? We cannot give up on a third of the country.
• Stable democracies need healthy, viable center-right parties, and at present the United States doesn’t have one. The Republican Party — especially its base and increasingly its elites — now more closely resembles autocratic movements in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland than its traditional center-right counterparts in western Europe. Can we find a basis for partnership with and empowerment of responsible elected officials with a genuine commitment to democracy, even when we disagree with them profoundly on policy?
• Our electoral institutions are broken. As a measure of popular will, the Presidential election was not close. But in the states that determined the electoral college outcome, it was razor thin. A shift of just 44,000 votes — only about half the population of New Rochelle — would have delivered the electoral college to Donald Trump, and then we would be in a whole different sort of Constitutional crisis. I struggle to imagine how I would accept the legitimacy of a President who lost by 7 million votes, and wonder how many folks on my side of the aisle would be tempted to storm the Capitol under those circumstances. Can we repair our institutions, so that they affirm the people’s will instead of impeding it?
Don’t get me wrong. I am genuinely relieved and even excited about the upcoming Inauguration and the possibility of national progress, especially given the outcomes in Georgia, which offer President-elect Biden a real chance to govern. But we should have no illusions about the scale and depth of the challenges ahead, or the degree to which success depends on renewal of our culture as much as our government. Yesterday’s shameful horrors have laid bare the threats to our democracy with tragic clarity.