Democracy Awakening






Notes on the

State of America


Heather Cox Richardson





We have frequently printed the word Democracy.

Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the

real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d.


                                             Walt Whitman

                                        DEMOCRATIC VISTAS, 1871






Embracing Authoritarianism


(pp. 133-140)


What Trump wanted was to be reelected, possibly to take advantage of the Department of Justice policy that a sitting president should not be charged with a crime, possibly to consolidate his power and become one of the autocrats he admired. It did not appear that he was particularly interested in the job itself. From February 2020 onward, his entire focus would be on reelection.


    But in March the U.S. outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic threw a monkey wrench into Trump’s plans.


    The administration had ignored the pandemic-preparedness measures the Obama administration had put in place, and when a wave of desperately ill coronavirus patients hit U.S. hospitals, a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) had medical personnel wearing garbage bags to care for them.


    To manage the crisis, the administration sidestepped professionals from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and gave Kushner yet more responsibility, putting him in charge of a coronavirus response team to create a so-called public-private partnership that would get the private sector on board to fight the pandemic. Kushner gathered a team from consulting and private equity firms to find the personal protective equipment and other supplies the country lacked.


    Kushner outlined his approach for reporters on April 3: “This is a time of crisis, and you’re seeing certain people are better managers than others. . . . The president also wanted us to make sure we think outside the box, make sure we’re finding all the best thinkers in the country, making sure we’re getting all the best ideas.” He instructed members of the team to pay special attention to tips from “VIPs,” including right-wing journalists.1


    But Kushner’s team didn’t know hospital specifications, have connections with suppliers, or know the laws surrounding equipment. Their response was inadequate and incoherent. Faced with that chaos, the administration blamed the World Health Organization for working with China and formally withdrew from the organization in July. Then it embraced a strategy of mass infection and replaced information from medical professionals with political messaging.


    Eventually, it settled on demonizing Dr. Anthony Fauci, who had directed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for four decades and had received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. They blamed him for a range of offenses, from not identifying the origin of the disease, to blocking quack cures, to imposing mask mandates. Meanwhile, U.S. rates of infections and death were among the worst in the world.


    Finally, Trump openly rejected the idea that the federal government had any responsibility for managing the pandemic. He insisted that governors should be the ones to issue stay-at-home orders, and he refused to use the Defense Production Act (DPA) to speed up production of PPE, although he did use it to enable meatpacking industry leaders to continue production without addressing the health and safety of their workers. He told states they were on their own for testing and masks.


    The administration’s full-blown embrace of the long-standing attempt to destroy the active federal government of the liberal consensus did more than that. It recreated exactly the conditions the liberal consensus was designed to end: it enabled a few well-connected individuals to turn a public need into a private fortune. When other countries sent masks, gowns, and so on, they went not to the states or to FEMA but to the private sector to sell at up to fifteen times their usual cost. The official in charge of distributing the materials said this was because the private sector already had efficient distribution systems in place and, he told reporters, “I’m not here to disrupt a supply chain.”2


    In April, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York begged Trump to fill the “federal void” and appoint a “senior military officer” as a “czar” to coordinate a federal response to the crises and to use the DPA to increase production, procurement, and distribution of medical devices and equipment. He called for “a data-driven, organized and robust plan from the federal government.” Trump responded: “If you spent less time on your ridiculous impeachment hoax, which went haplessly on forever and ended up going nowhere (except increasing my poll numbers), and instead focused on helping the people of New York, then New York would not have been so completely unprepared for the ‘invisible enemy.’” (Schumer had, in fact, called for a declaration of a public health emergency on January 26.)3


    By mid-April, Trump appeared desperate. The pandemic had crashed the economy, a key factor for reelection. The administration was botching its response to the crisis, and significant pushback was coming from those terrified of infection, worried about shortages of the most basic supplies, and suddenly laid off. When, in the absence of federal policy, governors shut down their states to combat the spread of the deadly virus, Trump made an extraordinary announcement. He had “absolute authority” to force states to reopen, he said: “When somebody is President of the United States, the authority is total. . . . The federal government has absolute power,” and he had the “absolute right” to use that power if he wanted to.4


    In some ways, this profound misunderstanding of the power of the presidency was simply the logical outcome of Trump’s belief in hierarchical ranks. He had always denigrated those he perceived as weak or inferior; his campaign rallies were orgies of dominance displays. Once he was in office, his advisors had sought to enforce that hierarchy by using the power of the government against society’s weakest members. They had, for example violated both U.S. and international law to deter immigration by separating children from their parents at the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico. It was an astonishing assertion that their policies trumped both rights and the law. Officers kept no records to enable the reunion of the traumatized families of more than five thousand separated children.5


    By 2020, Trump was stronger than he had been in 2017. he had consolidated his supporters through disinformation about the Russia investigation. The Ukraine scandal brought the entire Republican Party to his defense. He had removed professionals from government positions and installed cronies in their place. And most of all, he had turned more and more consistently to his base, including their violent gangs, for support, intimidating party members who might challenge him.


    In 2019, Trump had tried to use the power of the federal government in foreign affairs to rig the election. In 2020, he set out to rig the election by using the power of the federal government at home.


    Trump brought all of his tools to the effort. He assured his supporters that they were in the majority, that he would win, and that if he lost it would be because the system was “rigged.” Then, as Republicans openly acknowledged that high voter participation would “be extremely devastating to Republicans,” Trump and his allies worked to keep his opponents from voting. Put in charge of the United States Postal Service, Trump loyalist Louis DeJoy dramatically rearranged service hours, trashed mail-sorting machines, and raised the cost of posting mail-in ballots, all at a time when the pandemic meant in-person voting could be deadly.


    Meanwhile, Trump and his allies weaponized the pandemic, ignoring concerns and complaining that Democrats were deliberately sabotaging the economy. Although polls showed that two thirds of Americans were worried that lockdown rules would be lifted too early, the Fox News Channel advertised rallies to reopen businesses and schools and then showed protests in Colorado, Illinois, Florida, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Washington, organized by some of the same Republican operatives who had organized the Tea Party movement in 2009.


    Trump whipped up the violence he had endorsed in 2017 at Charlottesville against the state governors trying to manage the horror in their states. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”6 Trump tweeted on April 17. In Michigan, gangs waving Trump signs and flying Confederate flags claimed that lockdown orders violated their liberty and shouted “Lock her up!” at Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer. On April 30, armed protesters calling themselves “American Patriots” rallied at the Michigan statehouse to threaten the legislators, and the lack of response by law enforcement cheered others on.


    Then, on May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. A bystander captured a video of Floyd’s death on her phone, and the visual demonstration of a white government officer casually murdering a Black American brought protesters in Minneapolis and then Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, and New York City to the streets, insisting that “Black Lives Matter.” Protests spread to Phoenix, Arizona, as well as Louisville, Kentucky, where twenty-six-year-old Breonna Taylor had been killed in her home on March 13 by plainclothes police officers executing a warrant to search for drugs they believed a man with whom Taylor had previously had a relationship might have sent her (he had not).7


    The protests gave Trump the excuse he needed to use troops against Americans. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Trump tweeted on May 29. He insisted the protesters were “organized and driven by anarchic and left extremist groups, far-left extremist groups, using antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from outside the state to promote the violence.” Attorney General William Barr backed him up, noting: “It is a federal crime to cross state lines or to use interstate facilities to incite or participate in violent rioting, and we will enforce those laws.”8


    On June 1, after a call with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Trump told state governors on a phone call: “You have to dominate, if you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. . . . You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again.” Later that day, a massive police presence, including officers from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), cleared peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square, across from the White House, using tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash-bang explosives to prepare for an appearance by the president.


    Then, accompanied by senior officials representing the Department of Justice, the National Security Council, the military, and family members — including Kushner and Ivanka — Trump crossed the square and walked to historic St. John’s Episcopal Church. Surrounded by cameras, he held up a Bible and said: “We have a great country . . . the greatest country in the world. We will make it even greater, it won’t take long. . . . It’s coming back, it’s coming back strong, it will be greater than ever before.”9


    That day was a turning point. The Black Lives Matter movement was a popular protest against rising authoritarianism, and two thirds of adult Americans supported it. But while Republican lawmakers remained silent, the events of June 1 made former political leaders (including all four living presidents), more than 1,250 former members of the Department of Justice, Democratic lawmakers, and crucially, military leaders take a stand against Trump.


    It was virtually unheard of for military officers to comment on politics, but a wave of leaders from the U.S. Air Force, Army, and Navy spoke up to call for justice for Black Americans and to reiterate that their loyalty was to the U.S. Constitution. Because their cooperation would be imperative for Trump to pull off an authoritarian takeover, their warning that June 1, 2020, might well “signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment” grabbed headlines. Implicitly and sometimes explicitly, they condemned the president. The Pentagon disarmed the National Guard troops stationed in Washington, D.C., and sent the regular troops that had been moved to the city back to their home bases.10


    Far from ending the crisis, the military’s resistance drove Trump to try to create his own army. With the help of Attorney General William Barr, he took control of the law enforcement teams from the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; the Secret Service; the Drug Enforcement Agency; the CBP; and eight other, smaller forces that make up about 132,000 federal law enforcement officers. On July 20 the Trump administration announced it would send federal officers into cities run by Democrats, ostensibly to fight crime there. Acting director of Homeland Security Chad Wolf dismissed the objections to federal intervention in Chicago and elsewhere, saying: “I don’t need invitations by the state, state mayors, or state governors to do our job. We’re going to do that, whether they like us there or not.”11


    Two days later, the Trump campaign released an ad suggesting that the choice in 2020 was between “PUBLIC SAFETY” and “CHAOS AND VIOLENCE.” But observers quickly noted that the image of street violence in the ad was not from the United States; it was from Ukraine in 2014. And the image was not of police officers defending the rule of law; it was the opposite. It was a picture of democratic protesters being attacked by the forces of corrupt oligarch Viktor Yanukovych, who had won Ukraine’s presidency thanks to the help of Paul Manafort.12


    It was hard not to see the error as intentional.





The Big Lie


(pp. 155-160)


In the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, it initially seemed as if Trump had become so toxic that the Republicans would veer away from him and back toward the safer ground of politics before 2016. While pro-Trump media tried to blame the attack on left-wing antifa, all four of the country’s living ex-presidents — Democrats Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and Republican George W. Bush — called out Trump and his party for inciting the rioters.1


    Trump immediately lost his access to Facebook, Instagram, and his beloved Twitter, and people across the country called for his removal through the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, impeachment, or resignation. Cabinet members and White House staff resigned, and finally a handful of Republican politicians spoke out against the president.2


    But Trump refused to back down. Although aides warned him there was talk of removing him, he nonetheless spoke to supporters in a video on January 7: “I know you are disappointed,” he said, “but I also want you to know that our incredible journey is only just beginning.” At the time, he seemed delusional, but it was actually true, at least for a growing group of people who came to be known as election deniers.3


    When the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump for a second time on January 13, 2021, for incitement of insurrection, only 10 Republicans voted in favor, while 197 voted no (4 did not vote). In the Senate, 7 Republican senators joined the Democrats to convict, while 43 continued to back Trump.4


    Having suffered no consequences for his actions inciting his followers to attack our democracy, like the Confederates in 1865, Trump continued his behavior, falsely telling his supporters that he had been cheated out of a landslide victory by thieving Democrats.


    Far from retreating, Trump had moved to the stage that scholars of authoritarianism call a “Big Lie,” a key propaganda tool associated with Nazi Germany. This is a lie so huge that no one can believe it is false. If leaders repeat it enough times, refusing to admit that it is a lie, people come to think it is the truth because surely no one would make up anything so outrageous.


    In his autobiography, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler wrote that people were more likely to believe a giant lie than a little one, because they were willing to tell small lies in their own lives but “would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.” Since they could not conceive of telling “colossal untruths, they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” He went on: “Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation.”5


    The U.S. Office of Strategic Services had picked up on Hitler’s manipulation of his followers when it described Hitler’s psychological profile. It said, “His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.” Parroting the lie becomes a loyalty pledge, even if – especially if – you don’t actually believe it.6


    Big lies are springboards for authoritarians. They enable a leader to convince followers that they were unfairly cheated of power by those the leader demonizes. In the U.S., the power of Trump’s Big Lie to rally supporters meant that the Republican Party gradually purged those members who continued to stand against him, and leaders consistently refused to acknowledge that Biden had won the election. “Election denier” became a political identity, and going into Biden’s presidency, most Republicans simply affirmed that he was the current president.


    The belief that Democrats cheated in the election translated into an insistence that the electoral system must be strengthened to keep Democratic voters — especially Black voters — from the polls. In 2021, nineteen Republican-dominated states changed their election laws to make it harder to vote. Some of them also took the ability to certify the votes away from nonpartisan officers and gave it to partisan boards.7


    The Big Lie permitted the final destruction of the liberal consensus, focusing first on the right to vote itself. As Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell had used the filibuster to guarantee that the Democrats couldn’t protect voting rights, end the partisan gerrymander, stop dark money from pouring into elections, or restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act.


    But the Big Lie meant the Republicans could skew the mechanics of the electoral system even further: Trump supporters began to talk up a fringe constitutional theory called the independent state legislature doctrine, arguing that state legislatures alone could choose presidential electors without regard to state constitutions, courts, or governors. This doctrine would enable a Republican legislature to write whatever rules for voting it wished, cutting Democrats out of the vote altogether. Had this doctrine been in place for the 2020 election, Trump would have won.


    Indeed, Republicans called for exactly what those backing the destruction of the liberal consensus had advocated since 1937. They wanted to destroy the power of the national government and throw government back to the states. Furious at federal government organizations that thwarted Trump, including the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Trump Republicans called for disbanding them. In 2022, extremist chair of the Arizona state Republican Party Kari Lake announced: “We’re gonna push back with our state’s rights. We’re sovereign states. We are not serfs of the federal government.”8


    The Supreme Court, stacked with “originalists” after years of Republican appointments, turned hard right during the Trump years with McConnell’s help. It bolstered the states’ rights advocates. Rather than preserving established law, as American courts had always prioritized, it repeatedly threw out precedent and emphasized that the states, rather than the federal government, should determine the laws under which we live.


    The restriction on federal authority had immediate consequences for equal rights. Refusing to “intrude on state sovereignty,” on June 24, 2022, the six radicals on the court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that had legalized abortion. They argued that the right to determine abortion rights must be returned “to the people’s elected representatives” at the state level, even as states were restricting the right to vote. For the first time in our history, the court explicitly refused to recognize an established constitutional right.


    In the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, the court took the position that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give the federal government the power to protect certain civil rights. This brought into question the right to use contraception and the rights to interracial and gay marriage, all protected under the same legal argument as abortion. So Democrats set out to protect those rights through federal legislation. But Republicans in Congress overwhelmingly voted to oppose such laws. Although 62 percent of Americans supported the right to use birth control, 96 percent of House Republicans voted against it. Although 70 percent of Americans supported gay marriage, 77 percent of the House Republicans voted against it. In the Senate, Republicans filibustered the measures altogether.9


    The destruction of federal power also signaled an end to federal regulation of business. On June 30, 2022, the Supreme Court overturned a legal concept that had been in place since the 1930s. In West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency it embraced what became known as the major questions theory of the non-delegation doctrine. This theory said that Congress cannot delegate “major questions” to the executive branch. Because most of the agencies that enforce business regulations are housed in that branch — and have been since George Washington’s term — the decision suggested that the government regulation at the heart of the liberal consensus could become virtually impossible.


    Trump’s right-wing extremists threw power to the states, where gerrymandering had put extremists in control. State houses passed draconian abortion laws, passed extreme gun laws, and wrote laws prohibiting public school teachers from teaching “divisive concepts.”


    But this state-based system did not mean that voters in the states could do as they wished. Instead, the right-wing mythological reading of history created a loophole that permitted the federal government to act, so long as Supreme Court justices believed those actions reflected the early history of the country. The Constitution does not protect the right to abortion because it does not mention that right, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the Dobbs decision, but the court actually can protect rights not mentioned in the Constitution so long as they are “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”10


    The court then struck down a New York state law restricting the concealed carrying of guns on the grounds that history suggested such a restriction was unconstitutional. But, in fact, in both the Dobbs decision and New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, the court used stunningly bad history, if it could be called history at all. Abortion was, in fact, deeply rooted in this nation’s history not only in the far past but also in the past forty-nine years, and individual gun rights were not part of our early history.


    Thus, the court imposed on the nation a so-called originalism that returned power to the states, leaving the door open for state lawmakers to get rid of business regulation and gut civil rights, but its originalism also left the door open for the federal government to impose laws on the states that are popular only with an extremist minority, exactly contrary to what the Framers tried to write into our Constitution.


    In its imposition of minority rule first by insisting on states’ rights and then by demanding federal protection of laws it wanted, the Republican Party echoed the southern Democrats before the Civil War. Like today’s Republicans, as southern enslavers lost support, they entrenched themselves in the states, then took over the machinery of the federal government and then the Supreme Court. The court then agreed that the center of democracy was in the states, no matter how undemocratic state legislation was.


    Regardless of who was in the White House, and with the help of the language of authoritarianism and the use of mythological history, the MAGA Republicans appeared to be on track to accomplish what the Confederates could not: the rejection of the Declaration of Independence and its replacement with the hierarchical vision of the Confederates.





Reclaiming Our Country


(pp. 245-253)


In his Farewell Address on January 4, 1981, President Jimmy Carter noted that the undermining of faith in the government’s ability to deal with problems meant that Americans were turning increasingly to “single-issue groups and special interest organizations to ensure that whatever else happens, our own personal views and our own private interests are protected.” This, he warned, distorts the nation’s purpose because “the national interest is not always the sum of all our single or special interests. We are all Americans together, and we must not forget that the common good is our common interest in our individual responsibility.”


    A president who had added solar panels to the White House, he urged Americans to protect “our most precious possessions: the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land which sustains us,” and to advance the basic human rights that had, after all, “invented America.” “Our common vision of a free and just society,” he said, “is our greatest source of cohesion at home and strength abroad, greater even than the bounty of our material blessings.”


    Carter urged Americans to remember these words: “We hold these truth to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”1


    And yet here we are.


    In the years after President Ronald Reagan took over the White House (where he promptly removed the solar panels), a radical minority once again used the power of language and the power of their own historical myth to tear apart the concept of the common good.


    Their dismantling of the liberal consensus revived a dangerous trend toward authoritarianism. First, wealth concentrated upward, leaving a large group of Americans dispossessed and angry over their downward mobility. At the same time, popular culture emphasized that those dispossessed Americans were at fault for their failure in a system they increasingly recognized was rigged. Then Republican politicians flooded the media system with propaganda insisting that tax cuts and pro-business government policies were not to blame for the dispossession of white lower- and middle-class Americans. The culprits, they insisted, were lazy, grasping, and immoral minorities and women.


    Increasing numbers of Americans rejected the idea that the government could defend their interests, while those who still had faith in the system and tried to elect Democrats to office found the Republicans had increasingly diluted their votes through gerrymandering, voter suppression, the filibuster, and the Electoral College. By 2016, the Republican candidate for president was openly calling for the help of authoritarian Russian leader Vladimir Putin against his Democratic opponent. And then that candidate, Donald Trump, became president.


    When Americans elected Democratic president Joe Biden in 2020, he made it clear that he intended to defend American democracy from rising authoritarianism. Throughout his campaign, he focused on bringing people in the center-right and center-left together, just as scholars of authoritarianism have called for. Biden ignored Trump and pledged to work with Republicans who believe in “the rule of law and not the rule of a single man.”


    On January 6, 2021, after the attack on the U.S. Capitol and on the right of Americans to choose their leaders, Biden explicitly defended traditional American values.


    “Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so” acted “not in service of America, but rather in service of one man” who “has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election . . . because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interests as more important than his country’s interests and America’s interests, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution,” Biden told the American people. He urged Americans not to succumb to autocracy, but to come together to defend our democracy, “to keep the promise of America alive,” and to protect what we stand for: “the right to vote, the right to govern ourselves, the right to determine our own destiny.”2


    Once sworn into office, Biden set out to demonstrate that the government could work for ordinary people. He went straight to the Oval Office after his inauguration and, two days after taking office, rescinded Trump’s Schedule F executive order that would have ended the civil service system and enabled a president to pack the government with loyalists. He fired the political appointees Trump had tried to burrow into the federal government, and he promised that none of his family members would work at the White House.


    In is first two years in office, with a slender majority in the House of Representatives and a Senate split fifty-fifty, the democrats managed to pass historic legislation that echoed that of FDR and LBJ, shoring up the economy, rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, and investing in the future, trying to bring the disaffected Americans who had given up on democracy back into the fold.


    In March 2021, Democrats passed the $1.9 billion American Rescue Plan to combat the coronavirus pandemic and stimulate the economy that it had hobbled. In November 2021, some Republicans were persuaded to get on board to pass the $1.2 billion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to rebuild the country’s roads and bridges and to install broadband in rural areas across the nation. A few Republicans also backed the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act, which invested $52 billion in the domestic manufacture of semiconductors and boosted scientific research in the U.S.  And in August 2022, the Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which made historic investments in addressing climate change, expanded health coverage, reduced the deficit, and raised taxes on corporations and the very wealthy.


    Biden’s domestic program expanded liberalism to meet the civil rights demands Carter had identified, just as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ had each expanded liberalism to meet the challenges of westward expansion, industrialization, globalization, and anti-colonialism.


    Biden and his administration centered liberalism not around nuclear families headed by male breadwinners, as had always been the case before, but around children and their caregivers. He did not manage to sell Congress on childcare and eldercare infrastructure, but the Democrats did temporarily expand the child and dependent care tax credit, pass the first gun safety law in thirty years, protect interracial and gay marriage, and pass legislation to help the millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in military zones.


    After twelve years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and eight as vice president, Biden knew that defending democracy at home meant strengthening it internationally. He and Secretary of State Antony Blinken set out to rejoin international alliances and to reinforce them. Biden brought the U.S. back into the World Healthy Organization and se out to rebuild NATO and other strategic alliances, while forging new ones in the Indo-Pacific region and Africa.


    In is first speech to the State Department, on February 4, he emphasized that he had already spoken to “the leaders of many of our closest friends — Canada, Mexico, the U.K., Germany, France, NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia — to [begin] reforming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse.” Once again, “America’s most cherished democratic values” would be at the center of American diplomacy: “defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”3


    The power of that defense became clear in February 2022, when Putin launched a new invasion of Ukraine. Putin was stymied by Ukraine’s soldiers, who had trained hard in the eight years since the first Russian invasion, and by an international community that refused to recognize Russia’s land grab, imposed strict and coordinated sanctions, and provided Ukraine with money, intelligence, and weapons.


    This community stood together in no small part thanks to Biden and Blinken, and the strength in that cooperation discredited the argument that autocracy was more efficient and powerful than democracy. Putin’s highly praised and feared army turned out to be undertrained and poorly supplied: corrupt officials and their backers had siphoned off money intended for military readiness into mega-yachts and London flats for themselves and their mistresses.


    The idea floated by Trump supporters that Russian society was more moral than democracies where LGBTQ people are considered equal was also discredited as Russian invaders committed war crimes against Ukraine’s civilians. And the idea that democracies are weak was belied by Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, a lawyer and former television comedian, who put on military clothes and, when offered an escape from his besieged city, responded: “I don’t need a ride, I need more ammunition.”


    But despite the emerging defense of democracy, Trumpism did not die. Trump and his loyalists continued to insist he had won the 2020 election, while extremists like newly elected Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who at one point called for Democratic politicians to be executed, told a right-wing newspaper that there was no difference between establishment Republicans and Democrats. She said she was eager to bring more action-oriented people like her to Congress to help Trump with his plan, “whenever he comes out with [it].”


    Establishment leaders swung behind the Trump faction, especially after June 2022, when the Supreme Court, packed by then-Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell with three extremist judges, ignored the settled law they had promised to protect and overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.


    Republican leaders went on to challenge all of the court decisions protecting the liberal consensus government in place since the 1930s. If the Fourteenth Amendment did not protect abortion, the other civil rights it protected were on the table, including gay marriage, the right to contraception, and perhaps even desegregation. Also on the table was the government regulation of business.


    Meanwhile, Trump’s political star had begun to fall as his legal and financial trouble mounted in the years after the election. But he had radicalized the Republican Party, and Republican governors competed to pick up his voters. Unlike Trump in 2016, though, they made no pretense of embracing the Reagan Republican ideology of free markets: Florida governor Ron DeSantis, for instance, openly used the power of his office to reward political friends and punish those he perceived as his enemies and to manufacture anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ sentiment, much as Putin and Orban had done before him. Right-wing thinkers began to argue openly that democracy and its values — equality before the law, separation of church and state, an independent press, academic freedom, and free markets — have undermined the human virtue of the past and must be stamped out.4


    Crucially, those efforts depended on maintaining the right-wing myth that American history was rooted in a pure past that their opponents were destroying. Early in Biden’s term, Republican operatives manufactured outrage over the alleged teaching of critical race theory in public schools. That legal theory, designed to explain why the laws of the 1970s hadn’t created the equality they promised, was an upper-level law school elective that had never actually been taught in public schools. Republican-dominated legislatures passed laws forbidding teachers from teaching “CRT” or any lesson suggesting that the American system might ever have had systemic inequalities, or even lessons that might make some people — by which they meant white people — uncomfortable. Hand in hand with that censorship went a surge in book banning from the public schools and from some public libraries, with most of the banned books written by or about Black or LGBTQ people.


    A history that looks back to a mythologized past as the country’s perfect time is a key tool of authoritarians. It allows them to characterize anyone who opposes them as an enemy of the country’s great destiny.


    But the true history of American democracy is that it is never finished. It is the story of people who have honored the idea that a nation can be based not in land or religion or race or hierarchies, but rather in the concept of human equality. That commitment, along with its corollary — that we have a right to consent to our government, which in turn should act in our interest — has brought us our powerful history of people working and sacrificing to bring those principles to life. Reclaiming our history of noble struggle reworks the polarizing language that has done us such disservice while it undermines the ideology of authoritarianism.


    In 1776, with all their limitations, the Founders proposed that it was possible to create a nation based not in religion or race or hierarchies of wealth or tradition, but in the rule of law. It was possible, at least in principle, they thought, to bring widely different peoples together in a system in which every person was equal before the law and entitled to a voice in government. They set out to show that it could be done.


    That theory was never unchallenged. In the 1850s, a reactionary and wealthy minority tried to get rid of it altogether, insisting that true “democracy” centered power in the state governments that they controlled. Gradually, they took over the mechanics of the American government. Those nineteenth-century leaders perverted the meaning of democracy for their own ends, and they were able to do so because they created a closed media system that lied to their voters and demonized their opponents. They convinced their voters that American democracy was rooted in the states and that state legislators could determine the living conditions of a state’s people, even if that meant enslaving them. They took over their party, and then their state governments, and then the national government. They believed they were the vanguard of a new system that would enable the United States to lead a world dominated by a few wealthy, well-connected and usually white and male leaders, whose economy rested on inequality and enslavement.


    But that story didn’t end as the elite enslavers wished.


    Men like Abraham Lincoln recognized that such a struggle was not just about who got elected to the White House. It was the story of humanity, “the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world.” Lincoln made it clear that those who wanted the right to self-determination had always had to struggle — and would always have to struggle — against those who wanted power. “The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself,” he said. “No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”5


    Lincoln emphasized that those trying to destroy democracy in his era were not the conservatives they claimed to be but were dangerous radicals whose version of America must be rejected. He called on his neighbors to defend equality before the law and the right of everyone to consent to the government under which they live. They must reclaim the history of America so that it would have “a new birth of freedom.”


    When Lincoln said those words in 1863, it was not at all clear his vision would prevail. But he had hope because, after decades in which they had not noticed what the powerful were doing to destroy democracy, Americans had woken up. They realized that the very nature of America was under attack. They were divided among themselves, and at first they didn’t really know how to fight back, but ordinary people quickly came to pitch in however they could, using the tools they had. “We rose each fighting, grasping whatever he could first reach — a scythe — a pitchfork — a chopping axe, or a butcher’s cleaver,” Lincoln recalled. Once awake, they found the strength of their majority.6


    In Lincoln’s era, democracy appeared to have won. But the Americans of Lincoln’s time did not root out the hierarchical strand of our history, leaving it there for other rising autocrats in the future to exploit with their rhetoric and the fears of their followers.


    So far, the hopes of our Founders have never been proven fully right. And yet they have not been proven entirely wrong.


    Once again, we are at a time of testing.


    How it comes out rests, as it always has, in our own hands.








1. Franco Ordonez, “Jared Kushner’s Role in Coronavirus Response Draws Scrutiny, Criticism,” NPR, April 4, 2020


2. “Navy Rear Adm. John Polowczyk: “I’m Not Here to Disrupt a Supply Chain,'” Facebook video of White House press briefing, April 2, 2020, 2:23,


3. “In New Letter, Schumer Calls on President Trump to Designate a Senior Military Officer as ‘Czar’ for Both Production and Distribution of Desperately Needed Medical Equipment; Schumer Says Present Personnel Not Up to the Job,” Senate Democrats, April 2, 2020; Donald J. Trump, “Letter to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on the Federal Coronavirus Response,” April 2, 2020, American Presidency Project.


4. Jeremy B. White, “Trump Claims ‘Total Authority’ over State Decisions,” Politico, April 13, 2020.


5. Nick Cumming-Bruce, “Taking Migrant Children from Parents Is Illegal, U.N. Tells U.S.,” New York Times, June 5, 2018.


6. Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter, April 17, 2020, 11:25 a.m.,


7. Richard A. Oppel Jr., Derrick Bryson Taylor, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, “What to Know about Breonna Taylor’s Death,” New York Times, March 9, 2023.


8. Donald J. Trump (@real Donald Trump), Twitter, May 29, 2020, 12:53 a.m.,;United States Department of Justice, “Attorney General William P. Barr’s Statement on the Death of George Floyd and Riots,” news release no. 20-499, May 30, 2020,; Homeland Security, “Office of Intelligence and Analysis Operations in Portland,” April 20, 2021, at


9. “President Trump Walks across Lafayette park to St. John’s Church,” YouTube video, 7:46, posted by C-SPAN, June 1, 2020,


10. Paul LeBlanc, “Retired Marine Gen. John Allen: Trump’s Threats of Military Force May Be ‘the Beginning of the End of the American Experiment,'” CNN, June 4, 2020.


11. Peter Baker, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, and Monica Davey, “Trump Threatens to Send Federal Law Enforcement Forces to More Cities,” New York Times, July 24, 2020.


12. Christopher Giles, “Facebook: Trump Posts Misleading Ad Using Ukraine Photo,” BBC News, July 22, 2020,





1. Nate Schwartz, “Former Presidents Obama, Bush, Clinton and Carter Released Statements on the Capitol Riots. Here’s What They Said,” Deseret News, January 7, 2021.


2. “Romney Condemns Insurrection at U.S. Capitol,” January 6, 2021, Mitt Romney, U.S. Senator for Utah,; Editorial Board, “Hawley Should Resign. Silent Enablers Must Now Publicly Condemn Trumpism,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 7, 2021.


3. Kevin Liptak, Veronica Stracqualursi, and Allie Malloy, “Trump Publicly Acknowledges He Won’t Serve a Second Term a Day after Inciting Mob,” CNN, January 7, 2021.


4. Sonam Sheth, “Trump’s 2nd Impeachment Is the Most Bipartisan in US History,” Business Insider, January 13, 2021.


5. “Joseph Goebbels: On the ‘Big Lie,'” Jewish Virtual Library,


6. Walter C. Langer, Office of Strategic Services, A Psychological Analysis of Adolph Hitler: His Life and Legend, Central Intelligence Agency, August 24, 1999, PDF at


7. “Voting Laws Roundup: October 2021,” Brennan Center for Justice, October 4, 2021.


8. Laurie Roberts, “Kari Lake Calls for Dismantling the FBI. No, Seriously, She Did,” Arizona Republic, August 11, 2022.


9. Inae Oh, “Almost Every House Republican Just Voted against Protecting the Right to Contraception,” Mother Jones, July 21, 2022; Malliga Och, “Busting the Filibuster,” Ms., October 4, 2022.


10. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 597 U.S., 5.





1. Jimmy Carter, “Farewell Address to the Nation,” January 14, 1981, American Presidency Project.


2. Joseph R. Biden, “Inaugural Address,” January 20, 2021, American Presidency Project.


3. Joseph R. Biden, “Remarks on United States Foreign Policy at the Department of State,” February 4, 2021, American Presidency Project.


4. Zack Beauchamp, “The Intellectual Right’s War on America’s Institutions,” Vox, November 19, 2021


5. Abraham Lincoln, “Seventh and Last Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Alton, Illinois,” in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 3, ed. Roy P. Basler (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Digital Library Production Services, 2001), 315.


6. Abraham Lincoln, “Speech at Peoria, Illinois,” October 16, 1854, in Basler, Collected Works, vol. 2, 282.