This is the last day of Trump’s unspeakable term. When I wrote in September that we might have tipped off the edge of democracy, I had not felt, was not feeling, the vertigo of free fall. I was grasping hope while still underestimating how bad things could get. We don’t yet know the extent to which our government and the electoral process are damaged, whether the social fabric is beyond repair, whether the people are beyond healing. It might be. But I am alert to hope. I have been reminded often of Shakespeare’s trust in the decency of ordinary people. Shakespeare wrote during a period of authoritarianism and repression, yet from his plays flow hope and resilience in and from the people. It is a point Stephen Greenblatt makes, that I heard him make in a presentation at the Folger Shakespeare Library. That one observation has brought comfort to me again and again these past few years.
It is therefore a good time to revise the metaphor. I no longer imagine a single precipitating event that produces a fall into authoritarianism. January 6 failed. I was fearful of something like insurrection. We had one. It was farcical and tragic. Now there is a collective cleaning up, too late and misdirected. The scope of things with which we haven’t reckoned remains wide. But we have come through, constitutional processes and bureaucratic actions held.
While I do feel pushed to the limit, so far as that part of the metaphor goes, I no longer imagine a falling off the edge. That kind of thinking might proceed from the mindset of American exceptionalism. For years I have argued against exceptionalism, but I think it was messing with my mind. Too soon to tell, observed Mao. What we have now is what we were and what we have been. The racism, endemic, hits me harder now, the thing within grinding away at democracy. Racism and the legacy of slavery has always given the lie to exceptionalism. I know that, have known it, but did I feel it sufficiently? The Civil Rights movement sustained my faith in progress over decades. The Trump years nearly destroyed that faith. We aren’t exceptional in the US and it is too soon to tell if it is possible to make social progress as a democracy.
What we are doing is, we are slogging. We have been slogging, and I imagine I will feel myself slogging for the rest of my years. And yet there does remain the fundamental decency of ordinary people and the faith I haven’t lost that moments of uplift will never fail to surprise and comfort.