When faced with a choice between a candidate with no vision and a candidate with a nasty vision, many voters will embrace the nasty vision. Even in times of peace and prosperity, perfectly decent human beings are willing to vote for candidates promising extraordinarily cruel policies. When a candidate who promises to inflict extraordinary cruelty on the despised and the abject wins high office, he will (surprise, surprise) use his new-won powers to inflict cruelty on the abject and the despised.
The last 12 months hold out many lessons such as these. But in the last days, I’ve been thinking of another, more abstract takeaway. Before the election, most people I knew were saying that a Trump presidency would be extremely dangerous—but that this wasn’t something to worry about since he could never get elected. After the election, a lot of those same people started to say that Trump was a nasty man—but that this wasn’t something to worry about because our institutions would stop him before he could possibly do lasting damage.
What explains their change of heart? A rather trivial, but very dangerous, failing: the deep desire to believe that the world we live in—which for most of us has been mostly decent for most of our lives—could not possibly turn quite so dark quite so quickly.
And yet, it is increasingly difficult to shake the feeling that we are now descending into darkness. In less than two weeks, Trump has delivered one of the most divisive inaugurals in the history of the country and spread blatant lies from the Oval Office. He has ordered the construction of a border wall and threatened Mexico with punitive tariffs. He has barred permanent residents from entering the country and banned refugees.
More is in the works: According to draft executive orders, Trump might deport legal families that use social services and gut the number of visas available for high-skill workers. He is planning to allow companies receiving federal funding to fire employees based on their religious beliefs and to repeal many LGBT rights.
I could go on. But any attempt at comprehensiveness would be tedious as well as futile: There is simply too much chaos and mean-spiritedness. The party in power, meanwhile, seems determined to stand idly by. So far, Republicans in Congress have proved shockingly willing to rubber-stamp Trump’s policies and Cabinet picks. His more extreme actions have led to cautious grumbling. But when the time to vote on his agenda came, “moderate” Republicans have once again lacked the courage of their convictions.
So we seemingly have every reason to despair—and yet I have actually found myself to be quite hopeful over the last days. The Women’s March turned into the biggest political rally in U.S. history, and the executive order on immigration inspired spontaneous protests at airports all over this great nation. Courts stayed large parts of the executive order on immigration and—though their current numbers limit their ability to hamstring Trump’s agenda—Democrats are putting up a dogged fight in Congress. Several high-ranking officials have publicly defied or criticized orders they found unconscionable and hundreds of bureaucrats are secretly leaking their broken hearts out.
Since Trump got elected, one of my great fears has been that most American citizens might cling to a false sense of security, brought on by decades of prosperity and stability, while the president slowly and surely subverts our democracy. But between Trump’s spectacular assault on democratic norms and the furious response it has already unleashed, I no longer worry about a quiet death. The American republic won’t go down without putting up a hell of a fight.
But will it—will we—win? There is no easy answer because there is no clear precedent. Countries that have as deep-rooted a democratic history or as active a civil society as the United States simply haven’t been in such dangerous territory before. As Francis Fukuyama explains:
Americans believe deeply in the legitimacy of their constitutional system, in large measure because its checks and balances were designed to provide safeguards against tyranny and the excessive concentration of executive power. But that system in many ways has never been challenged by a leader who sets out to undermine its existing norms and rules. So we are embarked in a great natural experiment that will show whether the United States is a nation of laws or a nation of men.
Because our current predicament is unprecedented, the most eminent political scientists at work today strongly disagree on what comes next. Is Daron Acemoglu right to worry that the institutions of modern democracy were never designed to withstand a strongman like Donald Trump—and are now “headed toward pliancy”? Or is Fukuyama right to respond that the Constitution sets up so many robust veto points that “many institutional checks on power will continue to operate in a Trump presidency”?
Nobody can say for sure. But what has become clear over the last weeks is that the natural experiment both Acemoglu and Fukuyama invoke is more extreme than we might have suspected a few short weeks ago. The authoritarian tendencies of Trump’s presidency are even more blatant than most pessimists had warned. But the opposition has also proven more powerful and determined than many optimists had dared to hope. While I remain unsure about the ultimate outcome, I am increasingly convinced that—to misquote Steve Bannon—“a major war” is brewing between the administration and the institutions it would undermine.
It is still too early to tell the genre of the head-spinning movie in which we have been cast as bit players. It certainly isn’t the farce some originally mistook it for. But do we find ourselves in a live-action thriller or a horror movie? And are we hurtling towards a heroic finish or a gory demise? I don’t know. But after the past days, I’m more confident than ever that unprecedented turmoil awaits us along the way—and that is why I’ve been both deeply scared and increasingly energized.
I believe that the worst politics can inflict tends to weigh more heavily than the best it can achieve. For anybody who understands what it means when political tensions destroy the lives of ordinary people, turmoil is not something to be welcomed. But when the alternative is a certain descent into the abyss of authoritarian darkness, it may be the best we can hope for.