When Donald Trump was elected president four years ago, I was struck by something: My two sons, then 19 and 21, did not seem to share my alarm. They didn’t seem worried that the country might descend into some totalitarian nightmare. They barely seemed to notice.
I asked my older son about it.
“Our institutions are strong,” he replied, with a shrug.
One of the rare areas where the American exceptionalism we imagine for ourselves actually does exist. In much of the world, you can’t get a document stamped without first greasing the clerk. To get into a hospital in China, one must walk the corridors, handing out bribe money. You might not get a bed unless you buy it.
America isn’t perfect, and the past four years have been a master class in just how imperfect we are. The crazed, I’m-not-wearing-a-mask individualism-run-amuck. The general denial of uncomfortable realities, whatever they may be, which must be grounded in the malevolent ignorance of racism. Trump came in slurring Mexicans and goes out (please, God) trying to void the votes of Black people.
Nothing to celebrate. But my son turned out to be completely correct. Our institutions were strong, in three ways worth noting.
First, the electoral system. The fraud that Donald Trump foams about isn’t there. Nada. Just another lie, albeit a big, loud, relentless one. Joe Biden got 81 million votes. Let’s never lose sight of that. A solid seven million more than Donald Trump. Legal votes cast by American citizens, votes that are being questioned now only because they weren’t for Donald Trump.
To register those voters, then collect, tally and protect their votes, took a vast infrastructure, all across America — every town, village and hamlet. Thousands of regular Americans, doing their jobs: election judges, poll workers, postal carriers, volunteers. The electoral system under enormous stress from the COVID pandemic. Then add the financial stress states are under, due to an economy impacted by the pandemic. Add the stress of a delusional soon-to-be-ex-president and his belligerent band of dupes, lackeys, toadies, bootlickers and insincere politicians who know better but go along out of self-interest, plus a mass of the defrauded public clamoring to abandon democracy.
Second, the judiciary stood strong. More than 50 cases filed, nearly all dismissed. Including a one sentence nice try, Donny smackdown from the U.S. Supreme Court, a third of whom were picked by Trump.
The third institution remaining true to America is the military. There can be little doubt a man who would violate every national norm also would have corrupted the military to serve his ends in a heartbeat, if only it could be corrupted. That it would not was made abundantly clear last month by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking at the dedication of an Army museum:
“We are unique among armies. We are unique among militaries. We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or religion. We take an oath to the Constitution.”
Donald Trump presents many reasons to feel bad about our country. That 74 million Americans would cast in their lot with a fraud, traitor and imbecile is difficult to accept. The hardest lesson of the Trump years is how systemic racism truly is, the greased hub on which the whole place spins. Because only unexamined hatred makes people that stupid, and act in otherwise inexplicable ways, contrary to their own best interests. The people who looked at Michelle Obama and saw an ape look at Donald Trump and see Jesus. That’s racism, pure and simple.
But there is also reason to feel good about America. The invading virus of totalitarianism was, it seems, defeated, for now. Our institutions are strong — and let’s not forget the media, which pointed a quivering finger at each jaw-dropping lie and lapse. In repairing the damage done by four years of Trump we must shore up the rule of law, the ability to vote, the existence of independent government service. So the next time we elect a nihilistic monster concerned only with aggregating power — and the beast will come for us again — the country is even better poised to reject him.