Our country’s history abounds with moments when Americans had to choose which side they were on: The Revolutionary War. The Civil War. Seneca Falls. The sit-down strikes of the 1930s. Selma. Stonewall. We are in such a moment now.
The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution frame America’s foundational ideals of liberty, equality, justice, and freedom. While we have had dark periods where the words on these documents did not match our country’s actions, we have made real strides toward those values. Many of us took democratic rule in the United States for granted—until the last two years.
By any objective, historical measure, President Donald Trump exhibits classic authoritarian behavior: Demagoguery. A war on the truth. Branding journalists and the media as “enemies of the people.” Stoking resentment and division. Animating nostalgia for a mythical, idyllic past—supposedly eroded by minorities, immigrants, and political correctness. Sending troops before the midterm elections to “defend” America’s southern border against an “invasion” of desperate and exhausted asylum seekers, and pulling back once the election is over. Threatening to punish his political enemies, even seeking to order the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey, and to fire investigators who provide some of the checks and balances in our democratic system.
And while many of these checks and balances are built into our Constitution and government structures, they do not work when the party in power ignores or, worse, undermines them, as Republicans mostly have. No doubt their acquiescence results from the fact that Trump has been giving his backers what they want—huge tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations at the expense of investments in education and infrastructure and of maintaining Social Security and Medicare, undoing generations of environmental and financial regulation, and rushing through the appointments of a slew of conservative judges to federal courts, including to the U.S. Supreme Court. Trump’s allies have signaled that it’s OK by them to side with foreign strongmen, to lie outrageously, to tear the safety net, and to divide the country the president is sworn to lead.
Trump made the November midterm elections a referendum on himself, using fear and lies in rally after rally to mobilize his base. Meanwhile, Democrats made a different choice, running hopeful campaigns focused on making life better for people—protecting Americans with preexisting health conditions, strengthening public schools, addressing gun violence, taking on student and medical debt and the opioid crisis, raising wages, securing the social safety net, and fixing roads, bridges, and water systems. The midterms pitted fear against problem solving, and this time, problem solving won out.
Despite some heartbreaking gubernatorial and Senate losses, the midterm elections produced a blue wave. But Democratic victories in U.S. House of Representatives, gubernatorial, and statehouse races were not a foregone conclusion. Wall Street was strong, as were employment numbers, although most Americans have not seen the benefits in their wages. And Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression have created scores of congressional districts and statehouse seats designed to give the GOP an impenetrable lock. Two African American gubernatorial candidates in the South, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, fell short by less than the number of voters who had been purged by state officials, including by Abrams’ opponent.
But Americans sent a clear message. They voted for a check and balance on Trump by taking control of the House from the GOP, which has served as a rubber stamp for the president. And they rejected Trump’s politics of fear, division, and lies, voting for decency over cruelty, fairness over prejudice, and democracy over demagoguery.
In On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Yale historian Timothy Snyder takes readers through three times when Europeans confronted authoritarian regimes: the end of World War I, the end of World War II, and the fall of communism. Until recently, most Americans had only been spectators to assaults on democracy. “We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats,” Snyder writes. “This is a misguided reflex.”
I have given this important book to thousands of people with the hope that, once we recognize tyranny for what it is, we the people will act to disrupt it and to protect democracy—at rallies, at town halls, and, ultimately, at the ballot box.
This is no time to sit on the sidelines or lower our defenses. With an increasingly autocratic president and members of his party who refuse to act as a check on his power, we must do all we can to keep the trust and to work with the newly elected Congress and others to help improve people’s lives and maintain our democracy and ideals.