The mayor of Paris, France was quoted on TV the other day as saying, “Welcome back America,” in response to Joe Biden’s projected electoral defeat of Donald Trump. That is certainly understandable.
After all, we were long-term economic, political, and military partners with the Europeans until Trump came along and destroyed much of our political capital. He trashed NATO and unilaterally bailed out the international nuclear agreement with Iran. He withdrew from the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic. And he generally insulted every European leader except the autocrats in Eastern Europe. What could possibly have gone wrong with America’s standing in the world? Well, just about everything.
Dilemmas of Restoring Democracy
The relief felt by the Europeans is palpable, just as is a similar feeling among Americans who value our traditional democratic institutions, norms, and the political civility that had once characterized American political processes. When the Electoral College declared Trump president, without a popular majority in 2016, I never imagined that he could have done as much damage to the nation, its public goods, or our political culture as he clearly has.
Institutions are only as democratic as the people who embody them. Mutual respect is only as strong as the will of those involved to allow empathy and honesty to guide them. The Trumpist autocratic program to dismantle any federal agency or program meant to support the public interest over narrow corporate and plutocratic self-interest and greed, relied on both explicit acts of destruction and the unwillingness of timid people to stand up to the barbarity.
Yet, a few brave public servants such as Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, Former Director for European Affairs for the United States National Security Council, and several others, stood up and expressed their objection to Trump’s gross abuses of power, at the cost of their careers. They embody the essence of true patriotism. Strangely, that seems so long ago.
Now, it is heartening to hear that Joe Biden has been working with public health experts to establish a national strategy to initiate immediately upon his inauguration, to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control. He is also preparing executive orders to rescind the many Trumpist executive orders that have so damaged the people, the institutions, and the environment of American society.
Yet, as many know, it is far easier to destroy than to create. It can take years to build a beautiful structure, but only a momentary bomb to destroy it. Trump was, if anything, a social bomb. His four years of inciting racial and social hatred among many who have felt alienated from a changing America will not be easily unwound. Nevertheless, a broad range of unifying actions taken in the interests of reducing pain among all Americans will have far greater effect than mere words.
Starting Democracy Over, and So Much More
It was not just that Trump trashed democracy by violating most of its norms and contradicting most of the principles by which its institutions operate. Nor was it his gross personal and political corruption. He effectively eliminated the ‘bipartisan’ elements in the Congress, which had severely weakened in recent decades, and he eliminated any trust that remained.
If any one strength of Joe Biden stands out, it is his known ability to work with others with whom he might not agree on everything and his palpable compassion within politics. With a split Senate and a small majority in the House, only a president with Joe’s social skills could accomplish much. The time for ideological oppositions both within and between parties is over, if President Elect Biden has anything to say about it.
Transition or Tragedy: Can the Institutionalist Save Democracy?
Joe Biden is an institutionalist. He believes in the essential processes of the institutions of democracy and in the government working for the general benefit of all the people. Enough voters realized that by electing him helped us narrowly avoid the great tragedy of sliding into autocracy and existential despair.
Now, the task of transitioning back is not just to an administration controlled by Democrats. Our daunting task is to shape a national movement to confront our greatest threats of all—climate chaos, ecological collapse, and economic suicide. Either we will unite in facing the harsh realities of the new great transformation ahead to forge a path to a viable future for all, or we will fail by petty human failures fed by ignorance, fear, and hatred. Perhaps Joe can lead us away from tragedy and back to hope.