For Biden and Harris, Defeating Trump Is Just the Beginning


“I speak the password primeval . . . . I give the sign of democracy,” wrote Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself.” “By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.”

One of our greatest poets sought the deepest forms of democracy, where people are completely unleashed to share their fullest humanity. Whitman endlessly sang of rebirth and renewal, in nature and in human society. Near the end of the same poem, he breathed his epitaph: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/ If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

As a mythic, defining characteristic, the idea of rebirth has a profoundly fertile history in this land. Americans — their nation, their polity, their multiethnic culture — have never stopped being reborn, despite the conflicted meanings invoked by that concept. We admire second and third acts; we endured at least two reconstructions of our Constitution and our race relations. We revived with lasting significance from a colossal Civil War. We confronted a Great Depression and remade the very idea of modern government. We fought the largest war in history on two world fronts and decisively won both. We celebrate, at least some of us, our dream of the assimilated multitudes into some kind of “one from many,” living by the creeds of natural rights.

But like all deep myths, this one has always survived or grown against the grain of experience and taken sustenance in response to the power of its many enemies. Suppress the votes of Americans, and watch them go vote in heroic numbers.

With the victory of Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris, they — and the rest of the citizenry — face a historic task of national rebirth. The challenge of repair from all the wreckage left by Trumpism may be the work of not merely a political season, but of a generation.

First, this task requires an awareness of how long the Trump disaster was in the making and how many people and forces enabled it. And second, it requires a forthright confrontation with the fact that to rebuild a society and a political system, we must admit that they are broken. Institutionally, America is broken.

A shortlist of our broken institutions can seem painful and overwhelming: the presidency; the Senate; the Supreme Court; government agencies that run everything from law enforcement to criminal justice to the environment to public health; the election system, including the Electoral College; the news media; our global partnerships like NATO; and finally, our public schools and universities — places that are supposed to reimagine lives.

Fueling this decline and distrust are not only warring ideologies about the purpose of government, but also hostility to the very idea that facts and truth, as well as respect for scientific and humanistic knowledge, are the basis of a functioning democracy.

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This sobering reality, however, is matched by our nation’s spirit — as demonstrated by the remarkable voter turnout in this election. And that spirit, along with the acknowledgment that we are broken, can help us find the stamina and the will to climb out from under the gloom of this national nightmare. All rebirths come from the reality of deaths, new beginnings from endings. The road to Trumpism was decades long; the road from Trumpism to a better, revived America is equally long.

Two important books of cultural history are worth a renewed reading as explorations of the late-20th- and early-21st-century roots of Trumpism. Together, they show how Trumpism was a symptom, rather than the creator, of grievance politics and our rigid polarization. He hardly invented the racism he employed, but he had honed it well in his plutocratic and hyper-entitled world.

In “The One and the Many: America’s Struggle for the Common Good,” the theologian-historian Martin E. Marty posited that the motto “E pluribus unum” had collapsed into “almost shattering controversy.”

By the end of the 20th century, Professor Marty argued, Americans had engaged in myriad culture wars that rendered stories of any shared past all but impossible. He saw the country divided into “totalists” and “tribalists.” Totalists were people who felt left behind, cast aside by elites, and who craved a story of “wholeness” about the American nation. These folks felt assaulted by mass media and wanted nothing to do with complexity and conflicting identities.

The tribalists, who might assert race, gender, ethnicity or religion, demanded their story as the source of group cohesion against claims of any unifying whole. Professor Marty saw Americans retreating into “separatenesses” by choice, and he worried, with Reinhold Niebuhr, that “the chief source of man’s inhumanity to man seems to be the tribal limits of his sense of obligation to the other man.”

In “Age of Fracture,” the historian Daniel T. Rodgers brilliantly studied the big ideas and debates in political culture over the past three decades of the 20th century down to the attacks on Sept. 11. Mr. Rodgers found a culture in which the very notion of “human nature” had changed from the post-World War II moment of stress on “context, social circumstance, institutions, and history” to a ’90s emphasis on “choice, agency, performance, and desire.”

Baby boomers, on the left and right, now ran the country, but they inherited a politics shaped by Reaganism, which thrilled to “city on a hill” mythology, but sought votes by stoking resentments and hatreds born of vast changes wrought by the 1960s. Ronald Reagan largely avoided explicitness, but his legion of followers believed civil rights, feminism and various liberation movements had gone too far. The sense of society as “imagined collectivities” shrank, Mr. Rodgers said. Americans were splintering into increasingly divided enclaves of thought. “The last quarter of the century,” he wrote, “was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture.” The country may have unified in the immediate wake of Sept. 11, but soon broke into political camps already formed and growing in tenacity.

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Mr. Trump’s presidency is the result of a long history of the Republican Party’s descent into moral bankruptcy, but also of a culture of social media-driven alienation involving all of us. The presidency of Barack Obama was startling progress, but the bitter reaction to him on the right came from well-cultivated precincts of media, think tanks, racial nationalism and corporate organizing.

Overcoming this Trump scar, carved into our consciousness, needs leadership with a chastened sense of history, the knowledge that the beautiful vision of American pluralism is sometimes not as potent as the political weapon of hatred.

If there is to be a rebirth of this American experiment, our leaders should take heart that it has happened before, but never without blood, sacrifice, social transformation and epic political fights. Countless European immigrants have found homes here, but never without travail or without having to fight the headwinds of prejudice. Chinese-Americans faced two major exclusion acts and murderous attacks at mines and on city streets in the West in the 19th century. Mexican-Americans faced discrimination, deportations, lynchings and all manner of hatred along the southern border long before Mr. Trump ever bellowed about a “wall” to keep out their descendants.

Native Americans in the 19th century and modern West have fought white settlement, U.S. soldiers, ecological disasters, forced marches and starvation, periodic genocides, reservations and “civilization” schools. About four million African-American slaves achieved emancipation in the victory and horror of the Civil War, and thereby prompted a second founding of the United States in the three great constitutional amendments of Reconstruction. Black freedom made many other freedoms possible — for women, for gays and lesbians, for the disabled — even if it took generations.

All of these groups are Americans, and not only are they still here, but their successful and tragic stories now define the national history and how we commemorate it. Their pluralism is the very lifeblood of our democracy, and together they are the American electorate.

Perhaps the most famous rebirth metaphor in American history emerged when Abraham Lincoln went to the ravaged town of Gettysburg, Pa., in November 1863 and explained the Civil War. Lincoln spoke at an unfinished cemetery constructed to cope with a staggering 7,000 dead from the recent three-day battle, and another 33,000 wounded and more than 10,000 missing or captured.

With astonishing succinctness, Lincoln told his countrymen that the old republic had died on that and other battlefields. Out of all that sacrifice, Lincoln argued, the American people — the “nation” — could experience a “new birth of freedom.” Popular government might yet be saved, human freedom forged in new definitions, and even the most challenging Enlightenment idea of all, “equality,” launched on a new history. The first republic was dying before their eyes; at horrible cost, a new one could yet be achieved.

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The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass had himself created many breathtaking rebirth metaphors by 1863 and 1864 to explain and justify the scale of the war. Around the same time that Lincoln delivered his annual message to Congress in late 1863, Douglass was traveling the country delivering his “Mission of the War” speech. Lincoln declared that “the policy of emancipation” “gave to the future a new aspect,” a signal change from his rhetoric of only a year earlier. The president envisioned a remade America: “the home of freedom disenthralled, regenerated, enlarged.”

In his address, Douglass said the American body politic had never been healthy while slavery lived. His language was shuddering but hopeful. He called the Confederacy “a solitary and ghastly horror, without parallel in the history of any nation.” Confederates had to be met and defeated, however “long and sanguinary” the struggle. Douglass’s rebirth story soared as a radical abolitionist version of the Gettysburg Address; but the argument was the same. The war had delivered the country a “broken Constitution,” requiring a legal and political refounding. He believed it was the “manifest destiny” of the war to “unify and reorganize the institutions of this country,” and such an aim gave the quest its “sacred significance.” The mission of the war, Douglass exclaimed, was “national regeneration.”

Fondly do we hope that rebirth from Trumpism will not come from bloodshed, but from legal reform, peaceful activism and politics. But our history should prepare us to know we have been here before, and no regeneration comes without strife. Above all we will need to revive, somehow, the idea that truth matters. “For truth,” the philosopher John Dewey wrote, “instead of being a bourgeois virtue, is the mainspring of all human progress.”

David W. Blight is a professor of history at Yale and the author of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.”

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