This November 4 marks ten years to the day that nearly 70 million Americans went to the polls to elect the country’s first black president. On a night that feels like a distant memory now, President-elect Barack Obama told a crowd of thousands braving the cold in Chicago’s Grant Park, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
One decade and two days after that night, Americans again head to the polls, this time to cast a de facto referendum vote on Donald Trump, Obama’s frothing antagonist and improbable successor. The immense possibility of a new and changing America that beamed across the world on the eve of the Obama era has curdled over to the forces of reaction who, seizing on that same new and changing America, have harvested and reaped political fear.
How did we get here? Much of the day-to-day chaos of the Trump period of American history has felt unprecedented, bereft of data points for comparison, lost in uncharted territory with no direction home.
But that’s not exactly right. Stepping back from the daily crises and Twitter rampages to take a 10,000 foot view of Trumpism is clarifying: it’s the reaction that has always followed American progress; the backlash that follows nearly every effort to forge a country that better reflects our founding ideals. Once we understand that, and once we situate Trumpism as a devastatingly predictable moment in American history, we can stop asking what happened, and as we head to the polls, start staking out what comes next.
One way of viewing American history — and in fact, the entire American project — is as the steady (if uneven) expansion of human dignity. It has happened in fits and starts, and never without a fight, but the story of the last two-and-a-half centuries of American history has been the persistent march toward more dignity for more people.
The fight for dignity fueled the founding of our country and the revolutionaries who overthrew British rule to demand the self-determination of self-government. The inalienable rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence — of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — are a proclamation of the inherent human dignity to define your own hopes and control your own fate. Dignity binds together the twin American ethos of freedom and equality.
These aspirations have inspired social movements ever since, extending the Declaration’s indelible logic to liberate and grant dignity to more and more people. Indeed, the awesome sweep of these fundamental ideals was apparent to the founding generation — for some with a sense of promise, others with trepidation. It’s well remembered that while her husband was away at the Second Continental Congress, Abigail Adams wrote to him urging the delegates to “remember the ladies” — seeing hope for the standing of women coming out of the movement for American independence. But John Adams also recognized the power of the founders’ movement to rattle existing hierarchies and unleash assertions of dignity and liberation far and wide. He wrote back to his wife:
We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bands of government everywhere. That children and apprentices were disobedient — that schools and colleges were grown turbulent — that Indians slighted their guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented.
Ever since, the moral force of the founders’ stand for dignity and liberation has proven irrepressible. It’s what has fueled countless movements demanding a more meaningful and richer citizenship, from the abolition of slavery and brutal segregation to fair treatment for ethnic immigrants to full self-autonomy and civil participation for women and sexual minorities. And it’s what underwrites the fight for a fairer, more decent society, from giving working people a voice in their own workplaces to alleviating the ravages of poverty to ensuring economic security in old age to guaranteeing health care for all. These movements have successively secured a more meaningful baseline of dignity, allowing more people to pursue their own happiness.
Generation after generation has achieved more of that American promise of dignity one step at a time. But of course, none of these gains have been won without what has often been a long, arduous struggle — and most have been met with a ferocious counter-revolt. Shortly after the 2016 election, I connected Trump’s election back to these rhythms of our history:
Admirable progress over the ills of our history often gives way to reactionary backlash and retrenchment. [. . . ] Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves in 1863 and a decade of Southern Reconstruction gave way to nearly a century of Jim Crow, lynching, segregation, and violent white supremacy. The outlawing of segregated schools in 1954 triggered massive resistance to black and white children learning together. The Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s fed Richard Nixon’s silent majority and the ensuing limitations on civil and equal rights. That Barack Obama will now turn the White House over to the birther Donald Trump is tragically in keeping with the rhythms of American history.
Suddenly, Trump’s ascension didn’t look stunning or unprecedented at all, but nearly inevitable. The physics of American history told us that the gains of the recent past would be met with the type of angry backlash that Trump embodied, marshaling a coalition comprised of some who resented those gains, and others who felt unduly passed over by them.
But the progress-backlash two-step has never been the end of the story, either. The backlash to the backlash has been an ever-reliable force of the American spirit, too. The Jim Crow regime that reigned in the South for nearly a century was contested and ultimately dismantled by Freedom Riders and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, by those willing to brave violence in the Mississippi Delta to register black voters, by leaders and marchers refusing to be turned back by billy-clubs and firehoses in Selma. Massive resistance to school desegregation didn’t stop Ruby Bridges and other black children from defying reactionary mobs to go to class.
Political resistance always follows reactionary takeovers of the levers of power, as well. The abuses committed by Richard Nixon’s law-and-order regime drove voters to the polls in the 1974 midterm elections to elect Democrats in a post-Watergate wave. The rightward lurch of the federal government under Ronald Reagan fomented Jesse Jackson’s rainbow coalition of liberals and minorities galled by the direction of the country — a political movement that was a generation too early to flex electoral muscle, but one that presaged the coalition that elected Obama two decades later. The grotesque economic inequality that has concentrated wealth and power at the top by clawing back the relative economic egalitarianism and upward mobility of mid-twentieth century America is what fueled Bernie Sanders’ insurgent 2016 primary bid, with a full reckoning yet to come.
None of this happened automatically, but by the will and urgency of regular citizens committed to the long fight for dignity, determined to set the United States back on course toward achieving the promise of our country.
That American tradition now lives on in the resistance to Trump. The force of that resistance stems from the fact that Trump’s driving political project has been to strip public dignity from as many Americans outside his narrow political base as possible — to lift up the “forgotten men and women” of “real America” by tearing down their supposed cultural enemies and oppressors.
Few other modern presidents have cultivated white supremacy and the old social order as openly as Trump has. His right-wing policy agenda is, at its core, about denying social and economic dignity to those outside of his tribe. And his boorish, willfully denigrating affect is about denying rhetorical dignity of those “others” belonging to out-groups — fundamentally an attempt to beat back their perceived cultural ascendancy.
Yet despite the revulsion that has gripped a majority of the country throughout the duration of Trump’s presidency, the anti-Trump resistance has so far been conducted entirely without political power. Trump’s party — and do not doubt, the empty subservient vessel that is the Republican Party is now wholly Trump’s — controls not just the presidency, but the House, the Senate, the judiciary, and most of the statehouses, too. Up till now, there has been no countervailing institutional check on Trump, because Trump controls all levers of government.
That has left Trump and the GOP free to act with impunity to pursue their rotten ends. There was no mechanism in government to stop the GOP’s massive tax cuts on the rich. Nor is there any way of blocking Trump’s judges and justices. The legislative effort to repeal health care coverage for millions fortunately failed thanks to massive grassroots mobilization, but harmful executive swipes and potshots at the Affordable Care Act have continued unabated.
The obsession with undoing health care reform is fundamentally about soiling the signature achievement of Obama and the coalition of voters that elected him. It’s about suppressing and reversing the dignity gains achieved by a changing America. Health care is a totem for the broader clash between progress and reaction. (And make no mistake, if Republicans hang on to Congress this year, they will come after health care again, as their leader in the Senate openly admits.)
Of course, the assault on dignity sweeps far broader. It’s immigration raids and child border cages. It’s official lawlessness and corruption; nepotism and tax-code plutocracy. It’s the incitement of the ugliest strains of American culture to rise from the woodwork. It’s the knee-jerk comradeship with the world’s most insipid autocrats. It’s the right-wing entrenchment on the Supreme Court. It’s the suicidally trollish nose-thumbing at global climate change. And on and on.
November 6 is a chance to finally bring much of that to account. It’s a chance to create a real counterweight to Trump by instating an actual institutional check on his power by electing Democrats to control at least one chamber of Congress. And it may just mark the functional end of his presidency. For the ensuing two years, the White House may be neutralized by subpoena, too bogged down with accountability and actual oversight by a Democratic Congress to perpetuate many new horrors or offenses.
The election will be extremely close, with control of the House dependent upon a handful of races around the country where Democratic challengers are attempting to unseat Republican incumbents. These local races could tip the House from a Republican rubber-stamp for Trump into a Democratic-run check on him. For instance, in New York State alone, just a few tight races could decide the outcome for the whole country: Antonio Delgado’s bid to unseat Republican incumbent John Faso; Dana Balter’s challenge to John Katko; Nate McMurray’s effort to replace the recently indicted Chris Collins; and Anthony Brindisi’s race against Claudia Tenney. Democratic wins in these districts would make Democratic control of Congress much more likely.
Two years into the dark, November 6 is an opportunity to disempower Trump and the reactionary backlash. It’s the resistance to the backlash that reorients American history and points it again toward our foundational promise of greater dignity for all. A movement of people standing up for what they believe their country stands for can shake us off a retrograde plateau and once more bend the long arc of our history toward justice.
That’s what’s on the ballot this November 6 — and those are the stakes. It will be far from the end of the story, but could be a turning point within it. We can alter the rhythms of our history, if we fight for it.