This year’s presidential election, just weeks away, has often been characterized as the most important election of our lifetimes. That it certainly is, whether the lifetime in question is that of an 18-year-old, voting this year for the first time, or a centenarian whose first memory of voting may have called for choosing between Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie.
All elections have consequences, especially the election of a president, so “most important of a lifetime” may seem a legitimate expression of the seriousness of the choice we face when the possibility looms that Donald Trump might be empowered to wreak havoc from the White House for another destabilizing and destructive four years. But saying an election between Donald Trump and any other living human being, is merely the most important in the time span of our own memories would trivialize what’s at stake this year.
It has become common in a political system dominated by a struggle for power between rival clubs for every election to be viewed as an apocalyptic choice between good and evil, when the question is often the ascendance of policy A or policy B. This year, however, policy is secondary. Presidential initiatives have often led to important changes in American life — Jefferson’s doubling the nation’s size from a seaboard to a continent, the Roosevelt’s reimagining the role — and responsibilities — of government.
But, in the entire history of the United States, only two previous presidential elections have been so central to defining the kind of nation the United States was to be. One, crucial to preserving our national existence, was the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln. The other — the most important election in American history — was the election of 1796, notable not for who was elected president but for who wasn’t. George Washington had ample reasons for wanting to return home after two terms in office, but in deciding not to run for a third term, when he might well have been able to retain the powers of the presidency for the remainder of his life, he established a precedent for the peaceful transfer of executive power that remains a central tenet of democratic governments.
We have just observed Constitution Day, the celebration of a document that established the rules — the empowerments and constraints that create the governmental playing field — and shaped the democratic norms that have heretofore held off tyrannical ambitions. Never before, not even during the days of the court-defying Andrew Jackson nor the criminality of Richard Nixon, have the rules and norms of democracy been so threatened. I don’t dismiss the centrality of “issues” — health care, climate, immigration, international alliances — but this is that rare election when what is at stake is not the seeking of advantage in the policy wars but the nature of American public life.Lose this one — allow Donald Trump four more years to undermine traditions, norms, practices, rules, behaviors, and policies that have defined the United States for the past 230 years — and it is liberal democracy itself that will be in peril. Here is a partial list of what is at stake, pieces of our political, civic, cultural, and social life that may very well not survive a further Trumpist dismantling:
- The incomplete but persistent national commitment to the inclusion, and equal treatment of, all Americans. Americans have always know that “blue lives matter” and have long honored those who sign up at personal risk to serve and protect. But too many Americans have not understood that “all” means Black lives, too, which is why it has been important to underscore that important fact. That goal is still far from being realized but racism will only be nourished by a Trump victory in November.
- Similarly, the Constitution declares that among the purposes of the new American government is “to ensure domestic tranquility.” A Trump presidency is expert at inflaming violent tendencies, stirring hatred, and undermining any semblance of domestic tranquility.
- Under the Trumpist cult that has overtaken my Republican Party, no affront to American interests is subject to challenge. Republicans have traditionally been the party that stood against centralization of power in a single executive. Trumpism has built a new paradigm: presidential protections and prerogatives beyond anything imagined by Britain’s George III, whose excesses were sufficient to provoke American colonists to rise in treasonous revolution.
The United States is a powerful nation, but no nation is so powerful as to risk standing alone in an often-dangerous world. Donald Trump’s presidency has separated America from its allies and given encouragement to its enemies. He has unleashed dangerous genies that will not be easily stuffed back into a bottle. Much of the damage Trump has done risks permanent alteration of every aspect of America’s constitutional framework.
President Biden, should that fortunate circumstance occur, will have much to address and the rebuilding will be both urgent and difficult. But, if Donald Trump is reelected, the dismantling of America may be beyond repair and our children’s children will live in a dystopia previously limited to the darkest warnings of fiction. Donald Trump is not fiction; his is a chapter that must be closed.