America just managed a great escape. If Harry Houdini was not cited from the inaugural podium, he was there in spirit.
Inaugurations are a time for optimism and rebirth. That is the case even amid a rampant virus with the scene of a minimalist crowd, ultra-conscious social distancing, fist bumps in place of handshakes, faces hidden by masks, and a repeated disinfecting of the lectern. To say little of the overwhelming military presence and fortress vibe.
History may or may not recall the words of this occasion. But it surely will make note of the pictures and the moment.
While the focus is appropriately on looking forward with hope, it is important also to look back honestly on the presidential term just ended and what the nation endured. And that from which we escaped with good fortune.
Ours is a country of resourcefulness and resilience. But neither of those qualities is limitless or guaranteed. It is only slight exaggeration to describe what our republic has lived through as a near-death experience. At the very least, it was an experience that threatened foundational principles.
Let me just say it: Donald Trump was a menacing, buffoonish, wannabe authoritarian. He had little respect for the country’s institutions and even less for its traditions. He displayed an obvious sympatico for dictatorial strongmen around the globe and cast an envious eye toward their powers and their seeming immunity to normal political opposition.
At his core, Trump had far more in common with Recep Erdogan or Vladimir Putin or soulmate Kim Jong-un than with Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln.
A full accounting of his violations, small and large, of democratic norms is the work of a historian. That far exceeds a columnist’s word count.
For purposes here, let’s look only to the last year and his campaign (such a pesky inconvenience) for a second term. That pursuit led to not one, but two, impeachments – half the total in our nation’s life.
Say this for Trump: He rarely hides the ball. His administration may not have valued transparency, but his demeanor most often told the story.
Anyone harboring the notion that Trump would leave office voluntarily or customarily or with a modicum of grace was naïve or delusional. He telegraphed his punch early on, establishing the narrative that the only way he could lose the 2020 election would be if it were rigged and fraudulent.
When he indeed lost it, in an election that was not all that close in either the popular or electoral vote count, his narrative was set and he pursued it relentlessly, even if often amateurishly. He peddled a myth to a targeted audience eager to believe it and lap it up. Including a not insignificant few who were all too willing to act on it given a presidential prod.
The result was the first such homegrown assault on our Capitol in a brazen attempt to overturn the election with the aid of a gun barrel, battering ram and noose. Call it what you will. From this vantage point, words such as “sedition” and “coup” are accurate and warranted.
Yes, the attack was rebuffed with far less bloodshed and loss of life than easily could have been the case. Thank God. Nonetheless, the inescapable fact is that our nation’s Capitol was breached in an armed insurrection instigated by a defeated president and carried out with his encouragement by many who bought into his lie.
The legacy of the Trump years is that our distinctly American institutions were severely tested; but that they held in large part. What passes for civil discourse was even more stressed. It remains an open question as to how that requisite courtesy and civility bounces back, not with the goal of some illusory consensus but searching for some restoration of baseline respect, goodwill and appreciation of basic facts.
If the Trump era has taught us nothing else, it is that democracy is fragile and requires regular tending and healthy nourishment. Perhaps some thought our roots impenetrable now almost 2½ centuries into this experiment. Wrong.
Our politics were battered and bruised long before Donald Trump arrived on the scene. His victory four years ago was far more culmination than cause of the dysfunction. However, his manner was to pour gasoline on the fire, over and over again, when nurturing water was needed instead.
Now imagine our institutions and political culture four years down the road had Trump been reelected either the old-fashioned way by popular will or via contemptible shenanigans he orchestrated to overturn that will. Would American democracy be still recognizable after another 48 months of an even further unrestrained, anti-democratic leader? I am not so sure.
If history finds a silver lining in Trump’s regime, it will be in providing the nation with an up-close-and-personal lesson as to the lure of the aspiring autocrat, presenting himself on horseback and mongering in fear. Let it be a cautionary tale for the ages.
To be clear, my vigorous criticism of the now-departed president always had far more to do with integrity and decency than with policy. Those latter prescriptions come and go. On some issues, Trump was right and moved the ball forward. But as the ancient Greeks taught us, character is indeed destiny.
Trump’s immense deficiencies in that regard foretold much of what was to come in the form of the strain he placed on the elemental features of our democracy and his apparent disdain for many of them. Time will tell whether Joe Biden is a good president or merely an adequate one. Whatever his presidency holds, he has already rendered service enough in ridding us of a predecessor whose very being, accentuated by his post-election conduct, was antithetical to so much of what this country has long stood for and represented.
Biden may have been the only person able to show Trump the door. And did exactly that. Consider him the antidote.
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. Follow him at @EricSondermann on Twitter. See more of his columns here.