It was another one of those weeks in which the wheels seemed to come off the axle of the American motor coach.
President Trump speculated about his power to pardon himself for crimes, and his lawyer said the president could shoot the now-former FBI director with legal impunity.
Trump is feuding with Canada and our closest allies in Europe, but is looking forward to “friendly” talks with North Korea, which, according to the CIA, has no intention of denuclearizing but is willing to open a hamburger restaurant.
Trump, inflaming racial tensions, disinvited the Super Bowl champions from a White House celebration and instead hosted a “loud” display of patriotism during which he muffed the words to “God Bless America.”
The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, it was learned, tried to use his position to get a position at Chick-fil-A for his wife, scented lotion from the Ritz-Carlton and a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel.
Oh, and a contractor at the National Security Council was arrested as he arrived for work at the White House on a charge of attempted murder.
There is a tendency amid this chaos to think that American government is disintegrating before our eyes. But this last week also reminded us that the country has survived worse. It was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, which itself followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., at a time of war and rioting. We survived 1968. We’ll get through this, too.
I took a break from my apocalypse vigil this last week to speak with Robert Mickey, a political-science professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in U.S. political history. And I offer this glass-half-full perspective on our current troubles:
Trump will not destroy American democracy.
Trump is a symptom of problems, more than the cause.
We’ll solve these problems — eventually.
“Our political situation is much more stable than it has been at many periods in U.S. history,” Mickey tells me, “and our discourse is more civil than a lot of those periods.”
During the 1790s, it wasn’t at all clear the new country would survive foreign invasion or internal division. The 1810s brought more of the same. The divisions of the 1850s led to the Civil War. The 1890s were filled with farmer revolts, strikes, robber barons, massive immigration, war with Spain, an economic depression and the expansion of Jim Crow. The 1930s brought the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. And then there was 1968.
Now, by contrast, “we have stable democratic institutions across the entire country in a way we profoundly did not before,” Mickey says. “The institutions we have, while being challenged, have been a source of strength.” Federalism has been a check on Trump, as California, New York and other states push back against him. The justice system, though assaulted by Trump, is proving to be a check on him. Trump, though breaking norms, seems to lack the competence to pull off a direct assault on democracy.
The real danger is not from Trump, but from the forces that gave rise to him and could continue to erode democracy over time: broad and persistent wealth inequality, the backlash against America’s shift from a white-majority nation toward a minority-majority one, the accompanying realignment of parties along racial lines and the related radicalization of the Republican Party.
Inequality destabilizes democracy by destroying the belief in “one person, one vote,” and giving rise to demagoguery. The United States is struggling with (and Trump is exploiting) its transformation from an electorate of white men to a multicultural one. “American democracy didn’t really kick in until the 1960s,” Mickey argues. “Periods we romanticize as civil and lovely were such because we struggled to keep race off the national agenda.”
Past crises have been resolved by either war, economic booms or luck. But this crisis could resolve itself by generational change.
Surveys from the Pew Research Center find that millennials are dramatically more likely than older generations to believe the country needs to make changes to give blacks equal rights, that discrimination is the main thing holding African-Americans back, that immigration strengthens America and that a bigger government that provides more services is better. There are indications the youngest and most nonwhite generation, Generation Z, will push against older generations even more on these questions.
This may be small comfort as Trump rains chaos and inflames tensions. It’s no excuse to relax in the fight to contain Trump.
But we’ll get through this — even L’Affaire Chick-fil-A.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.