So how do I feel two weeks after our election? Awed and terrified. I am in awe at the expression of democracy that took place in America. It was our most impressive election since 1864 and maybe our most important since 1800. And yet, I am still terrified that, but for a few thousand votes in key states, how easily it could have been our last election.
To put my feelings in image form: It’s like Lady Liberty was walking across Fifth Avenue on Nov. 3 when out of nowhere a crazy guy driving a bus ran the red light. Lady Liberty leapt out of the way barely in time, and she’s now sitting on the curb, her heart pounding, just glad to be alive. But she knows — she knows — how narrowly she escaped, that this reckless driver never stops at red lights and is still out there, and, oh my God, lots of his passengers are still applauding the thrilling ride, even though deep down many know he’s a menace to the whole city.
Let’s unpack all of this. Stop for a second and think about how awesome this election was. In the middle of an accelerating pandemic substantially more Americans voted than ever before in our history — Republicans, Democrats and independents. And it was their fellow citizens who operated the polling stations and conducted the count — many of them older Americans who volunteered for that duty knowing they could contract the coronavirus, as some did.
That’s why this was our greatest expression of American democratic vitality since Abraham Lincoln defeated Gen. George B. McClellan in 1864 — in the midst of a civil war. And that’s why Donald Trump’s efforts to soil this election, with his fraudulent claims of voting fraud, are so vile.
If Trump and his enablers had resisted for only a day or two, OK, no big deal. But the fact that they continue to do so, flailing for ways to overturn the will of the people, egged on by their media toadies — Lou Dobbs actually said on Fox Business that the GOP should refuse to accept the election results that deny Trump “what is rightfully his” — raises this question:
How do you trust this version of the Republican Party to ever hold the White House again?
Its members have sat mute while Trump, rather than using the federal bureaucracy to launch a war against our surging pandemic, has launched a war against his perceived enemies inside that federal bureaucracy — including the defense secretary, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration and, on Tuesday, the most senior cybersecurity official responsible for protecting the presidential election — weakening it when we need it most.
Engineering Trump’s internal purge is 30-year-old Johnny McEntee, “a former college quarterback who was hustled out of the White House two years ago after a security clearance check turned up a prolific habit for online gambling,” but Trump later welcomed him back and installed him as personnel director for the entire U.S. government, The Washington Post reported.
A political party that will not speak up against such a reckless leader is not a party any longer. It is some kind of populist cult of personality.
That’s been obvious ever since this GOP was the first party to conclude its presidential nominating convention without offering any platform. It declared that its platform was whatever its Dear Leader said it was. That is cultlike.
Are we just supposed to forget this GOP’s behavior as soon as Trump leaves and let its leaders say: “Hey fellow Americans, Trump tried to overturn the election with baseless claims — and we went along for the ride — but he’s gone now, so you can trust us to do the right things again.”
That is why we are so very lucky that this election broke for Joe Biden. If this is how this Republican Party behaves when Trump loses, imagine how willing to tolerate his excesses it would have been had he won? Trump wouldn’t have stopped at any red lights ever again.
And the people who understood that best were democrats all over the world — particularly in Europe. Because they’ve watched Trump-like, right-wing populists in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Russia and Belarus, as well as the Philippines, get themselves elected and then take control of their courts, media, internet and security institutions and use them to try to cripple their opponents and lock themselves into office indefinitely.
Democrats abroad feared that this same political virus would overtake America if Trump were reelected and have a devastating effect.
They feared that the core democratic concept that America gifted to the world in 1800 — when John Adams lost his election to Thomas Jefferson and peacefully handed over the reins of power — was going to wither, undermining democracy movements across the globe. Every autocrat would have been emboldened to ignore red lights.
Seeing an American president actually try to undermine the results of a free and fair election “is a warning to democrats all over the world: Don’t play lightly with populists, they will not leave power easily the way Adams did when he lost to Jefferson,” the French foreign policy expert Dominique Moïsi remarked to me.
That is why Biden’s mission — and the mission of all decent conservatives — is not just to repair America. It is to marginalize this Trumpian version of the GOP and help to nurture a healthy conservative party — one that brings conservative approaches to economic growth, infrastructure, social policy, education, regulation and climate change, but also cares about governing and therefore accepts compromises.
Democrats can’t summon a principled conservative party. That requires courageous conservatives. But Democrats do need to ask themselves why Trump remains so strong among white working-class voters without college degrees, and, in this last election, drew greater support from Black, Latino and white women voters.
There is a warning light flashing for Democrats from this election: They can’t rely on demographics. They need to make sure that every voter understands that the Democratic Party is a “both/and” party, not an “either/or” party. And they need to do it before a smarter, less crude Trump comes along to advance Trumpism.
They need every American to understand that Democrats are for BOTH redividing the pie AND growing the pie, for both reforming police departments and strengthening law and order, for both saving lives in a pandemic and saving jobs, for both demanding equity in education and demanding excellence, for both strengthening safety nets and strengthening capitalism, for both celebrating diversity and celebrating patriotism, for both making college cheaper and making the work of noncollege-educated Americans more respected, for both building a high border wall and incorporating a big gate, for both high-fiving the people who start companies and supporting the people who regulate them.
And they need to demand less political correctness and offer more tolerance for those who want to change with the times but need to get there their own ways — without feeling shamed into it.
We need our next presidential election to be fought between a principled center-right Republican Party and a “both/and” Democratic Party. Great countries are led from a healthy center. Weak countries don’t have one.
Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.