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A Republic, if You Can Keep it: A Resolution in the Age of Donald Trump

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There's a famous anecdote—possibly apocryphal—about the time Benjamin Franklin, when leaving the Constitutional Convention of 1787, was approached by a woman asking what kind of government the clandestine gathering had produced.

"A republic," Franklin is said to have replied, "if you can keep it."

I've been thinking about that line—and the idea behind it—a lot lately, as we stand at the precipice of another new year and look in the rearview at an unsettling 2017. There's an undeniable fragility to this moment, a sense that the country is ripping itself asunder.

Sure, there's Donald Trump, a corporeal incarnation of narcissism, self-delusion, mendacity, and graft, helped into office by white nationalists and a meddling foreign government. But it's more than that. It's also the widening gap between rich and poor—U.S. income inequality ranks among the highest in the developed world—and a social safety net that is threatened while the wealthiest are showered with tax benefits, a parallel of sorts to the waning days of the ancien régime. There are the increasingly authoritarian proclivities of the ruling party and its leader. There are naked gerrymanders that render urban minority votes less meaningful that rural white ones. (And, for that matter, there's the U.S. Senate, where two-thirds of the country's population will be represented by less than one-third of senators by 2040, as more people migrate to the biggest states.) There's the self-segregation of social media, amplifying enmity and reinforcing beliefs we already hold, whatever the reality. There's the rise of the alt-right. And there's the zero-sum mentality permeating our politics.

None of this bodes well, considering that this anxious undercurrent exists amid a growing economy that has added jobs every month for almost eight years. Imagine what happens when that inevitably goes south.

The rearview of 2017 is indeed unsettling. But America has survived a lot over the last twenty-three decades—two world wars, one civil war, the Great Depression, the Cold War. And the republic will also survive Donald J. Trump.

But only if we can keep it.

"The brevity of [Franklin's] response," the late historian Richard Beeman once wrote, "should not cause us to undervalue its essential meaning: democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health."

What Franklin was saying 230 years ago was that the republic can only be maintained with perpetual vigilance, lest it devolve into despotism. The first year of the Trump administration has only underlined his point.

The second year of the Trump administration will be no different. It's up to us to resist the White House's racial revanchism. It's up to us to counter fiction with fact, to demand reality-based policymaking. And, most important, it's up to us to defeat those politicians who, because they want to ban abortion or gift their benefactors with tax goodies or start another war in the Middle East, tolerate or facilitate the president's abuses of power.

This is a time for resolutions, so this is mine: throw the bums out, and keep the damn republic.

Twitter: @jeffreybillman

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