No historian or political scientist has better explained the fragility of American democracy than a poet. When I interviewed the poet Rita Dove three years ago, she offered the following assessment of exactly how a sociopathic president like Donald Trump could inflict irreparable damage on institutions of governance, and the norms — written and unwritten — that have directed them for centuries:
Much of our government seems based on trust, the assumption that people will behave like decent human beings. Yes, the founders implemented checks and balances and limits on power, but there are these loopholes that betray a belief that people will be decent. That optimism on human ethics is something I love about this country. Now, it threatens to harm us.
Decency, in other words, was a bulwark against the corrupt impulses and wicked instincts of men in power. Even Richard Nixon, who had no compunction when persecuting citizen activists or illegally bombing Cambodia, recognized that he was a participant within an important system of laws. Eventually, he was forced to surrender to those laws. Fealty to American order has also motivated unwise and harmful behavior, such as Al Gore agreeing to accept the results of an election under suspicion of fraud for the “good of the country.” The erosion of faith in American institutions and their democratic objectives, Gore and Nixon appeared to believe, would create chaos — a fracturing of the public, and a collapse of the government’s ability to preserve societal stability.