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Op-Ed: Is the end nigh? Maybe, but we’ve survived so far

Fireworks over the White House
One point of light: After the fairest election in U.S. history — and, in spite of some, um, challenges — we inaugurated a new president in 2021.
(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Nothing keeps sleep at bay these days like huffing up a few articles about democracy’s doomsday.

Barton Gellman, America’s ranking Cassandra, anticipated “the death of the body politic” in a recent essay in the Atlantic. Donald Trump is staging a comeback, Gellman wrote, and crafting ways to subvert the vote if it doesn’t go his way. If Trump makes it back to the Oval Office via an epochal cheat, the levees of democracy will indeed have been breached. Injustice will roll down like a mighty stream.

“There is a clear and present danger,” Gellman prophesied, “that American democracy will not withstand the destructive forces that are now converging upon it.”

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Indeed, destructive forces — specifically, my own brain-gnawing panic — reliably converge upon me at 4 a.m. Danger, death, destruction. And, of course, disease. For an extra shudder of predawn dread, I study the hockey-stick surge in COVID cases. A COVID chart and a Barton Gellman audiobook could keep me buzzing on high alert for days on end.

Cassandra, let’s recall, was right. But it’s also prudent to rest up if we’re going to brace for America’s Armageddon. So I offer these New Year’s thoughts not as a guarantee of hope, but to slow my own insomniac roll. And maybe yours.

First off, there are true signs of light in the gloom.

Americans are back to work, and wages are high. Unemployment in the U.S. is dramatically down, to 4.2% as of last month. The stock market is buoyant, and, in spite of widespread chatter about rising prices, retail sales rose 8.5% year-over-year between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24, according to Mastercard.

Stimulus checks and child tax credits lightened burdens for tens of millions of families. As for inflation, Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group, predicts it will slow in the coming year.

And don’t count American democracy out yet. Trump’s Drive to End Democracy is not yet a juggernaut. His promiscuous endorsements of puppet candidates in state and local races, where they could help him overturn election results in 2024, have yielded mediocre results. He is 0 for 2 in congressional endorsements, and many of his other down-ballot darlings are lagging in polls. Even the GOP’s big winner in Virginia, Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, got there by distancing himself from the Marquis of MAGA.

On V-Dem’s Liberal Democracy Index, which rates the political freedom of nations on metrics like rule of law and civil liberties, we aren’t (of course) hitting the valedictorian marks of freaking Denmark, but the U.S. is still humming along, roughly tied with Japan.

Meanwhile the U.S. Justice Department is, if not devouring the long-running anti-democratic attempt to thwart President Biden and install Trump as our forever president, at least eating away at it.

In Michigan in December a federal judge imposed sanctions on nine Big Lie lawyers, including Trump pit bulls Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood, over their the “historic and profound abuse of the judicial process” expressed in their manic lawsuit to overturn the 2020 election. They could still face disbarment.

What’s more, the Justice Department has charged at least 727 participants with crimes related to the Jan. 6 insurrection, and criminally indicted Stephen K. Bannon for blowing off a subpoena from the House Jan. 6 committee. Mark Meadows, another Trump factotum, has been held in contempt of Congress for the same reason. Both men could face prison time.

Then there’s the pandemic. A whopping 73% of eligible Americans have had at least one shot of the vaccine. That’s compared to, oh, just about 0% last year at this time. What’s more, the vax flattened curves for the first deadly variants, and Omicron — the one currently laying Americans low — looks to be far less lethal. A recent data analysis published in Stat News showed “a continuing decline in death rates, despite a radical increase in cases.”

None of this is to say the end of the world is not nigh. But our dread may be less related to facts than mood. Psychiatrist Simon Dein argues convincingly in “COVID-19 and the Apocalypse,” a fascinating recent journal article, that pandemics inevitably breed apocalyptic narratives. In plague times, religious people are apt to double down on the Rapture, while secular people see sociopolitical or climate-crisis doomsdays. And yet we survive.

So yes, the nation has suffered a huge number of casualties from COVID. And we have sustained a serious blow to democracy with Trump’s effort to disenfranchise and defraud us.

But key to those statements is the use of the past tense. We have suffered. We have sustained. British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott once wrote, “There are moments when a patient needs to be told that the breakdown, fear of which is wrecking his life, has already occurred.” Americans need to be told this now.

The process of taking stock of how much we have endured and, despite that, how well we have fared through it all can itself allay anxiety.

Let’s be impressed, all things considered. We’ve home-schooled kids, learned to socialize in masks, endured quarantines and gotten inoculated; we’ve economized, cared for others, sought and rethought work; we’ve drawn close to loved ones and consoled the bereaved. We voted in the fairest election in American history — and, in spite of some, um, challenges, we inaugurated a new president.

The breakdown happened , and, as a certain anthem goes, the flag was still there. Sometimes, that minor miracle must be enough to get us through the night.

Virginia Heffernan is a Wired magazine columnist and host of the podcast “This Is Critical.” @page88


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