Like many grandchildren of immigrants, I was brought up with a special reverence for America. Our country was not to be taken for granted—it was not like all the others.
As a child, I devoured pint-sized presidential biographies where the arc of Oval Office lives was presented as a lesson in character as much as ambition, punctuated by bits of useful wisdom. All were flawed, but taken together the presidential pantheon formed a kind of reassuring firmament over the American story.
But this is the first Fourth of July under President Trump, and the patriotic bunting feels a bit different this year. In less than six months, we have been forced to confront a president uniquely uninterested in uniting the nation, a reflexive divider who is quick to attack civic-minded critics while cozying up to autocrats worldwide. He is a master of bluster and marketing but you can’t graft heroism or character on his life story. Normally, the Oval Office ennobles the occupant, but Trump is governing just the way he campaigned: as a celebrity demagogue whose disregard for facts or common decency is compounded by his ignorance of policy and American history.
This is not a partisan complaint. Most Republicans in Congress will acknowledge this sad state of affairs in private, occasionally in public. What most journalists know is that some members of the administration feel the same way.
Over the course of his campaign, many of his aides privately came to the conclusion that their party’s nominee was a man whose instincts and experience were spectacularly unsuited to the office, even as they resisted a return of the Clintons. This instinct has only grown since inauguration day as many of the presidents’ men and women find themselves engaged in an absurd game of “contain the president” routinely derailed by Twitter tantrums.
And so, this Fourth of July, the challenge is to widen the aperture of our patriotism beyond the president. We are living through a stress test to the American system and we can’t afford to simply tune out or bask in the cynicism of moral relativism. Liberal democracy is not a guarantee and the alternatives have proven themselves worse in every way for fans of individual liberty.
But we can take comfort from the fact that our founders designed the Constitution with someone very much like Donald Trump in mind.
The Achilles heel of democracy was always the danger that people would fall under the sway of a demagogue with authoritarian ambitions. That’s why the founders divided power into three equal branches of government, strengthened with a series of internal and external checks and balances. Participating in the legislative and judicial branch—let alone state and local government—doesn’t get as much attention as presidential-level politics, but it is just as essential to the overall stability of our system.
In the Trump era, it’s no small irony that liberals are suddenly seeing the wisdom of federalism while civil libertarians are more broadly appreciated as defending core values. These are civic evolutions we should not forget when the next president comes to town.
The broader patchwork of checks and balances is also why the president’s obsessive attacks on the credibility of independent journalism should concern every fair-minded citizen. It’s worth remembering that the Constitution doesn’t mention political parties, but it does mention a free press. That’s because the founders recognized that journalism is an essential guarantor of liberty. Don’t take my word for it, listen to James Madison: “To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.” On the other side of the equation is our current president, who has repeatedly called journalists “the enemy of the American people.”
In the coming months and years, Americans are going to rely on a focused and fearless free press despite the attempts of the administration to attack and intimidate us into silence. We’re going to rely on a vibrant independent judiciary to restrain executive overreach. And we’re going to need principled members of Congress to assert their independence rather than acting as partisan apologists for the president while abandoning their constitutional responsibility.
But the unsung heroes in our national civic stress test are those public servants who have chosen to make a sacrifice, at considerable risk to their reputation, to work for a president they don’t necessarily agree with and in some cases outright opposed during the campaign. I’m not talking about those administration apparatchiks who are motivated by rank opportunism or ideological fervor, defending actions they would loudly denounce if they were on the outside looking in. I’m talking about those patriots who are dedicating themselves to providing a degree of strategic stability, particularly in the realm of national security. These folks may be denigrated as “the deep state” by paranoid people with temporary power who are seeking to spur internal witch hunts and deflect blame—but our government depends on people who think and act beyond partisanship.
We are adjusting to an insult to our ideal of the presidency that is even deeper than the dark late chapters of Dick Nixon, who at least had real policy and geopolitical accomplishments. But the American system is strong. It was designed to survive such a crisis of confidence. After all, one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was bookended by two of our worst, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. We’ll get through this—but only if we resolve to remember that our democracy is a common responsibility, not something we simply delegate to warring factions or a figurehead president. That’s the way to really make America great again.