As he was leaving Independence Hall one morning in 1789, Benjamin Franklin was accosted by a Philadelphia woman. “Well, Doctor, what have we got,” Elizabeth Powel is said to have demanded, “a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s reply was brisk: “A republic, Madam—if you can keep it.”
Can we keep it? For many of us, that question became painfully salient on the morning of November 9, 2016. I’d been covering the election since August 2015, when after the first Republican debate, I’d written that Donald Trump’s “unpredictability—his manifest inability to respect the norms of party, civility, or any institution or structure not bearing the Trump name, preferably in gilded letters—makes him the campaign equivalent of crack cocaine.” Though I didn’t think any of the other occupants of the Republican clown car could beat Trump, I assumed the Republican National Committee would find some other way to stop him.
Over the months that followed, I attended Trump rallies in half a dozen states, from Florida to New Hampshire. But while I couldn’t help watching Trump out of the corner of my eye, fascinated by the reinvention of a man whose first brush with bankruptcy I’d covered as a writer at The Village Voice and New York’s Newsday in the 1980s, my main focus was elsewhere. Assuming that the campaign would be boring, I decided to concentrate not on the candidates, but on the voters, volunteers, activists, and movements that make up the political ground on which elections are fought. I was wrong about the campaign. But I was right in thinking that there was a deeper story to be found far from the lights and the cameras.
Walt Whitman heard America singing. I heard a country screaming—at itself, at shadows, at enemies domestic and foreign. “Lock her up!” “Build the wall!” But I also heard something else underneath all the shouting, a collective gasp of recognition and amazement. I’d heard it most clearly in a high-school gym in February 2016—on the night Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary. Sanders himself was elated, reminding his supporters that when he’d begun campaigning, “we had no campaign organization and we had no money.”
Only it wasn’t Sanders I was listening to. It was the audience—a mix of old radicals and young activists, tie-dyed grandmothers from California and the Carolinas celebrating with thick-waisted older men in union windbreakers and college students in blue “Feel the Bern” T-shirts. Could Bernie go all the way? That magical night, with Nevada and Michigan still ahead of us, anything seemed possible. But what I remember even more vividly than that moment of wild hope was the sensation of looking across the packed gym and being astonished at how many of us there were—and realizing that everyone else was just as surprised. (Though it being New Hampshire and a Sanders rally, the crowd was overwhelmingly white.)