In November 1920, William Butler Yeats published The Second Coming, a dark, apocalyptic poem of a Europe riven by war, contagion and revolution. There, he laments a sunless, sleepless world that would nourish a century of Cassandras and Jeremiahs.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” Yeats writes, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The centre cannot hold. It is perhaps the most memorable epigram among others that have been widely quoted — some say “plundered” — by historians and philosophers. Over the next hundred years, amid the horrors of authoritarianism, economic depression, nuclear arms, terrorism and global warming, the high priests of pessimism have reliably invoked Yeats.
Interest in The Second Coming surged in 2016, fuelled by Brexit in the United Kingdom and the ascent of Donald Trump in the United States. Factiva, a media database, reported that the poem was quoted more then than in the previous three decades. Chaos will do that.
In his unorthodox presidency, Donald Trump loosed his own anarchy upon his country and the world. He appointed three conservative justices to the Supreme Court, shifting its ideological balance; embraced sweeping environmental and industrial deregulation and cut corporate taxes; tried to repeal Obamacare; and spurned collective security, open borders and free trade in favour of isolationism, nativism and protectionism. It was a ferocious assault on the country’s traditions and principles.
Throughout it all, the question returned again and again: Would the centre hold? Would moderation vanish? Would democracy survive?
As Joe Biden prepares to become president, we have the answer. The centre held. It held amid a withering frontal assault. For all “the blood-dimmed tide,” the United States has stepped back from the abyss, at least for now.
The story of the election of 2020 is that things worked. For all the anxiety over organized violence, foreign interference, Proud Boys and a slow-moving constitutional coup, the pillars of stability stood. They ensured a fair election, and, long before it, they contained a rash, malevolent president.
For months, there were fears that Trump would try to delay or disrupt the election. As the pandemic rose and his popularity fell, Trump mused about ignoring the outcome if it didn’t go his way. “Right now, that’s the plan,” Jared Kushner said last May when asked whether the election would happen on November 3, as if he were confirming a lunch date — and as if Trump had the power to stop it.
The election happened. More than 150 million Americans voted. There was no violence. There was no Reichstag Fire, an attack some feared Trump could use as pretext to close the polls, send in troops and shatter faith in the process. To many, this apocalyptic scenario was quite plausible.
The votes were counted. The results, even with Georgia still recounting, are clear. There was no foreign interference, as far as we know.
The election produced a Democratic president, Joe Biden, with a record number of votes, ousting an incumbent for the first time in 28 years. It produced a vice-president, Kamala Harris, a woman of colour. She represents a changing America in which more women than ever were elected this year to the House of Representatives.
Over the last four years, the country’s institutions had tried, with mixed success, to contain Trump. All played a role in his demise.
In the Senate, a few Republicans of conscience — including the late John McCain — saved Obamacare. In 2018, the Democrats took back the House, moving “the resistance” inside.
It was the House that launched investigations into the administration, passed bills and impeached Trump in 2019, a power it has used only twice before. The Senate acquitted him. In the judgment of history, those Vichy Republicans who supported the president will be seen as collaborators.
Sometimes organized, sometimes spontaneous, the resistance could not stop Trump’s wide use of executive power, but it slowed or thwarted him in other ways. The courts, for example, questioned his Muslim ban early.
The media held Trump accountable. The award-winning investigative reporting of the Washington Post and the New York Times uncovered his unreleased tax returns, reported his administration’s self-dealing, corruption and nepotism, and exposed the weaknesses of his debt-ridden businesses. Thanks largely to Trump, the New York Times now has seven million digital subscribers.
CNN and MSNBC flourished, too, counting Trump’s lies and challenging his narrative. Their audiences have grown, but not as much as Fox News’s. Celebrating Trump and his loyalists, that network continues to attract the largest following on television, even if the president has recently disavowed it.
The bureaucracy mounted its own institutional opposition. The Deep State leaked. Critics from within the administration challenged Trump’s disdain for democracy. Investigators-general did their jobs. Some were fired, while other dissenters, including cabinet secretaries, diplomats, senior advisors and administrators, resigned in protest. Some wrote books.
Social media has also tried to contain Trump, flagging his false posts on Twitter and shutting down malevolent groups on Facebook.
Lastly, public opinion has held Trump in check. It was never enough to prevent him from pardoning cronies, trading in conspiracy or indulging his demons, but the prospect of re-election was always there. When that was gone, with nothing left to lose, he began firing his critics, beginning with Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and lesser officials at the Pentagon and in Department of Homeland Security Trump considered disloyal.
Joe Biden is not the Second Coming. He is not the Messiah. He will face deep opposition in a tribal country beset with a divided government. Real threats to order and democracy — political paralysis, wild conspiracy, rampant misinformation, social unrest, racial tension, the surging pandemic — remain. Only a naïf underestimates the perils facing the United States in 2021 and beyond.
But Biden won. Democracy in America survives. The Republic, flawed and feverish, endures. The centre lives. The system held.