I admit it: I totally underestimated Donald Trump.
I’m not talking here about failing to appreciate his political skills, just as so many others did, or my inability to see that someone so obviously unqualified could wipe out the entire Republican field of experienced politicians and then do the same to Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College.
No, that was the least of my mistakes.
What I really underestimated was that one man – especially this man – could so fundamentally alter a nation that it took two and half centuries to craft.
As we celebrate – maybe commemorate is a better word, given the circumstances – America’s 243rd birthday this July 4, it’s fair to ask now just how long this government of, by and for the people can survive the people. It was "the people," after all, who empowered someone with the most undemocratic of instincts to lead a republic founded on the very principles now under attack from within.
Consider all that has been turned upside down in just over two years in America.
A Republican Party that once was on guard against any semblance of a Red Menace now kowtows to someone who openly embraces Russian President Vladimir Putin, blindly taking the word of the former KGB agent at face value despite the threat to this country’s very underpinnings: its free and fair elections.
Where once we had a party that was all about law and order, it now undermines that concept by castigating the FBI as a rogue agency not to be trusted by the public – or so says a man who’s turned trust on its head with more than 10,700 documented lies, half-truths and distortions.
Where once our security apparatus mounted a unified front against foreign threats, the commander in chief dismisses the warnings of our own CIA, National Security Agency and every other intelligence unit trying to protect United States’ democracy from a foreign takeover.
No outside power could have done all of this without the complicity of the one person charged with protecting what the Founders created against all threats, foreign and domestic.
Yet we are vulnerable in ways unimaginable just two short years ago – and we seem not to care.
Remember when we knew the reason the First Amendment led off the Bill of Rights and we felt so superior to banana republics whose first order of business was neutering a free press?
That was before "fake news," "alternative facts" and an American leader who talks openly of changing libel laws – and "jokes" about doing worse – to silence anyone who might criticize him. All the better to control the narrative and the populace – just like in those countries we never thought we’d become.
Those are the countries where the opposition can be beaten with just a nod from the strongman, something we never imagined here – until we saw the presidential rallies in which the focal point himself encouraged the violence.
After controlling the press, the other hallmark of the countries we never wanted to be was to intimidate and undermine the judiciary, which Trump has perfected any time a judge – as they all too often must – tries to rein in his dictatorial impulses.
But how long can we count on an independent judiciary after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blatantly – and proudly – orchestrated the takeover of the U.S. Supreme Court by blocking even a vote on a new nominee until after Trump took office?
Does that sound like the America you knew? The one you learned about in civics class?
Does that sound like the America that we thought had come to grips with its original sin, twice electing a black man to its highest office, only to have his successor ride in partly on a racist backlash? Trump’s election laid bare the reality that we had not come nearly as far as we thought, because when it comes to racism "you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides."
Does any of this sound like the America that laid down on parchment a democratic prescription for peacefully resolving differences that is the envy of most other nations, only to have its current president threaten that "I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people."
No, it does not. We have to admit that we are no longer the nation we thought we were.
Our cultural arrogance allowed us to look down our noses when other countries succumbed to tin-pot strongmen because their governments, media and civic institutions were not strong enough to weather attacks on the fundamentals of democracy. We were so sure that ours could.
But we were wrong.
Now, some 243 years later, we have to confront the challenge implicit in Benjamin Franklin’s observation when asked what kind of government the new nation had just created. A republic, this Founder told his inquisitors, before adding a warning.
"If you can keep it."