Can we protect our country — from our rulers, and ourselves?

Can we protect our country — from our rulers, and ourselves?
© Greg Nash

Extremists who have drunk the Kool-Aid about a rigged election (served up by Trump and his enablers) invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6, leaving five people dead. And hundreds have already signed on to a group billed as “Million Militia March,” who plan to return to Washington D.C.: “We took the building once. We can take it again.”

It’s difficult to assess the actual threat to our democracy. For the first time since the Civil War, we now face the two great challenges James Madison warned against in 1787.

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Madison told his fellow delegates that the role of their new government was “first to protect the people against their rulers, and secondly to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.”

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He might as well have been writing about 2021.

President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE has failed to protect Americans from a pandemic, which has already claimed almost 400,000 lives. He continues to undermine trust in the fundamental institutions of our democracy. And we have been reminded that a relatively small number of people can do a lot of damage.

Many of our institutions — election procedures, courts, the military, state legislatures, governors, the House of Representatives and Senate — have adhered to their Constitutional duties, despite unprecedented pressure from the president, but it has been a close call.

In a recent poll, 74 percent of Americans (76 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Republicans, and 70 percent of independents) agreed that democracy is under threat. Who can blame them?

That said, it matters how many people act on the “impressions” into which they have been led and whether impressions that appear to have hardened into convictions prove to be “transient.”

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There are some reasons for cautious optimism. In that same poll, for example, 80 percent of Americans maintained that the people who trashed the halls of Congress were undermining democracy; 91 percent want them to be held accountable for their actions.

In a poll released by the Pew Research Center on Friday, the president’s job approval among all Americans has sunk to an anemic 29 percent: 76 percent believe his conduct since the election has been “fair” or “poor,” 62 percent in the latter category. Some 68 percent think he should not remain a major figure in politics after he leaves office.

Although a substantial majority of Republicans remain convinced that the election was rigged and approve of Trump’s performance in office, in a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted January 8-11, 40 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents indicated they would support Trump in a 2024 Republican primary, a drop of a whopping 13 points since November.

An historical perspective is also instructive. In mid-November 2020, 55 percent of Americans deemed the presidential election “fair,” a figure that seems shockingly low until one learns it was only 62 percent in 2016, when Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE did not contest the outcome.

In July 2001, six months into the presidency of George W. Bush, one-third of Democrats thought he had “stolen the election; ” only 48 percent of all Americans indicated he had won it “fair and square,” and 15 percent told pollsters they did not accept Bush as “legitimate,” but might in the future; 11 percent vowed they would never accept him as legitimate. After Sept. 11, 2001, it is worth noting, Bush’s approval rating soared, among Democrats as well as Republicans.

In 2021, it is clear, polarization is greater than it was in 2000, or, for that matter, in 2016. But given a president who has spent four years churning out misinformation and trashing anyone who does not do his bidding — and with mass media outlets and social media parroting his every outrage — one might have expected things to be even worse.

One thing about history, however: there is no future in it. And so, it remains to be seen whether impeachment, which will not result in conviction, provides a grievance that energizes Trump’s base. Whether Donald Trump, the Twitterless civilian, holds on to his supporters or the allegiance of Fox News. Whether Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzFBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp The Memo: Biden's immigration problems reach crescendo in Del Rio Matthew McConaughey on potential political run: 'I'm measuring it' MORE (R-Texas), Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleySchumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks Dems punch back over GOP holdup of Biden SBA nominee DHS chief 'horrified' by images at border MORE (R-Mo.), Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Tech groups take aim at Texas Republican lawmakers raise security, privacy concerns over Huawei cloud services Debt ceiling fight pits corporate America against Republicans MORE (R-Ark.), former ambassador Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems attempt to tie government funding, Ida relief to debt limit Poll: Trump dominates 2024 Republican primary field Harris to hold fundraiser for McAuliffe ahead of Virginia governor's race MORE, and other aspirants for the 2024 presidential nomination, try to marginalize him. Whether President BidenJoe BidenHaiti prime minister warns inequality will cause migration to continue Pelosi: House must pass 3 major pieces of spending legislation this week Erdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system MORE distributes vaccines quickly, presides over a rapid economic recovery, returns civility, honesty, and respect for democratic norms to the White House, and wins over some independents and some Republicans.

And whether — as they have done so often in the past — Americans will pay less attention to the politicians, be they dull or demagogic.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of "Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century."