WASHINGTON – Let me start at the end. The United States survived. Not by much. Democracy in this country is much more fragile than I (an immigrant from Mexico) had believed. Donald Trump pushed it nearly to its limit.
Lies have consequences.
At the start of the Donald Trump presidency in 2016, I began a long and honest conversation on email with my friend, the publicist and Cuban American movie director Jorge Ulloa. And every time Trump took a swing at something – from insulting his opponents to barring entry to Muslims and even refusing to accept the results of the election and inciting a violent insurrection – he would warn me about the fragility of U.S. democracy. He always backed up his arguments with reports and data. But he left the answer open. “Let’s see what happens.”
My replies did not change much: The United States can survive Trump and much more. I told him it could be “my naivete as an immigrant,” but I believed a democratic system more than 200 years old would prevail.
And then the unthinkable happened: On Jan. 6, a president of the United States incited a mob of ultra-right wing extremists – domestic terrorists – against Congress. His intention – as proven by his telephone call to Georgia officials – was to remain in power illegally. This is so new for Americans that at first they couldn’t find the right English words for a self-coup or a Trump coup attempt. That same day, when five people died, my belief that U.S. democracy was unbreakable fell apart.
True, in the end democracy prevailed. It withstood Trump, barely. But if the military and judges had taken side, it would have been very different, like The Handmaid’s Tale. My friend Jorge Ulloa was right with all his warnings. As the title of one of the movies he directed with Néstor Almendros says, “Nobody listened.”
No democracy is guaranteed.
In his inaugural address, Joe Biden recognized the danger. “Democracy has prevailed,” he said. And the wonderful 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman put it in context: “Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”
But the cost was extremely high. There was almost no public around Biden. Just some special guests. Everyone wearing masks. The capital was militarized, with more than 25,000 National Guard members.
There was not a single protest. The Capitol and the White House were surrounded by fences and cement barriers. It would have been madness for any group of protesters to try to enter.
But nothing was normal. Missing were the shouts and emotions of hundreds of thousands of people who watched other inaugural ceremonies. And the pandemic, with more than 400,000 dead in the United States, required prudence, distance and silence.
At times, as I watched the inauguration ceremony from a distance, it seemed like I was watching a family celebrating a birthday in a park. That’s how intimate it was. That’s how odd it was. A perfect place for Ronald Reagan’s words at his inauguration in 1981: “In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”
With the change in government there is of course a high dose of political somersaults. Mike Pence, who as vice president never dared go against his boss, turned his back at the last minute and preferred to attend the Biden ceremony – and meet with the new Vice President Kamala Harris – than Trump’s farewell ceremony at the Andrews air force base. And Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader who took weeks to publicly admit Trump’s defeat, made an stunning about-face when he said “the mob was fed lies” and was “provoked by the president.” Late, very late, senator. But that’s how we witnessed the realignment of power in Washington, live and in full color. The naked emperor had left. Long live the king.
Trump was branded as “the worst president in history” by The Atlantic magazine. Because he was impeached twice, for his authoritarianism and racism and for all those traits that characterize people who feel they have impunity and are all-powerful. Soon we will see whether there is Trumpism without Trump. But if there’s still Castrismo and Chavismo without Fidel and Hugo, it’s not likely that Trumpism will disappear, with a vengeful man holed up in his Mar-a-Lago club. We can expect a punch at any time.
The consolation is that history is never about just one person, and it is never linear. Several things happen at the same time, and they are often contradictory.
In the middle of a Washington fortified and afraid, with wood planks protecting closed businesses and thousands of soldiers patrolling the capital, I found a graffiti on K Street full of optimism. The first of three panels shows civil rights leader Martin Luther King, the second the word PROGRESS and finally an image of Kamala Harris, the first vice president of color in U.S. history, with parents from Jamaica and India. Right there, amid the largest security operation since the terrorist attacks of 2001, an artist preferred to bet on hope and progress, like a root that punches through the asphalt.
To conclude: Democracy in the United States is much more fragile than we thought, and that’s precisely why it must be protected. To remain silent in front of Trump was a grave error.