A sense of emergency has haunted American politics since the Puritans came to these shores. But since the turn of the millennium, Washington, D.C., has seemed especially consumed with crisis politics. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the War on Terror era that followed, transformed American foreign policy and expanded the national-security apparatus. Donald Trump’s 2016 election then turned an acute sense of crisis inward. It now risks locking the American political order into a retaliatory downward spiral.
The need for extraordinary measures to confront a crisis is at the core of Trump’s political program. In his 2017 inauguration speech, he decried “American carnage.” Trump’s emergency presidency culminated in his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Seeking to win the White House again in 2024, he pledged recently to use the federal government to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”
Trump’s opponents mirror his tactics. Hillary Clinton notoriously denounced tens of millions of Americans as “deplorables” and “irredeemable.” A now-robust academic industry conjures elaborate statistical models to pathologize non-leftist Americans. Members of the federal bureaucracy worked to block or undercut the Trump presidency from its earliest days. Conspiracy theories to delegitimize the 2016 and potentially 2020 elections were a staple of anti-Trump media. (Remember the viral social media posts from the summer of 2020 about how the Post Office was going to “steal” the election for Trump?) In an August 2020 report, the anti-Trump “Transition Integrity Project” suggested that Democrats would provoke a secession crisis if Trump was reelected.
The chaos leveraged to resist Trump has often helped him and further destabilized American politics. Torn by riots, the 2020 “reckoning” hurt Democrats in many working-class districts and set a grim precedent for the outbreak of anti-Semitism we see today. While many Trump critics warn that he may prosecute his political opponents if he returns to the White House, Trump allies argue that his opponents have already opened the door to such legal conflict. Joe Biden confided to aides that he thought Trump should be prosecuted for his efforts to challenge the 2020 election. The election-related Trump indictments rely on relatively untested legal theories and risk dramatically raising the stakes of future legal conflicts. If its aim is to reduce Trump’s influence, “lawfare” waged against Trump might prove politically counterproductive. The former president’s indictments have caused his stock with Republicans to rise. The legal crusade to use the Fourteenth Amendment to throw Trump off the ballot—and Republican officials’ threats to do the same to Joe Biden—reveals the explosive potential of state-of-exception politics.
The wages of crisis politics have been disappointment, anger, and narrowness. An antidote to the culture of crisis might be found in a paradigm of resilience. “Resilience” stands for flexibility in the face of adversity. To be resilient means to draw from a range of resources in order to cope with difficulty. Imperfection is embedded in the idea of resilience; indeed, that idea is premised on some vulnerability, and a serious project built around it starts from recognition of imperfection.
Resilience for a free society would have two components. The first is theoretical. Especially in response to the challenges of populism, many doctrines of “liberalism” have become reductive, if not paranoid. Theoretically, resilience means finding the range of freedom that lies beyond some goal of “negative liberty.” Making freedom simply about escaping restrictions or having some absolute sense of self-direction obscures its broader traditions: freedom as internal cultivation, ethical enrichment, and participation in self-government. This more expansive notion of freedom reveals the importance of our connections with other human beings. Elements of it can be seen in religious scriptures, classical political philosophy, and Renaissance humanism—and in the “extraordinary liberality” of the Puritan settlers.
Finding those deeper resources can help us better understand what sustains freedom and the greater ambitions of liberty. Uninformed by a sense of moral purpose, freedom can easily degrade into consumerism or license. If freedom is just doing your own thing, it’s easy to think that liberty means an escape from community. Two centuries ago, in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville warned against this temptation for withdrawal. A society that cannot meet those greater ethical and social demands can itself become vulnerable to collectivist radicalism. If a democratic regime fails to answer deeper calls of the heart, people may turn to other political modes. Conversely, recovering the depths of those commitments can help reinvigorate democratic pluralism.
The second element of a politics of resilience is practical. Resilience in part demands attention to the broader social and economic conditions that make a political regime—in this case, the American republic—sustainable. America’s supply chains have become rigid, and too often dependent upon the People’s Republic of China. Family formation has faltered. Especially away from urban cores, Americans without a college degree often feel left behind. The weakening of both major political parties has increased the incentives for performative outrage.
In the opening years of this century, “the world is flat” became a slogan for the dissolution of political distinctions into an incessant flow of commerce. The resilience paradigm has other watchwords: capacity, institution, embodiment, and connection. Instead of focusing only on the financial, resilience attends to the embodiment of making and working. At the end of the day, computer chips are not interchangeable with potato chips. Resilience is partly about building back the middle—with empowered families and elite institutions amenable to pluralism—to foster a more robust civic core.
This project is not limited to one side of the political aisle. In the Senate, Missouri’s Josh Hawley and Connecticut’s Chris Murphy have called for a return to a more nationally oriented politics and a recovery of civic solidarity. “Supply side progressivism”—championed by Ezra Klein, among others—involves expanding the supply of housing, health-care supplies, and other key goods. Foreign policy hawks have called for shoring up America’s defense-industrial capacity. Efforts to tame crime, manage immigration, and improve outcomes for blue-collar Americans could be seen as part of this bigger project.
Economic dynamism is part of resilience, just as exercise is an important component of bodily health. But resilience also involves making this growth more sustainable by ensuring that more people have access to it and by renewing the civic and political institutions essential for maintaining a market economy.
A project of resilience is not without obstacles or inner conflicts. The demands of identitarians in the Democratic coalition have influenced President Biden’s attempts at industrial policy. The administration’s implementation of the CHIPS Act, for example, calls for beneficiaries to craft policies to advance “diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.” Certain supply-side policies—such as an influx of non-degreed workers—could undercut the families whom other proponents of resilience hope to support. Resolving these conflicts could be a major element of political competition in the years ahead.
A reduction of politics to the clash of “liberalism” and “illiberalism” might be a hangover from the twentieth century’s ideological conflicts. Adherents of resilience should instead see populism as a challenge to be met rather than a Manichean foe to defeat; this would demand policy reform and discovery of the deeper resources of freedom. Now is an apt moment to recover freedom’s resilience.