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Hillary Clinton’s parting words remind us America’s democracy is more vulnerable than you might think

Reuters/Carlos Barria
Listen up.
By Gwynn Guilford
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton worked in a nice thrust against the president-elect, Donald Trump, who had threatened to reject the election’s outcome if he lost. “Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power,” said Clinton.

More important, though, was what followed:

“It also enshrines the rule of law; the principle we are all equal in rights and dignity; freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values, too, and we must defend them.
Let me add: Our constitutional democracy demands our participation, not just every four years, but all the time.”

Clinton is right.

However, more than anyone else, it is the “elite” and the “establishment” who participate in American democracy every day, and not just for four minutes in a ballot booth once every four years. And they’re exactly who Trump and his supporters want to stamp out.

Constitutional democracy isn’t a Foucault’s pendulum, erected by America’s founders to swing an infinite path of order. It’s a finicky wind-up clock that tolls its meaning only as long as people keep cranking it. The laws, rights, and freedoms enshrined in America’s Constitution must be applied and accepted anew every day to allow people to trust each other, respect each other, invest in each other’s businesses. American prosperity depends entirely on it.

Trump has, over the last 16 months, scorned many of the Constitution’s promised rights and freedoms, and repeatedly threatened to defy democratic process. Is he now prepared to respect those?

A more worrying question, though, is how much Trump’s will matters in this equation at all.

What often gets lost in all the guessing and professing about who Donald Trump, the celebrity, really isis the source of Trump’s protean brilliance: he reflects what his supporters want him to be.

Not all, surely, but many of the people who chose Trump as their president did so because they want him to “drain the swamp,” because they want him to drive out the “establishment,” the venal Washington elite that supposedly rules the country, profiting from the hard-working decent people.

Trump’s victory is the American public’s rebuke of expertise, its repudiation of the political and legal professionals. His supporters blame them for their problems; Trump has promised their comeuppance. It’s the cliched reverence of the “Washington outsider” pumped up on retributive steroids.

Sure, some small number are inevitably corrupt. The vast majority isn’t. It’s easy to take them for granted, but it is their constant straining to understand and apply America’s constitutional democratic process that creates the steady, ever-present supremacy of law that creates trust, fairness, and order. They are the people who wind the clock. And the election’s victors seem totally fine with letting them stop.

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