Building Back Better | Opinion

In response to a gash on the body, white blood cells rush to the site of the wound. They work vigorously, the body's immune system alert to threat and activated to protect bodily systems from further harm.

So it was that in response to the Trump administration's authoritarian tendencies, made clear from the earliest days of his presidency, millions of Americans became members of "the resistance."

People who were already involved in politics, as well as many who were not that particularly interested at any time before, became acutely aware that damage that could become irreparable was being done to our democracy. There was a vast realization—on the left and also on the right—that this damage represented something much worse than the routine political corruption we'd all pretty much come to expect.

A civilization has an immune system just as the body does, and every citizen is an immune cell. Citizens rushed en masse to the wound that was represented by policies of the Trump administration. He got worse and worse at damaging our country; people got better and better at protecting it. In the end, the people of the United States kept a would-be dictator from mortally wounding our democracy.

And now what? What does citizenship mean now?

In keeping with President Joe Biden's exhortation that we should "build back better," millions are asking themselves what this new chapter in our history should mean for their own involvement in politics.

Do we just go back to our lives as we lived them before—barely casting a glance at what politicians are up to on any given day—or have we not learned that the political distractedness of far too many is part of what led to the problem to begin with?

Nothing will ever be the same, post Trump. No one would have guessed our democracy was so vulnerable; no one would have guessed one man could do so much damage in such a short period of time; and no one would have guessed that so many of America's shadows would be up for review in such a concentrated way. Many of the things that the former president so grotesquely brought to the surface were dynamics that had been lurking for years. Trump did not just hurt us; he showed us to ourselves.

And now, an entirely new set of questions confronts us. How in fact do we build back better? What do we do to repair the damage that has been done; not just over the last four years, but some of it over the last 40, and some of it ever since our founding?

U.S. Capitol
The exterior of the U.S. Capitol building is seen at sunrise on February 8, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The country will never go back to what it used to be; millions are aware now of things that many of us were not as acutely aware of before. We're aware of the perils of denial regarding institutionalized forms of injustice; we're aware of the dangers of distraction as too many of our citizens farmed out the responsibilities of governance to a too often corrupted political class; and we're aware of the hypocrisy of our government in acting as though they're protectors of our common good, when as often as not they've been selling the collective good down the river for the last 40 years.

We've changed. We're different now, as individuals and as a country, and that is not entirely a bad thing. A year of COVID confinement, in addition to the last four years of Trump chaos, affected us in ways that aren't quite obvious yet. But no person and no country can experience the compounded traumas of the last chapter of our history and come out on the other side of it the same people we were before.

That is why "build back better" must be more than a slogan; it must be an intention now built into the sinews of who we are.

A mature, rational, responsible person now wields the power of the presidency, and the value of that cannot be overstated. We will agree with him on some days and disagree on others, but every day we should give thanks for the fact that in America we are free to do that. A representative democracy is a constant conversation between our leaders and we the people. We've upped the game radically on the kind of person we've chosen to be our leader. It's time to up our game as well on the kind of citizens we choose to be.

Citizenship should become an aspect of what all of us consider a meaningful and well-lived life. From attending city council meetings to reading our local newspapers, from becoming active in civic affairs to considering running for political office ourselves, nothing less than a new era of citizen involvement will be an adequate transformation of the resistance movement into its next best thing.

The passions that drove us to resist the authoritarianism of Donald Trump should not dissolve; they should be transmuted into that which is called for now. To each of us that will look different, but to all of us it will represent not only the active repair and rebuilding of our country but also some equally important changes inside ourselves.

I knew a couple whose house was destroyed by an earthquake many years ago, a devastating event that occurred fortunately while they were out of town. When I told my friend how sorry I was, she said that in the end it was a good thing, that in rebuilding the house they were making some changes they had always wanted to make but never could. And this is similarly our chance, an opening that many of us have always wanted but could never make happen. A chance to do more than repudiate systems of injustice: A chance to design, articulate and bring about changes that will actually put America on a better path forward. From healthier food and agriculture, to a more humane policing and criminal justice system, to racial equity and amends, to a more enlightened educational system and care for America's children, to more conscious business and environmental protection, to just economics and proactively waging peace, we have the chance now to take advantage of this moment, to open a new window, to insist that the moral and aspirational needs of humanity take precedence over the outdated dictates of a soulless economics.

Many of us are exhausted by the Trump years, but this isn't a time to go back to sleep. The rest we seek will come not from sleeping but from waking. We need to be awake enough to integrate fully the lessons we've learned, as energized as we once were to ward off an enemy, to create something new and better for all the things that we have been through.

In the words of Jean Paul Sartre, "These are not beautiful times, but they are our times." These are our times now, and we still have the option to make them beautiful.

Marianne Williamson is a Newsweek columnist, best-selling author, political activist and spiritual thought leader. She is founder of Project Angel Food and co-founder of the Peace Alliance, and was the first candidate in the 2020 presidential primary to make reparations a pillar of her campaign. She is the author of 13 books, among them Healing the Soul of America and A Politics of Love.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.