On Wednesday, as I joined millions of other Americans who tuned in to watch the inauguration of President Joe Biden, I simultaneously scrolled my social media feeds. Many of my friends and acquaintances expressed feelings of joy and relief. Many said they shed tears of emotion. 

And more than a few had words for former President Donald Trump, ranging from the mild and catty — “Bye, Felicia!” — to hostile wishes for his future. 

As for me, I, too, felt full of emotions as I replayed the last four years in my mind. But when I think of Donald Trump, I have a singular emotion: 

Gratitude. 

This may sound strange, but if you choose to look at life through the prisms of a glass half full, Trump gave rise to much that is thought-provoking and positive. 

For instance, who among us will take our democratic institutions for granted again?

As a student of political science and a history aficionado, I’ve always been astounded when authoritarian leaders can convince an entire nation of people to give in to their worst instincts and to demonize their neighbors.

And now we know, for we’ve watched a similar de-evolution in America. 

U.S. President Donald Trump participates in the final presidential debate against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Oct. 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Justin Sullivan | Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump participates in the final presidential debate against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Oct. 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Trump only had four years in office, far less than some despots, yet during his tenure, we saw the normalization of white nationalism, a movement that has always been present in America but relegated to the fringes of political life. 

Thanks to Trump, we now know who among our acquaintances is a racist, if we did not before. Trump made it acceptable for those who espouse white nationalism and racist views to openly air them — and let’s be clear those people aren’t limited to one political party.  And so, I’m grateful to know who those people in my life are. 

I’m grateful to weed out the people in my life who thought wasting money to build a wall at the border and putting immigrant children in cages, separated from their family, was OK. I’m grateful to know who in my community thinks COVID-19 is no worse than the flu — if, in fact, the coronavirus exists at all. Now, I can steer my asthmatic self away from them. 

I’m grateful to know which restaurant owners choose to participate in rallies decrying the wearing of masks in a pandemic — that has taken the lives of more than 8,000 Tennesseans, our family members, friends and neighbors — for those are places I’ll not spend my money again. 

I’m also grateful that Trump’s cruelty spurred so many Americans — Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and others— to become involved in politics and to run for office, as they likely would not have had our political norms not been upended. Tennessee has been flooded the last few years with good people running for office and speaking truth to power, and new groups have formed to fight for voting rights, for instance. 

Speaking out publicly against Trump’s policies, which have clearly been embraced at the state and local level, has cost many people dearly in jobs, income and relationships. Longtime friends don’t speak to each other anymore. 

But on the other hand, there are those from both major political parties who have also seen with clear eyes what is right and wrong and felt compelled to speak. New relationships have been built across party lines. 

And when a group of people burst into the U.S. Capitol, some with zip ties, some beating Capitol police with American flags, we saw the culmination of the Trump years. For some Americans, that act was the shot of reality that brought home the fragility of the political systems we have taken for granted.

And so, on Inauguration Day, America started a new chapter, our next chapter. Hopefully, we will all stay as engaged as we have been the last four years and maintain a focus on improving our democracy. Like all relationships, democracy must be nurtured.