As I’ve watched Donald Trump rage against his decisive electoral loss over the last month—his angry tweets and occasional on-camera outbursts emerging steadily from his seclusion inside the White House—and the Republican Party cower in fear, aiding and abetting his attacks on Americans’ trust in their own democracy and standing by mutely while the president trumpets his bizarre conspiracies about a rigged election, I can’t help but think of the Liberty Bell’s unique role in the nation’s doomsday plans.

Most Americans are familiar with the basic concept of the government’s emergency continuity plans—the idea of the “designated survivor,” the Cabinet member chosen to stay away from an inauguration or State of the Union address in order to survive a possible catastrophe, and many know at least vaguely about the network of mountain bunkers and airborne command posts where top officials would hide during an enemy attack.

Yet most don’t realize how far and deep those plans actually went during the Cold War—nor are they aware of how the wild fantasies emanating from @realDonaldTrump and this week’s worrisome lawsuit backed by Republican state attorneys general and scores of G.O.P. members of Congress are causing long-term damage to what the government’s Cold War planners decided was the most important part of the country.

Doomsday v. Trump

When I sat down this summer to talk with the Vice TV producers who were adapting my book Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die into a documentary on the government’s emergency plans, I explained to them what I thought was the most fascinating insight, developed and honed over decades, of the nation’s doomsday planners: America is about more than Americans.

Their insight grew out of seeking to answer what they quickly realized were existential questions: If your job is to save America, what exactly is America? Is it the president? The three branches of government? The fancy marble buildings in Washington? The answer: America was most simply an idea—born during the Enlightenment among a group of men on the far outskirts of Western civilization who dreamed of a nation where all would be created equal, all would be protected by basic freedoms, and all would be governed by the rule of law. Neither the Founders’ vision nor their execution was perfect by any stretch—America 245 years later still struggles to live up to its most basic premise—but they went further and achieved more equality and liberty than any humans had up to that time.

And more than a dozen generations later, other Americans have inherited and carefully tended that idea, building, guarding, and maturing those institutions—from the Justice Department and the courts to the Postal Service and the census, to the voting franchise, checks and balances, and new constitutional amendments—in the hope that we hand off to our children a country more free, just, and equitable than the one inherited. Past generations have fought on foreign lands and seas as well as in the courts, streets, and even in a civil war at home to realize and protect that idea.

The doomsday planners realized that if America was to survive nuclear war, the idea of America needed to survive, too. And so their succession plans were built not around the survival of “the” president but “a” president—the idea of the presidency rather than the individual elected on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November every four years. They constructed elaborate plans to ensure that someone somewhere down the presidential line of succession—even if it were merely the secretary of housing and urban development—survived to take the presidential oath and serve as the nation’s commander in chief.

If your job is to save America, what exactly is America? The answer: America is most simply an idea.

But even more than protecting elected officials, they developed elaborate plans to save the totems of history that have bound us together generation after generation: plans to evacuate what they called “Freedom Documents Group I”—the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence—from the National Archives by helicopter; a rank-ordered list of what documents and artifacts to save from the Library of Congress (Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address would be rescued ahead of George Washington’s military commission); and in Philadelphia, war planners even as late as the 1980s set up a specially equipped team of park rangers who would evacuate the Liberty Bell in the event of a surprise Soviet attack.

Their reasoning was that as long as the idea of America survived, America would live. No matter how bad the world got, as long as Americans could survey the smoking hellscape of nuclear Armageddon and see some sense of continuity, some sense that their lives and destinies were still linked to the country as it existed before, that America would live on.

It is this Cold War insight—that the most important part of America is Americans’ belief in America—that Donald Trump’s awful daily tweeting undermines. His willingness to ignore, attack, and rhetorically burn down our most hallowed institutions and traditions, such as the rule of law and a peaceful transition of power, inherited from past generations and past occupants of the White House, is an attack not just on our system today but on all generations of Americans yet to come. America is more a spiritual ideal than a concrete entity; at its most basic, our country is a bunch of words written down on some old paper. It’s only our collective decision to wake up each morning and to live out the creed and promise written on that parchment in Philadelphia that keeps our country a country.

It is this Cold War insight—that the most important part of America is Americans’ belief in America—that Donald Trump’s awful daily tweeting undermines.

The Republican Party’s ongoing coddling of the president—their collective willingness to stand by as he pokes holes in Americans’ belief that elections are free and fair—is an internal attack on America’s future that the Cold War’s doomsday planners could never have anticipated, and unfortunately it’s not one that can be remedied by driving the Liberty Bell off into the Appalachians in a pickup truck. Despite Joe Biden’s clear victory in the popular vote and the Electoral College, when The Washington Post polled every G.O.P. member of Congress, just 27 out of 249 acknowledged him as the next president. Earlier this week, more than 100 G.O.P. members of Congress asked the Supreme Court to intervene in the Electoral College process, aiding Trump’s hopes of overturning the legitimate, certified election results to install himself as president for a second term. It is a shocking testament to the party’s willingness to put fealty to Trump over duty to the country, but sadly not altogether surprising given how the party has countenanced his previous attacks on other key American institutions and traditions, from the rule of law and judicial independence to the First Amendment and the professional civil service.

In fact, it’s increasingly clear that the greatest threat to the future of American democracy comes not from abroad but from America itself: it’s the willingness of the G.O.P. to trade the long-term viability of democracy for short-term electoral victories. We must all recognize that today the modern doomsday scenario is not a Russian nuclear attack or a surprise terrorist plot; it’s the G.O.P.’s creeping embrace of authoritarianism. And the last month has made clear that the overwhelming loss of Donald Trump at the November polls isn’t enough to change the G.O.P.’s course. Instead, we must prepare for a longer—and harder—fight to ensure that the idea of America will live on.

Garrett Graff is the author of The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 and Raven Rock, and an executive producer on Vice TV’s series adaptation, While the Rest of Us Die, airing now