When the Unthinkable Happens

A few years back, historian Joseph Ellis wrote a terrific little book called Revolutionary Summer, which revisited the events of 1776 in Philadelphia and New York, and concluded that the entire fate of the Revolutionary War—and, therefore, the United States itself—was sealed in those few extraordinary months.

The essence of Ellis’s case was that, although Great Britain enjoyed overwhelming tactical advantages throughout the war—its troops were better-armed, better-trained, more experienced and, by far, more numerous—in the end, the Continental Army was fundamentally unbeatable.  As the war’s home team—its soldiers culled from the very land on which they were fighting—George Washington’s troops were an endlessly renewable resource with everything to gain and very little to lose.  As miserable as their experience was, they were never going to give up the fight, since, unlike the British, they had nowhere else to go.

“Whereas most people have said, ‘How in heaven’s name did a ragtag group of amateur soldiers defeat the greatest military power on the planet?’” said Ellis upon the release of his book, “The real issue is:  Did the British ever really have a chance?  I don’t think they did.”

It’s a compelling piece of historical revisionism, and a companion to Ellis’s assertion in his most celebrated book, Founding Brothers, that “no event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution.”

So improbable at the time, so inevitable in retrospect.  Those words have been floating around my head a lot over the last 48 hours, as I continue to grapple with the fact that a racist, authoritarian windbag has been elected the 45th president of the United States, despite assurances by just about every political pundit on Earth that such a thing could never, ever occur on American soil.

Well, it did occur.  Practically no one expected it, but it happened, anyway.  And as half the country reaches for the cyanide tablets, stuck somewhere between denial and depression on the Kübler-Ross scale, we have to wonder how history is going to handle the events of 2016 many years from now.

Will the ascendancy of Donald Trump be seen as an inexplicable aberration in an otherwise logical series of events?  A perfect storm of madness caused by a handful of Mississippi Klansmen and an Electoral College snafu?  An insane historical theft of America’s first woman president by a boor who never really wanted the job in the first place?

Or—to Ellis’s point—will we instead come to view Trump’s victory as completely foreseeable?  As a natural progression of American populism that began with extreme anger toward George W. Bush and gradually transformed into extreme anger toward Barack Obama?  In other words, after spending the balance of 2016 more or less assuming Hillary Clinton had this thing in the bag, will we ultimately conclude that a Trump win was the only possible way this election could’ve ended?

History has a way of surprising us in big ways, and it’s the job of both historians and the general public to continually re-interpret everything that ever happened in the past to understand what the hell is happening in the present.

After 9/11, for instance, many people decided that the late 1990s weren’t quite as peaceful as they seemed at the time, as bands of jihadists worked secretly on a plan to totally upend the world order.  More than eight decades earlier, the entire nature of Europe was reassessed after a 19-year-old Serb murdered the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, somehow triggering a world war that claimed 16 million lives and ended four empires.  I dare say that few people saw that coming prior to 1914.

While it is yet to be seen whether the rise of Donald Trump will stand as an equally cataclysmic event in human affairs—and, if so, what sort of cataclysm it will be—we are already tasked with reverse-engineering the narrative of 2016 so it matches up with what it produced in the end.  Had Hillary Clinton won on Tuesday—as we thought she was destined to do—the story of this election would’ve been the shattering of the glass ceiling, the vindication of Barack Obama’s presidency and the rejection of the brutalism that Trump and his “basket of deplorables” so proudly and execrably represent.

Instead, we got the exact opposite in every respect, and it will take quite a while for us to collectively agree on just what that means in the long arc of history.  We could conclude—as many analysts have—that Trump’s win signifies that his anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, isolationist bellowing resonated with a majority of Americans, but how do we square that with the fact that Hillary Clinton actually received more votes nationwide?  While the Electoral College allowed Trump to become the next president, how can we say that Trump’s message won the day when his name was marked on only the second-highest number of ballots?

In time, we may know for sure.  For now, we can only guess.

The journalist I.F. Stone famously said that history is more of a tragedy than a morality tale.  At the moment, perhaps an even more fitting sentiment comes from James Joyce, who called history “a nightmare from which I am trying to wake.”  Either way, the essential lesson is that events don’t always unfold as you think they should—or, indeed, as you think they must—and that sometimes the unthinkable is staring us right in the face, if only we had the nerve to see it.

Like America itself, the notion of Donald Trump as president was a crazy, reckless, impossible idea right up until the moment that it became a living, groping reality.  We all assured each other the American people had a certain moral firewall that would prevent certain things from ever happening, yet now we have all become President Muffley in Dr. Strangelove, bitterly informing General Turgidson, “I am becoming less and less interested in your estimates of what is possible and impossible.”

That is the correct attitude to strike about the nature of human events, and history has borne it out over and over again.  Now that an American Mussolini is going to be the most powerful person on planet Earth, we no longer have the luxury to assume the world will ever again make any sense.

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