“What if we were wrong?”
So mused Barack Obama to an aide shortly after November 8, 2016, as the election returns poured in and it became clear Donald Trump—not Hillary Clinton—would be the next president of the United States. After a full year of assuming someone as vulgar and cruel as Trump could not conceivably be elected commander-in-chief, Obama was suddenly faced with the possibility that he lived in a very different country from the one he inherited eight years earlier—and perhaps he should’ve seen it earlier.
It is the rare politician who has the nerve and humility to admit he was (possibly) mistaken, but the truth is that even us private citizens are loathe to acknowledge personal weakness and tend to avoid doing so at almost any cost. In the tribal world we now inhabit, certitude takes precedence over nuance every time, because when all discourse is reduced to a zero-sum blood sport, there can be no such thing as ambiguity, complexity or doubt.
With 18 days until the midterms and control of Congress hanging ever-so-precariously in the balance, it is my fondest wish for my fellow Americans to take a cue from President Obama and stop being so goddamned certain about who’s right and who’s wrong.
Surely, if the last election cycle taught us anything—about our leaders, our politics and ourselves—it’s that there’s almost nothing we can claim to know beyond doubt, and the consequences of assuming otherwise can be catastrophic.
To wit: If the biggest mistake the left made in 2016 was to assume Trump could not possibly win, it stands to reason their biggest mistake in 2020 will be to assume he could not possibly win again. This despite the fact that a) his three immediate predecessors were all re-elected handily, and b) Trump himself continues to defy all laws of political gravity, maintaining a fairly consistent—albeit consistently tepid—approval rating no matter what unholy nonsense is going on around him.
That so many liberals still refuse to see what is directly in front of their nose—namely, that Donald Trump is, thus far, politically unsinkable—is reflective of the blue team’s broader intellectual weakness of believing Trump and his acolytes are a bunch of rubes who have nothing useful to teach them.
But what if they do? What if Trump’s personal indestructability is attributable not merely to rank stupidity on the part of 40 percent of the electorate, but rather to concrete policy achievements and genuine political skill? What if Trump is smarter and shrewder than his critics give him credit for? What if there are certain issues on which he has acquitted himself well, and not merely through beginner’s dumb luck?
What if, say, the 2017 tax bill really did supercharge the economy and make most Americans’ lives better? What if Trump’s bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea really did bring Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table? What if Trump’s proposed Mexican wall really would protect the U.S. from drugs and criminals spilling across our southern border?
Then there are the issues that extend well beyond Trump himself. For instance, what if the federal government really is overstuffed with bureaucrats and regulations and deserves a bit of thinning out around the edges? What if the direst predictions about climate change are overblown and the proposed solutions not worth the cost? What if single-payer health insurance leads to less efficient care? What if armed guards at schools prevent more gun deaths than they cause? What if political correctness—on campus and off—has become so pervasive that it now poses a real threat to free speech in the public square? What if Brett Kavanaugh didn’t assault Christine Blasey Ford in 1982?
None of these questions are settled—some may never be—yet nearly all of us act like the answers are obvious and not worth debating—and, what’s more, that those with differing views are not just wrong, but evil, beyond redemption and deserving of our bottomless contempt.
The result of this—as any clear-eyed person can see—is a society of angry, arrogant, insufferable boors for whom a question like “What if we were wrong?” is treated like a punchline, eliciting guffaws and eyerolls instead of even a moment’s thoughtful pause.
In this disheartening period of civic discourse, I am reminded of a 2006 speech by the late British-American pugilist Christopher Hitchens, who challenged his audience to ask itself, “How do I know what I already think I know?”
“It’s always worth establishing first principles,” Hitchens argued. “It’s always worth saying, ‘What would I do if I ever met a Flat Earth Society member? Come to think of it, how can I prove the Earth is round? How sure am I of my own views?’”
Finishing the thought, Hitchens cautioned, “Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think, you’re bound to be OK because you’re in the safely moral majority.”
In 2018, there is no such thing as consensus, and we should start acting accordingly. Not by abandoning all the values we hold dear, but simply by recognizing that ours are not the only values that have value.