In retrospect, the postwar American world can be said to have gone off the rails in one of two places.
Liberals will put the date in March 2003, when the campaign to topple Saddam Hussein began. Although the action was supported at the time by both political parties, the outrage liberals felt at what they believed to be the deception surrounding the operation made the second critical date inevitable: the 2008 election of Barack Obama.
Obama was regarded — and is still regarded — by many conservatives as possessing the same degree of delegitimizing characteristics now attributed to Donald Trump. In this view, the accession of Obama, not the invasion of Iraq, marked the moment Everything Changed. It also made the rise of Trump historically inevitable.
The chain runs thus: Iraq –> Obama –> Trump/Hillary. Where you start is optional. Where you end is unknown. (Ironically, September 11, 2001, plays an ambiguous role in the historiography. For some reason that date is regarded by some as occurring Before the Fall.)
While the path leading to the present is disputed, no one appears to deny America has now arrived in a critical place. The abnormality is most evident in this presidential contest: neither candidate is widely supported by the nominating parties. Neither candidate is actually expected to solve the multiple foreign policy and domestic crises currently besetting the country. In fact, one candidate may have helped cause many of the current problems. The other’s main attraction is simply that he may function as a demolition charge which will clear out the roadblocks that have paralyzed America.
If political columnist Ron Fournier is right about this election cycle, it is less about achieving incremental policy change than precipitating a radical institutional change.
In that case, the current unpopularity contest can be seen as a deliberate process to increase instability by hoping the worst man wins. Halt the status quo, tear things down and start afresh.
Intentional or not, the effect of a rising level of physical assaults on the Trump political rallies will continue the arc of reaction/counter-reaction. If the recent beating of Trump supporters in San Jose can be justified by indignation over The Donald, then Trump in turn owes his existence to disgust over Obama, which in turn was caused by Iraq. It is, as the old story goes, turtles all the way down. The inevitable radicalization of Trump’s supporters in the wake of these assaults will extend the chain of causality until we run out of links.
This dynamic suggests that no candidate will “win” the election. The divisions are now too stark for the old modus vivendi to be established on the former terms. Whoever succeeds to the presidency in 2017 will preside over a deeply divided country, and without a mandate because the system itself has a legitimacy deficit. The president will be a kind of caretaker over a republic no longer one thing yet not yet another, a hapless driver of a runaway team of historical forces. As I wrote in May:
[T]he winner of the 2016 contest will likely be a transitional figure rather than a harbinger of a lasting tendency. The winner is more probably going to be overwhelmed by events in this period of flux. But that doesn’t matter. Their task is to stop “the train even if they don’t know what happens next.” And ‘what happens next’ is a question that can only be meaningfully asked once crucial missing piece becomes available. What exactly that is, is unknown.
We may be in one of those situations where we must wait for history to move. The situation is made somewhat more complicated by the fact that we don’t even know what we’re waiting for. The consolation is we’ll know it when we see it.
Not knowing what’s going to happen next is unfortunately the normal condition. To see this we can console ourselves with the past from which it is sometimes thought there are lessons to be learned.
June 4 is the 74th anniversary of the Battle of Midway. The once-private memorial film made for the families of Torpedo 8, who died to the last man but one, is shown below. Led by John Waldron, Torpedo 8 helped pull the Japanese task force’s combat air patrol to the water level thereby opening the way for the dive bombers who thereafter sank the three carriers in minutes. None of them, not even the sole survivor, knew how the day would end.
One of the ships that perished that day was the magnificent 40,000 ton IJN Kaga. On that day she was hit by four bombs from the Enterprise, and despite the herculean efforts of her crew, melted down nearly to the waterline overnight. A mighty ship in a mighty fleet. “One touch of the armored gauntlet” would be all it would take according to Nagumo’s staff anticipating the clash, recollecting the manner in which they hunted down British shipping around Singapore and sank the ships fleeing the doomed city.
Yet triumph was not to be theirs. The mighty Japanese carriers ran out of CAP, time, and luck in part because Torpedo 8, in conjunction with other efforts, had pushed successful defense just out of Nagumo’s reach that day.
Nimitz, Spruance, the codebreakers, the dive bombers, the squadrons on Midway itself, and Torpedo 8 each collectively dismantled part of the enemy timetable until it fell apart. Had any of them failed, the Japanese might have reached the brass ring. But they didn’t fail — though none of them knew it would be so at the time.
The future on the morning of June 4 was as blank to the men of Torpedo 8 as tomorrow is to us today. The sole lesson we can learn from it is that waiting for history requires intelligent anticipation and doing our best. Some things you just have to wait for.
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