Once again (see “Some Clinton/Trump Thoughts — Election Minus Three Days”) I’ve been asked my response to the election. The results were, as we all know, shockingly surprising … and thus I’m still in shock. The following is therefore preliminary, and may be supplemented later.
• First, in a spirit of generosity and reconciliation, let me mention one effect of Trump’s triumph — no doubt one of the very few — that will make liberals feel good:
Gun stocks plunged in early trading on Wednesday after Donald Trump won the US presidential election.
Smith & Wesson fell 16%, while Sturm Ruger shares plunged by as much as 12%, the largest drop since February 2014.
Gun stocks gained after recent mass shootings raised concern that firearms may be harder to get if tougher controls are put in place. Last week, Sturm Ruger said in its earnings statement that demand for guns was stronger than normal during the summer, likely boosted by election campaigning.
But with Trump’s win, some of that demand could fade, since there may be less panic about tougher gun laws.
• Everyone seems to recognize that Trump’s victory was propelled in large part by what is called (not altogether accurately, in my view) populist anger, a point expressed succinctly by the National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar:
Donald Trump remade the Republican Party along the way to his shocking rise to the presidency. One of his unwitting accomplices was President Obama.
Instead of offering voters a detailed policy agenda, Obama won the presidency in part thanks to his identity, an identity that powerfully addressed a historical wrong. In the process, he made it possible for Trump to advance to the presidency on the strength of an entirely different sort of identity, one that appealed to an intensely loyal base of white, working-class voters.
It is of course not clear yet whether or not the Republican Party has been remade (or how the Democratic Party will try to remake itself — by moving to the center, as Kraushaar thinks it should, or by moving even further to the left to hold on to and attract the Sanders/Elizabeth Warren voters [my prediction]). But in any event, another way to state the angry white “populist” complaint is to say that many voters regard Obama as in effect an affirmative action president. Not only was Obama elected and re-elected in part “thanks to his identity,” but in office he and the Democrats pushed to their limit, or beyond, policies whose purpose and effect was to burden white blue collar workers and reward others based on their race or ethnicity. Insult, literally, was added to injury when criticism of these policies was routinely denounced by liberals as racist.
• In making his generally eloquent concession speech this morning, Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine observed,
I’ll just say this: Hillary and I know well the wisdom and the words of William Faulkner, he said, “They killed us, but they ain’t whopped us yet.” They killed us, but they ain’t whopped us yet. [He was paraphrasing Absalom, Absalom: “Well, Kernel, they mought have whupped us but they aint kilt us yit, air they?” (1936, p. 225 of Vintage 1990 paperback.].
As it happens, just before hearing this I had been thinking about what lessons the experience of this election should, or could, teach us, and especially what defeat could and should teach the Democrats … and what their victory should teach the Republicans, since the victory wasn’t really theirs.
In thinking about this specific example of a general “lessons of history” problem I had just been re-reading a classic, memorable essay by one of the greatest — certainly my favorite — American historian, C. Vann Woodward’s “The Irony of Southern History.” (You can read it online here, but it was published in his collection of essays, the brilliant Burden of Southern History (LSU, 1960.)
I think these three paragraphs reveal why I thought of this essay this morning:
…. In the course of their national history Americans, who have been called a bellicose though unmartial people, have fought eight wars, and so far without so much as one South African fiasco such as England encountered in the heyday of her power. This unique good fortune has isolated America, I think rather dangerously, from the common experience of the rest of mankind, all the great peoples of which have without exception known the bitter taste of defeat and humiliation. It has fostered the tacit conviction that American ideals, values, and principles inevitably prevail in the end. That conviction has never received a name, nor even so much explicit formulation as the old concept of Manifest Destiny. It is assumed, not discussed. And the assumption exposes us to the temptation of believing that we are somehow immune from the forces of history.
…. Arnold J. Toynbee has recalled those piping days in a reminiscent passage. “I remember watching the Diamond Jubilee procession myself as a small boy,” he writes. “I remember the atmosphere. It was: well, here we are on the top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay there – forever! There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all that. I am sure, if I had been a small boy in New York in 1897 I should have felt the same. Of course, if I had been a small boy in 1897 in the Southern part of the United States, I should not have felt the same; I should then have known from my parents that history had happened to my people in my part of the world.”
…. For the inescapable facts of history were that the South had repeatedly met with frustration and failure. It had learned what it was to be faced with economic, social, and political problems that refused to yield to all the ingenuity, patience, and intelligence that a people could bring to bear upon them. It had learned to accommodate itself to conditions that it swore it would never accept, and it had learned the taste left in the mouth by the swallowing of one’s own words. It had learned to live for long decades in quite un-American poverty, and it had learned the equally un-American lesson of submission. For the South had undergone an experience that it could share with no other part of America — though it is shared by nearly all the peoples of Europe and Asia — the experience of military defeat, occupation, and reconstruction.
The relevance, I think, is obvious. The leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties were defeated by Trump, and both parties will have to come to terms (or not) with reconstructing themselves. History, in short, just happened in a big way to both parties.
For the Republicans, that will require deciding how far outside their traditional ideological borders they are willing to travel to accommodate the Trumpian “populist” anti-trade policies and at least arguable indifference or opposition to vigorous entitlement, deficit, and debt reduction.
The Democrats, however, have what I think is a harder row to hoe. They will have to decide whether they are willing — and even if some are willing, whether many of them are able — to abandon their identity-mongering, preference-pushing lack of empathy with and hence hostility to the millions of us deplorables who have objected to their divisive policies.
In all fairness, and even at the high risk of being presumptuous, I will conclude by noting that I think Woodward, as brilliant as he was, was ultimately, sadly mistaken in this essay. The South, in my view, did not actually learn the lessons that he thought it should have learned. My hunch, for what it’s worth, is that similarly the Democrats will not learn the lesson that I think their defeat should teach. When Kaine says “They killed us but they aint whopped [sic] us yet,” when Hillary and Obama say, as they said in their statements this morning, that what we need to do (presumably all they need to do) is get back up, brush ourselves off, and go back on the march, they will continue marching to the tune of the same divisive drummer. “You didn’t like our song?” they will probably say. “Then next time we’ll sing it louder.”