Reflections on the recent elections in the United States

by Dan Miller (November 10, 2016)

In the wake of Tuesday’s election, I find myself surprisingly exhilarated. It’s not that I wasn’t deeply disappointed in the outcome. Not only did we elect as our next President a man who appears to be wholly unfit for that crucial post, but we rewarded with electoral success a Republican Party that for the last eight years has engaged in a level of obstructionism and hysterical rumor mongering that would be labeled “treasonous” if Democrats were to attempt it. And I hope my excitement isn’t akin to the feeling that swept the populace of Europe in the summer of 1914: “Finally, something interesting is about to happen!” God forbid. (Though in truth God does not always forbid the human race from making interesting things happen.) No, I think my feeling comes closer to that of the meteorologists on September 12, 2001. Like the rest of us, I’m sure they were horrified by the events of the previous day, but they couldn’t take their eyes off of a sky that was momentarily bereft of contrails because they didn’t want to miss a once in a lifetime chance to see what the atmosphere above North America looks like when there are no airplanes passing through it. What I mean is that this is a moment of unusual historical clarity.

Republicans will have complete control of the federal government, not to mention a historically unprecedented level of dominance at the state level as well. Ever since the election of Barack Obama, they have been complaining about how badly he’s managed the economy and what a loser he is on the foreign policy front. If only they didn’t have him to contend with, they’ve told us, they could fix everything that’s wrong with the United States and the world at large. Like a sidelined quarterback who keeps yelling “Put me in coach!” they’ve demanded total control of the government. Well, they are now fully in charge. Oh, there is that pesky minority of Democrats in the Senate, but I have little doubt that Mitch McConnell will figure out how to change the Senate rules to keep the Democrats from blocking President Trump’s appointees to the Supreme Court the way Republican Senators blocked President Obama’s. So we will soon have about as good a chance to do a political experiment in real time as we are likely to get.

I, for one, intend to watch closely to see whether the Republicans really act on the promises they’ve made, such as greatly reduced taxes, greatly expanded military spending, an end to budget deficits, fixing “entitlements,” repealing and replacing Obamacare, reversing Roe v. Wade and gay marriage with the help of new Supreme Court justices, relaxing environmental regulation, abandoning climate control treaties, renegotiating NAFTA and other trade treaties, ending the threat of terrorism though tough military action, and so forth. And if they do act on their promises, I’ll be curious to see the results. My own inclination for many years has been to regard most GOP domestic and foreign policy prescriptions as ranging from unhelpful to disastrous. Am I correct? As Hillary Clinton urged in her gracious concession speech, I will try to keep an open mind. And I will refuse to trust, still less to repeat, unsubstantiated rumors or conspiracy tales no matter how flattering they are to my political proclivities. I will leave that to the trolls. My job will be to watch carefully and evaluate fairly what we are about to see in the suddenly crystalline political atmosphere.

In addition, despite my disappointment at how things turned out on Tuesday, I intend to resist despair. For Christians, despair is not an option, but hope is obligatory. “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world,” Jesus tells us. I find that comforting in two senses. One is the obvious sense that God will have the last word in history and it will be a truthful, just, and merciful word, far beyond what any leader or party or nation is able to offer in this age. That’s a comfort for anyone who longs to see wrongs righted and hurts healed. The other, less obvious source of comfort comes from Jesus’s warning that there will be trouble in this world. If he hadn’t said that, we might suppose that God has lost control when evil times come and we would be tempted to despair. As it is, we understand that trouble is an inevitable part of our experience in this sad, fallen world but that by God’s grace and with the help of his Spirit we can be brave and endure evils and even, if we can believe what the Word tells us, be more than conquerors through Christ who gives us strength in such circumstances and who himself is the perfect example of patient suffering. Christianity is not a religion for sissies.

On the other hand, we do live day by day in a world where people make mistakes, sometimes egregious ones, sometimes globally damaging ones. The summer of 1914 that I already alluded to saw mistakes of that magnitude being made. We have still not fully recovered from the damage done by that human folly and, historically speaking, we never will fully recover–who knows how many kind fathers, brilliant inventors, or wise leaders never had the chance to offer their gifts to the world because they died at eighteen in the mud of Verdun. What that means to me is that while despair is not allowed, pessimism is perfectly reasonable. Pessimism is the opinion that something which just happened is going to have some very bad consequences. And while those consequences can never reach as high as heaven nor have the last word in history, in the here and now they can cause us a world of sorrow. That is how I view the last election. Time will tell whether my pessimism is warranted. I will try to be honest and admit it if it isn’t. I will try not to be smug if it is. (Indeed, being right about this will give me very little pleasure of any sort.)

Finally, how can someone be pessimistic and hopeful and excitedly curious all at the same time? Maybe you have to be a Christian historian.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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How Donald Trump Ruined My Day and (Almost) Owed Me $15

by Jesse Damsteegt

Whatever our political leanings, for many of us the 2016 election season has been stressful and disruptive. But for Calvin student Jesse Damsteegt, the election excitement unfolded at the site of her history internship. 

This fall semester, Jesse is interning at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in downtown Grand Rapids, helping museum curators to plan and mount exhibits, learning the ins and outs of artifact preservation, and discovering how complex the job of running a presidential museum can be. Like most of the large museum staff, Jesse does most of her work in back rooms that are off limits to the public, so she has little contact with the hundreds of visitors who come through the door each day. But occasionally, an exceptional visitor shows up who demands more attention than usual. Jesse’s story, below, is just one example of the unusual encounters you might make when studying history:

As I rolled into work at the Ford Museum at 8:00 a.m. on Friday, September 30, I figured it would be an ordinary day, or maybe even a more fun morning than most. The staff had planned a small potluck, and I thought that I could grab some food and maybe leave a bit early to get back to campus for a test I had later that afternoon.

Around 9:30 I noticed some men in really fancy suits walking around, and I thought that was out of the ordinary. I mentioned the strange sighting to my boss, but he did not see what I was on about, and walked out of the office. A while later, he came back and said that I was right; there were men in suits walking around because we had a VIP guest coming in. Naturally, I asked who it was. But he would not tell me. My mind raced with suspicions: maybe Hillary Clinton, but that would be too crazy, or maybe Donald Trump, but that would be crazy too. What if it was President Obama? Now that would be cool! The President seems like a pretty cool dude when he doesn’t have to be President.

I knew that the mystery visitor was expected around noon, the time I usually finish my four-hour workday at the museum. I also knew that I had to get back to campus by 1:30 p.m. to take a (timed) test. At around 11:00, both floors of the museum and even the back area where I work were crawling with Secret Service men. I did not really want to leave my office because I feared they would drill me with questions. Who wants to be interrogated by beefy guys in fancy suits and expensive earpieces? Not me.

Noon rolled around. I was still trapped in my office. I had skipped the potluck yet to avoid walking by the Secret Service men. Then it was 12:30. The double doors leading into my work space opened wide, and an entourage of more men in suits and women in professional dress streamed in…

And then I saw the hair.

The hair of the mysterious visitor.

The hair of the VIP .

The hair of Donald Trump.

He strutted into my work space wearing a tailored suit and a blue and white striped tie. He hunched his shoulders forward a little bit, pressed his lips in a straight line, and narrowed his eyes as he always does into that recognizable scowl.

I work in a space that is kept at a consistent 64 degrees to protect museum artifacts, so I had my hands tucked under my knees to keep them warm. Secret Service did not like that. They eyed me like the most dangerous person in the world. They tried to get closer to me to be sure I was not concealing a weapon. Fortunately, my boss noticed that my hands were hidden and slyly urged me to put them into sight. I did, because Secret Service men are kind of scary. They finally relaxed when they realized I was just some innocent intern.

Finally, they left the room at 12:45, and I was able to run to the potluck for some fast food before I rushed back to campus for my test. But when I tried to reach the museum parking lot, more Secret Service blocked my way. I waited twenty minutes before I was able to leave the museum.

By the time I got back to campus, I was already late for my timed test, so I parked in the nearest available parking lot to my classroom. I thought anyone could park in that lot during the day, but I was wrong. Just as I was getting my stuff out of my car, Campus Safety walked up and told me that I could not park there and they would have to ticket me. After I sputtered out random words, I said that I would just take the ticket because I was late. I did not have time to explain my whole predicament, so I just ran. Later, I contested the ticket and I successfully argued my position, but it was a very close call.

So that is the story of how Donald Trump made me late for a test, made me get a ticket, and ruined my day.

Jesse Damsteegt is a Classical Languages and Art History double major, with a minor in Archaeology. She is enrolled in HIST 393, the History Internship course, which allows students to earn credit and gain work experience by putting their liberal arts skills to work in local organizations such as museums, local historical societies, small businesses, and social service organizations.


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More Historical Rhymes and Dissonances

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.
A couple watches CNN airing Election 2016 results of a Presidential Poll Tracker (unfavorables) Trump - 65%, Hillary - 56% "Remember when elections were popularity contests?"

Image source: John Darkow, Columbia Daily Tribune.

The headlines are telling me our next president will be either the shape-shifting incarnation of Satan or a Mussolini from Queens. Boys and girls, can you spell, “Apocalypse of St. John?” My options: stockpile freeze-dried food in the basement, or restore the oxygen balance by breathing deeply into a paper bag. Is this just another quadrennial spell of national hyper-ventilating? In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt trumpeted, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” This time we just have Trump, and Clinton.

To escape the present, and have it make some sense, consider this: It is an election year in the United States. One party has selected a ticket headed by politicians from New York and Indiana. The presidential candidate has never resided in Washington. The vice presidential candidate used to be in Congress and once served as governor. The other party has picked well-known insiders, establishment types with lengthy resumes. The presidential candidate, idolized by a loyal army of admirers, had been Secretary of State under the rival who snatched the party nomination from this year’s choice. But this time, the idol’s army seized the party organization to ensure the ‘proper’ outcome at the convention.

The campaign is vicious, personal–a brawl. The press is drenched in accusations. The idol is corruption in the flesh: publicly exposed, tattooed with the names of unsavory corporate interests–a ‘continental liar,’ to boot!!  The opponent: sexually immoral, the keeper of an underage concubine, sire of an illegitimate child. The burning issue (besides graft and grifting): The nation is awash in immigrants who threaten the foundations of democracy, attached as they are to foreign religious beliefs–the pawns of despots bent on bankrupting the United States and corrupting the nation through the sick teachings of robed clerics speaking poison in an ancient language. And the former Secretary of State believes trade with alien nations brings prosperity for all. The idol’s mother even knelt to that un-American ‘religion.’ Unless real Americans fortify the border to discern who is worthy among the immigrants, the nation will be swamped with criminals, violent bomb throwers, carriers of social, political and physical pathogens.

1884 election propaganda with "Free trade" on the left and "Protection" on the right. Lady liberty stands in the middle with the caption "which?"

Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine, Unidentified artist, 1884, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (Click through for more information about the 1884 election.)

The year: 1884.  The candidates: Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine. Cleveland: incorruptible, “Grover the Good” to his admirers; a philanderer from New York to the rest. Blaine: the “Plumed Knight” to his admirers; the “continental liar from the State of Maine” to the rest. The problem with the immigrants: Roman Catholicism and the specter of rule by mitered prelates. One outcome of the election: the construction of Ellis Island in New York Harbor, beneath the Statue of Liberty’s glowing torch.

The parallels: Armageddon roars throughout the land, as it did in 1884. According to one zealous Republican, a vote for Cleveland was a vote for “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” The Republicans countered with Maria Halpin’s baby, Oscar, his arms outstretched toward Grover wailing, “I want my Pa!” No matter who won the election, the nation would get a president badly dented by the accusations being hurled about. To their credit, Cleveland acknowledged his moral failing, admonishing his followers to simply tell the truth about him; belatedly, Blaine publicly rejected the insinuation that Cleveland was un-American.

Clearly this year’s major party candidates are weighed down with baggage that renders them unfit to large segments of the population. Charges of corruption and privilege and lying have stuck to Hillary Clinton like glue. Donald Trump is a gold-plated blowhard and egotistical bully to a major of the body politic. Clinton lacks a soul while Trump has no conscience, according to popular belief. Trump says dark forces seek to rig the election in Clinton’s favor. Clinton foresees a new dark age if Trump wins. Truthfully, this kind of rhetoric does not bode well, no matter the outcome.

It’s the rhetoric, and the heat it is generating, that puts this campaign in a unique category. Nativists blaming the nation’s ills on immigrants goes back to the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, signed into law by John Adams. The Know-Nothings, led by former President Millard Fillmore, sought to limit admission to the United States to only “worthy” newcomers. To which Abraham Lincoln responded, “When the Know-Nothings get control, [the Declaration of Independence] will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”

Donald Trump’s love of the pronoun “I” deviates from our common political usage. While every president has possessed an enlarged ego, none of them used the word “I” as liberally Trump. And words, even pronouns, are vitally important. Historically the nation has shied away from messiahs. People could sense this in Douglas MacArthur. Andrew Jackson possessed a strong streak of the authoritarian, too. But even he understood his authority came from the Constitution, not his person.

As for Hillary Clinton’s public image problems, she is not the first candidate to be tarred with chronic lying (Lyndon Johnson), being devious (Tricky Dick), using public office for financial gain (Johnson, again), or selling out to wealthy plutocrats (Eisenhower’s cabinet of “eight millionaires and a plumber”). Or to have her religious convictions challenged (Jefferson), or to have unsavory relatives (Carter), or to be out of touch with ordinary citizens (FDR), or driven by a sense of entitlement (Kennedy), or officially responsible for deaths (Cleveland), or circulating ice water in lieu of blood (Benjamin Harrison). You get the picture. Clearly being the first woman nominated by a major party is a notable event on the national timeline. And being the first former First Lady to ask for the keys to the Oval Office sets her apart. If she wins, the Clintons could be seen as similar to Grover Cleveland, two residencies in the White House separated by an interregnum. Remember, the ‘co-presidency’ of the 1990s?

I will now don my tin-foil helmet and resume my search for the shape-shifting aliens in human form (the Windsors, if you hadn’t heard). What will they think of us, and know about us, in the not too distant future?

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his fourteenth year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

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