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.