I asked some of my historian friends to reflect on the lessons of 1918 for our post-election America. They cited some common themes: the fragility of the world order, then and now; the big, sometimes disastrous outcomes that can begin with small events at the margins; the moral hubris that dooms inflexible leaders to failure; and the humility that allows great leaders to see events through the eyes of adversaries, and thereby avert disaster.
Let’s start with the issue of leadership. Trump in his first two years unfortunately has played the role of divider in chief. He tends to see himself as the victim in every drama, which makes it almost impossible to empathize with critics. When he sees a scab healing over a racial or ethnic wound, he often rips it off. He has turned resentment into a potent national movement.
Trump’s uncompromising style, observes presidential historian Evan Thomas, is weirdly similar to that of Woodrow Wilson, an idealistic Democratic president. Wilson failed to achieve his life’s dream of ratifying the League of Nations treaty because he couldn’t find common ground with his chief adversary, Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge.
In a recent study of leadership, titled “History’s People,” MacMillan writes that great leaders managed “to avoid the trap . . . of thinking that they were always right.” She says of Wilson: “When he was convinced, as he often was, of the rightness of his cause, he regarded those who disagreed with him as not just wrong but wicked.”
Does that sound familiar? Thomas notes that Trump isn’t alone in regarding his political opponents as bad people. These days, he says, “everyone feels morally superior to everyone else.” Tolerance is traditionally a core American value, but there is an emerging, bifurcated moral intolerance that treats people with different views as enemies.
Against this backdrop, let’s look at the midterm elections. The results are a mixed bag, to be sure, but my sense is that America took a collective step back from the brink on Tuesday. The election was largely about Trump’s leadership, and balloting for the House of Representatives — the broadest measure we have of what the country thinks — tells us that the nation wants a change from Trump’s style of governing.
This election was a character test for America, notes Rick Atkinson, whose “Liberation Trilogy” painted an unforgettable portrait of U.S. leadership in World War II in Europe. “You find yourself hoping for a savior — someone who will arise and become a statesman. But that’s a fool’s errand. Politics is a collective act, just as war is a collective act.” The only safeguard against catastrophic leadership is sound public judgment.
History is a recurring lesson in unintended consequences, argues Kai Bird, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who is now working on a book about President Jimmy Carter. Bird’s fascination with history began with Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” an account of the path to catastrophe in 1914. It’s a saga, explains Bird, of “how generals, kings and presidents stumbled into war — each side thinking it would be over in a few weeks.”
For Bird, there’s an eerie sense that “we’re on a precipice” again because of possible political misjudgments. “As a historian, I feel things are happening now that may have unintended consequences, especially with a president who is such a lone actor, who may be about to create a constitutional crisis [by firing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III] without knowing where he’s heading.”
Democracy, in theory, is a self-correcting system. If voters think the country is veering in the wrong direction, they can do something about it — by electing new leaders and changing course. That seems to be happening. Even with Republican victories in some key Senate and gubernatorial races, the electorate’s unhappiness with Trump seems clear, as it does consistently in opinion polls.
Trump can pretend that he won the midterms and continue on a course that a majority of the country appears to reject. But that would be a march of folly.