It’s hard to wrest meaning out of the madness that we’re seeing these days in American politics, and perhaps it’s foolhardy to even try. After all, if madness had a meaning, it wouldn’t be madness in the first place.
But in the interest of exploration, let me toss a thesis out there and see how it holds up when tested against the evidence:
Take a look at the photo above. A U.S. president is now walking the streets of Havana, Cuba with his family, a sight that would have been all but unthinkable in the lifespan of most Americans and Cubans. It is a change that is long, long overdue, but a change that did not and could not occur earlier because of the immense political inertia that surrounded U.S.-Cuban relations.
Whatever happens next in American-Cuban relations, that spell of inertia has been broken. Even the trade embargo — first imposed back in 1962 — will end in the next two years as American business presses for the chance to participate in Cuba’s re-emergence.
That transformation offers a reminder that change that is barred from occurring organically and gradually will instead occur suddenly, with a jolt. And we’re seeing a lot of that lately. We’re witnessing the death throes of Reagan-era, supply-side economic policy and the end of post-Berlin Wall foreign policy; the ongoing battles over gay marriage in Georgia and elsewhere likewise represent the last, bitter skirmishes in a war over social issues whose outcome is already settled. Overall, we are witnessing the end of what you might wrap up under the general title of Boomer politics.
And we’re going to see more. By now, we should have resolved the fate of 11 million illegal immigrants whom we in effect welcomed here through lax enforcement more than a decade ago, but now can neither deport nor embrace. A deal to take that issue off the national agenda has been blocked for years by Republicans, many of whom know what the final resolution must be, and Donald Trump is the price that they now have to pay for that mistake.
Likewise, one way or the other, we’re also going to deal with climate change, because a rapidly changing planet will give us no choice. February of 2016 was the most abnormally warm month on record, breaking the record set by January of 2016, which broke the record set in December 2015. Those who preached about a “pause” or even a reversal of the rapid warming trend are now exposed as the charlatans they have always been. We will either address this issue directly, through the reduction of greenhouse gases, or we will resign ourselves to dealing with its profound consequences, and at this late date we will probably be forced to do both.
We also haven’t dealt adequately with the overhang of the 2008 economic collapse or the destabilizing consequences of global trade. The economists are right; free trade produces more wealth. But that statement doesn’t address how the wealth is distributed, ignoring the fact that it showers some with great benefits and inflicts great strain on others, often with no regard to how hard a person works. The post-WWII social and economic compact was based on premises that no longer exist and is in bad need of renegotiation, and that process is going to be painful and require visionary leadership.
In this analysis, Hillary Clinton is the quintessential 20th century politician tentatively dipping her toes into a strange new political environment. That’s why Barack Obama beat her eight years ago; he spoke back then of the “audacity of hope,” and audacity of any kind is simply not in Clinton’s DNA. She would have been vulnerable in this cycle as well had somebody in either party emerged as a more modern alternative, but that didn’t happen. The excitement generated among younger Democrats by a 74-year-old senator from Vermont demonstrates how real that opportunity was, even if Bernie Sanders proved ill-equipped in the end to fully seize it.
Among Republicans, Jeb Bush was the living embodiment of the dying era, a man who should have been in his political prime biologically but was badly out of cycle in historic terms. Marco Rubio tried to market himself as the voice of “The New American Century,” but when you listened to what that voice was saying, it became apparent that he was merely reiterating the rhetoric and world view of the previous 40 years. There was zero evidence of fresh thought or perspective, no sign that Rubio was doing more than repeating what he believed would earn him the praise of his elders. To use comparisons that are themselves outdated, he wasn’t Elvis or Eminem, he was Pat Boone or Vanilla Ice.
What we have instead on the GOP side is Donald Trump. As you might have noticed, there’s a desperation to his support, an air of “if we don’t stop it now, we never will,” which explains why his support does not waver even when he acts like a total jackass. His theme of “Make America Great Again” reflects a pining to turn back, to return to some half-remembered, half-imagined version of America.
Turning back isn’t an option. This country can never be great in the way that it used to be; it can and will, however, be great in a new way, and that’s the challenge.
Of course, the primary agent of the social and economic stasis that has inflicted this country, the Republican Party, has become the primary victim now that change pent-up for decades has begun to accelerate. I don’t know what the new Republican Party is going to look like, or even what name it might campaign under. I know only that it cannot be what it was.
As a mark of that change, think back just four years ago, when the Republican candidate for president was cavalierly dividing America into the “47 percent” of moochers pitted against the 53 percent of so-called producers. That talk is now completely absent from the presidential campaign trail. It turns out that you can indeed stand athwart history for a long time yelling “stop”, as William F. Buckley described the role of conservatism.
But eventually, at some point, history stops listening and does what it intended to do all along.