Published November 13, 2020
During the thirties, in the period when Nazism was rising and the conditions of a second world war coalesced, fashionable opinion in Great Britain regarded Winston Churchill as a crackpot and extremist. He was deplorable.
One learns to distrust fashionable opinion. When I was a boy in Washington, D.C., the best people said that Whittaker Chambers was a dreadful fellow—a sinister little fat man with bad teeth, a strange and neurotic ex-Communist, not to be trusted. Ideologically fashionable people have their standard of Not Our Class, Dear. Chambers was N.O.C.D. Alger Hiss, on the other hand, was very much Our Class—slim, urbane, the Fred Astaire of the American establishment.
At my parents’ dinner parties in Georgetown when I was a boy, Eisenhower was written off as an idiot. Couldn’t finish a sentence, you know—read Zane Grey westerns. Played golf with dullard plutocrats. Adlai Stevenson spoke in elegant paragraphs. Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post recalled in a memoir that when she first arrived in Washington in the fifties, what passed for intelligent cocktail party conversation might sound like this: “Dulles . . . Oh, God . . . I mean . . . Dulles!”
If anyone in the world has ever been Not Our Class, Dear, it is the ineffable Donald Trump. Orange Man Bad. Does that mean that by my Churchill–Chambers reasoning—for in the end, they proved to be right and the fashionable people came off looking like fools—Trump should be treated with honor and respect? Does that mean that Trump is to be considered in a class with Dwight Eisenhower? Does it mean that Trump is correct in crying fraud and fighting the ballot-count down to the last vote, ferreting out the Lazarus vote in South Philly? Not necessarily.
It takes time to sort out a confrontation as titanic and passionate as the one dividing the country now. Is America on the precipice of a magnum schisma like the one that split the Catholic Church when rival claimants to the papacy kept separate courts at Avignon and Rome? For 40 years (1378–1417), a succession of popes and antipopes—Clement VII and Benedict XIII in Avignon; Gregory XI, Urban VI, Boniface IX, Innocent VII and Gregory XII in Rome, with Alexander V and John XXIII setting up shop in Pisa—claimed the Throne of St. Peter. Finally, the Council of Constance ended the schism by clearing away all claimants and electing a unity candidate, Martin V.
Is that what the American future holds—rival administrations, run out of Mar-a-Lago and Wilmington?
A commission of impartial observers sent down from Mars to inspect political conditions in America would find the country right now in a state of what might be called schismatic malice—full of essentially theological grievances and obsessions, torn by power struggles of races and sexes and classes, a brawl of moralized and politicized identities. It’s a crisis and a catastrophe.
Or maybe it’s a just a case of nerves—enormously exaggerated by smartphones and Twitter and Covid? Maybe the storm will pass now that there is a vaccine in the offing? Perhaps this turmoil, instead of being historic and schismatic, is essentially superficial, transient? America has, time after time, overleaped its insoluble messes by means of money and creative adaptation and expanded democracy. On the other hand, in the years between 1861 and 1865, it became necessary to shed a great deal of blood and, among other things, to send General Sherman to lay waste that same state of Georgia whose twenty-first-century voters (52 percent white, 32 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian) will, in two special elections, hold the key to control of the U.S. Senate and thereby determine the country’s policy direction for some years to come.
It’s been said again and again but has still not sunk in: Donald Trump did not—as the bien pensant almost unanimously continue to believe—come to power four years ago on a regrettable wave of sullen, snaggle-toothed moronism. When he beat Hillary Clinton, I remember thinking back to 1979, to the ayatollah’s revolution in Iran. That eruption was almost entirely unforeseen by the CIA and the N.O.C.D. intellects of policy who—instead of talking to people out in the villages and understanding something of the way they lived and interacted with the Shah’s regime—sent reports to Washington based on conversations with the Shah’s people in Tehran and on tittle-tattle they picked up at cocktail parties while they enjoyed the Shah’s caviar and champagne. Something of the same failure was at work when the Soviet Union fell apart and smartypants Washington was, for the most part, surprised and amazed.
If you toss ignorance and arrogance and snobbery into a blender, you’re going to get a poisonous concoction. One would think that after witnessing a vote of 70 million Americans for Trump and just about the same for Biden—after beholding such an improbably even division in the American mind and heart—everyone would wish to proceed with patience and care and, above all, with that virtue now all but extinct in American politics, humility.