Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
- Frederick Nietzsche
Gettysburg and Antietam are solemn places. As your eyes pass over the lis of tens of thousands of Americans slaughtered on the battlefields you absorb a gut punch of sorrow and painful emptiness. On Cemetery Ridge, where the rebellion’s high water mark crashed fatally and futilely on the Union line, I found a marker with a quote attributed to Union Lt. Benjamin Rittenhouse:
“I felt proud of that charging column of Americans, even though they were rebels…They were citizen soldiers, American volunteers.”
Lt. Rittenhouse offers respect to rebels that were screaming and charging across hundreds of yards of open field with a mind to murder him. Consider and contrast that sentiment with the loathing, vitriol, and utter banality that passes for our current political discourse.
I conceived of this trip because I was as shocked as anyone by the election of President Trump. I thought he had a chance, but his electoral path to victory by drawing an inside straight through Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania was a complete surprise. After looking through the county-by-county results I couldn’t believe the swings of more than 20% in counties that voted for Obama in 2012, yet voted for Trump in 2016. Did this portend a material change in future Presidential elections? Was the long pattern of two parties dominating Presidential politics coming to an end? Indeed, what awaits us after the Trump era, however short or long, passes?
I wanted to ignore the biased, irrational drivel found in current newspapers, cable shows, and blogs and witness the conditions in these areas with my own eyes and ears. From looking at the demographic and economic data on the swing counties, I thought the election result was the result of severe economic pressures shaking up electoral politics.
I was wrong.
Yes, many of these counties have been on the receiving end of adverse economic trends, but they are mostly rural and not the manufacturing centers that have been gutted. I have been through the three states for professional and personal reasons many times and have seen first-hand other areas that have suffered as manufacturing jobs were exported. Our 14 target counties were in places where I have spent less time and, in the last three days we have found these communities to be more prosperous than we expected.
So how did Trump cause more than 20% of the voters in the counties that voted for Obama to vote for a very different candidate in 2016? I think it may have simply been the alternative that faced the voters. I am mindful of the man in a Wisconsin bar that told us he had never voted in his life, but pulled the lever for Trump, not because he liked Trump, but simply because he did not want Secretary Clinton in charge of the military.
So given this interpretation, what comes after Trump? I no longer think that the two parties are less relevant to future Presidential elections. We certainly could have a celebrity like Oprah, Tom Hanks, The Rock or another business billionaire lead a future election ticket. We might also witness a continued leftward drift in the Democrat party that yields a nomination of a candidate like Bernie Sanders.
But will we see “More Cowbell”? Will we continue to see more trauma, or perhaps worse? We are staring into Nietzsche’s abyss and it is staring right back at us from Charlottesville, from a chaotic White House, and from an intolerant, disrespectful national discourse. Are we so certain of our “side’s” righteousness that we become monsters in our quest to fight the other “side”? Tens of thousands of corpses at Antietam and Gettysburg scream a warning to us.
Perhaps I am naïve. I choose to think that we will recoil in horror and regain a sense of tolerance and mutual respect. We are a nation of 325 million individuals with different races, religions, and creeds bound in a constitutional Republic that has survived far worse over close to 250 years. With luck, each of us will recognize that not every one of those 325 million looks like me, loves likes me, or thinks like me and we are stronger for that. Hopefully, we will learn to better advocate our personal points of view without legislating or dictating them down the throats of others who don’t share our views. Our strength lies in a system of government that allows us to be different with disparate voices, but binds us in a nation of laws and individual rights. Given human nature, we will always have different “sides.” Hopefully we can share more of the sentiment of Lt. Rittenhouse. As far as I am concerned “What Comes After Trump” can’t come soon enough. Whether that “after” comes in eight years, four years, or even sooner, I hope we gain something from the experience.