The Corner

2016: Winners, Losers, and Lessons

The big winners of 2016: Bob Dylan, Chicago Cubs, Donald Trump, Brexit, Putin, Iran, The Crown, the nation.

Big losers: classical liberalism, liberal democracy, the End of History, the European Union, the United Nations, globalism, Never Trumpers.

What about Israel? Bad luck in the United Nations (thanks to Obama), good luck with Trump. Future remains uncertain.

On Bob Dylan: Well, at his best he’s a seeker and searcher more about the person born to know, love, die, and be redeemed by serving somebody than about political fashion or “correctness.” He won’t be performing at Trump’s inauguration. Neither will he be seen at the star-studded counter-concert that’s about hating the haters. And he wasn’t in Stockholm. We could do a lot worse than being where Bob is.

At his worst, Bob is about mocking our pretentious and lazy desire to find profundity in popular culture. Well, we need that too.

On the end of the End of History: So there was a time right after the fall of Communism when it was thought that “liberal democracy” had triumphed everywhere. All that was left to do was to undertake a police action here and there to take out residual deviant behavior. In his highly American account, Francis Fukuyama explained that history has shown us that liberal democracy satisfies the rational, spirited, and desiring parts of the human soul better than any other form of government, and so no further political progress is realistically imaginable.

Even Russia was on its way to becoming a liberal democracy, guided by American free-market experts, abandoning its past authoritarianism and worse.

Well, the End of History — a.k.a. neoliberalism — generated a kind of global political correctness that revolves around “human rights.” This fantasy lives on in the official U.N. and various other elite global institutions. Human rights become fantastic insofar as they’re detached from the political, familial, and religious institutions that are indispensable for sustaining them. A world without borders is a place where rights are everywhere insecure.

Meanwhile, Russia is back in its authoritarian mode, and Putin-style leadership is increasingly recognized as a legitimate alternative.

Our president-elect really admires Putin the national leader and Israel as a nation — or not just any liberal democracy. Not so much the EU, unless it’s willing to pay for its own defense or act like a real nation, and the U.N., which he is itching to defund. Whether any of this is prudent is a question. But it is a new way of thinking for us.

On the unexpected victories of Trump and Brexit: The poll data in both cases were ambiguous. But nobody thought any candidate or cause could prevail against an alliance of all the respectable establishment elites. That means people thought the system was rigged, and maybe for their own good. And in both cases the elites complacently assumed that they could, with their metric-based nudging, readily persuade people on what was the decent and sensible thing do do. In both cases, the outcome showed the limits of rational control of the electorate and that the systems were not, in fact, rigged. People voted their interests, and cosmopolitan globalization, it turns out, has winners and losers. And ordinary people — beginning with skilled labor — refused to be scripted. They voted in response to their experience that what some regard as one new birth of freedom after another is for them more about loss and deprivation.

Now, evidence here for the end of End of History is the refusal of spirited people to listen to reason, to their “cognitive elite.” And some would say it’s the angry men — men with chests but without brains — who won. The response might be that it was the clever nerds with big brains but little brawn or moral virtue who lost. A more subtle view: Skilled labor is where brains, brawn, and virtue come together.

In the case of Trump: His victory was much more unexpected. That’s because he was (and is) personally unpopular, thought by many or most to be unfit by character and competence to be our president. And he sure was lucky. He was lucky enough that many Americans thought the hand of God had touched our country. And many others believe that we’re being punished for our many sins. I for one one feel neither blessed nor cursed. I do fear that chance will play too great a part in the actual administration of President Trump. For the sake of our country and the world, I hope he stays lucky.

That means, of course, that it’s a mistake too attribute too much world-historical significance to Trump’s victory. His luck could run out at any moment.

Less random is the fact, revealed by studies, that so many young people are pretty indifferent to the future of our liberal and democratic institutions. And most of them didn’t even vote for Trump.

The bigger losers of 2016 were the Never Trumpers, those committed to the single proposition that Donald Trump should never be our president. Every scheme they hatched failed miserably. Trump turned out to be impossible to beat without an attractive alternative, which our political process didn’t provide our voters in 2016. Now the Never Trumpers aren’t the Democrats, who “stood with her” and still have their partisan home, a secure base for continued dissident resistance. The Never Trumpers are now homeless, and sometimes reduced to asking our president-elect for forgiveness for their sins.

The Crown, the Netflix series, is far better, and has had a much more potent cultural impact, than any movie I’ve seen this year. It’s about dutifully fulfilling the responsibilities that correspond to your precise privileges, which are more about sustaining dignity than anything having to do with efficiency. It’s a dramatic narrative that overcomes the distinction between history and fiction.  Because Trump, the compulsive tweeter, is proudly not a gentleman (or not a loser!), whom do we have to model the dignified virtue that can’t be reduced to mere political correctness or economic productivity?

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...