How will history textbooks of the future judge us? I brought back five of them so you can find out

I have traveled forward in time and returned with verdicts from the future. Spoiler: America is great again!

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published April 21, 2018 12:00PM (EDT)
 (Getty/Alex Wong/Salon)
(Getty/Alex Wong/Salon)

How will historians of the future judge us? I mean, not too well, assuming there are still historians around in the future who can read and write. But the details are impossible to imagine, given that our current circumstances are absurd. As Salon columnist Heather Digby Parton observed this week, sometimes you have to stop and appreciate the quality of public life in the United States in 2018, which goes beyond improbable deep into preposterous. Stephen Colbert observed during his Thursday night monologue that the problem with the just-concluded prime-time soap “Scandal,” which began several years ago as a dishy, outrageous pastiche of Washington politics in the “Melrose Place” style, was that reality had left it far behind.

Heather was responding to the fact that the president of the United States had just accused his own Justice Department, under an attorney general, deputy attorney general and New York prosecutor all appointed by him, of conducting a “witch hunt” aimed at undermining his administration. Gosh, remember when Kellyanne Conway bothered to defend the concept of “alternative facts” on TV? Those were the good old days, when there was some notional agreement that facts, at least in the abstract, were things of value. Now there are no longer facts. There is only story.

It’s strange for a journalist to say this, since our craft largely consists of sticking facts together to tell a story, but stories are dangerous. Human beings love stories. We are hopelessly addicted to stories; the dominate every known medium and every form of discourse. They are devices we use to make sense of the world. But whether it’s the creation of the world and the fall of man in the book of Genesis or the tale of the ever-widening Deep State Conspiracy (which now includes the entire Obama and Bush administrations and some of Team Trump as well), stories have a tendency to overflow their banks, wash away their origins and swamp the underlying evidence.

Another column Heather wrote this week affected me deeply because it suggested that James Comey and Donald Trump, who now appear as implacable enemies, suffer from the same character flaw. That would be hubris, the excessive pride or ambition that always dooms the protagonists of Greek tragedy. I’m not sure she’s right about Trump, who appears so profoundly narcissistic that he doesn’t quite perceive other people or the world as real, and can only understand them as reflections of his glory or threats to his greatness. He’s like a malevolent second-tier predator, a crocodile or a hyena, gifted with near-human intelligence.

But Comey is definitely hubristic, and his hubris reflects the powerful grip of a story that may not be true. His fatuous media interviews larded with civics lessons and his probably-ghostwritten memoir, in which he descends nearly to the juvenile level of the president he deplores, betray that he thinks he knows what’s going on. Which is definitely something none of us knows. Comey believes he holds the moral high ground above the rest of us and can write the history of this dire episode while it’s happening. That's a special variety of hubris that leads one to make dubious decisions (e.g., the Hillary Clinton email investigation) and then to appear vain and ridiculous in the very near future.

Mind you, a lot of us have tried to write the history of the Trump era in advance. I have variously proposed in this space that we were seeing a new Age of Revolution, cognate to (if stupider than) earlier ones in the 1840s and again around World War I, and that the Trump-Brexit political moment marked a new twist in the internal conflict within the Western world that the late Jean Baudrillard dubbed “World War IV.” Those may or may not be useful constructs, but with the native caution of the journalistic trade I have presented them only as possible interpretive frames: Here's one way of looking at things; it surely doesn’t tell us what will happen next.

Comey seems to have embraced a version of future history in which Americans rediscover their civic virtue and, rather than seeking the escape hatch of impeachment — which has never successfully removed a president from office, let us note — go to the polls in 2020 and cast Trump into the outer darkness. What happens after that is necessarily vague, but we are pretty much invited to assume that that will be enough. Order and righteousness and normalcy will be restored.

I guess! Comey’s probably too smart to believe that, which may be one reason he seems so indigested all the time. And his tedious history text of the future is not the only one available. I am here to tell you that I have ventured into the future in my Philip K. Dick time machine and returned with five distinct stories from different alternate universes; I suppose there's a hypothetically infinite number of others. Based on my pop-science understanding of many-worlds cosmology, we must conclude that they’re not just all possible but in some sense all real. Which one are we likely to end up living in? That story remains unwritten.

  1. Oligarchy Redux

Donald Trump was a fluke, a blip, an anomaly, an unexpected interruption in America’s upward trajectory toward fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address and all that. Effectively, Trump didn’t happen! Or at least was something that could easily be undone. Joe Biden or Kirsten Gillibrand became president in 2021 — I can’t really read that part — the MAGA hat went into the closet with the piece-of-crap casting rod belonging to a former brother-in-law, and America returned to its normal programming.

Wait, which was what exactly? This appears to be the official doctrine of the Democratic Party and of many #NeverTrump Republicans, and it’s amazing that anyone pretends to believe it. Actually, it’s more complicated than that, because to be fair this scenario is definitely not impossible in the short term. Under President Boring we could see a temporary restoration of the mixed and contradictory American society of the previous two decades: steady economic growth mixed with worsening economic inequality, a cultural split reminiscent of Czarist Russia and a paralyzed political system that doesn’t work at all. If you work in the tech industry or the financial sector, and never have to come in contact with the large white heartland population that is now even more pissed off than it was before, it’s a sweet deal. For now.

  1. So Much Winning! We Were Drunk on Winning, and Also on Canned Cocktails From the Convenience Store

In the years without number that followed 2016, America was made Great Again! That’s how we got our 700-foot border wall made of vibranium! (Which we took from Wakanda after the conquest.) Well, OK, that happened in a video game. It became hard to tell the difference. Generalissimo Trump and his sons Donald Jr., Eric, Ivanko, Barron and Daphne ruled for – well, we don’t know how many years. We stopped counting. Literally, we stopped counting, because all numbers above eight were forbidden by tweet-dictum.

Big-screen Trump-branded TVs, absolutely not made in China (except for components and assembly), were given to every “real American” – I mean, “given” at a totally reasonable price that everyone wanted to pay – so everyone could watch the People’s Tribunals (later renamed “Jail Court!”) that put a final stake in the heart of the nefarious Deep State Plot with the humiliation and/or public execution of Andrew McCabe, James Comey, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Jeff Sessions (later exhumed and reappointed as attorney general), Andrew McCabe again, Sally Yates (revealed later to have been the wrong Sally Yates, a Days Inn manager in Elkhart, Indiana), Anderson Cooper, Lady Gaga, every NFL player who had ever worn a do-rag and the entire cast of the 2016 remake of “Ghostbusters.”

That was amusing to write, but the point is that even the most enthusiastic Ann Coulter slave-boy has no optimistic vision of the Trumpified American future that is more coherent or more realistic than that. Say this for Steve Bannon, who is basically a less charismatic replicant of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard: He tried. He’s basically a douchey small-town autodidact who escaped containment and learned to stop talking about the gold standard in polite society, but he did try to craft a positive vision of what he wanted society to look like, even if it was equal parts homoerotic New Deal fantasy and “Mein Kampf.” (I will never get over his promise to “jack up” the “ironworks.” Kinky!)

But the second-wave Trump loyalists in the House Freedom Caucus and on Fox News and elsewhere have completely lost faith in using government power to do anything constructive. They pretty much want a fascist police state, which may be their only hope of holding onto power, but lack the courage to come out and say so. So their only play is to break as many things as possible and roll back regulation and try to prosecute every official of the old regime and blame everything that doesn't work (which is everything) on a vast, invisible left-wing conspiracy, in hopes of agitating their base into the belief that winning elections isn’t enough and banning them is more like it.

  1. An Empire in Rapid Decline

Democrats regained a share of power by winning a House majority in 2018, more or less short-circuiting Trump’s ambitions. Then a Democrat, whose name has now been lost, narrowly defeated Trump in the bitter 2020 presidential election. The outgoing president refused to concede defeat or take part in his successor’s inauguration, and repeatedly threatened to reveal evidence of fraud that would overturn the election results.

That didn’t happen, but the damage to what had previously been understood as a robust democratic system was long-lasting. Democrats remained unfocused and internally divided and could rarely govern effectively, while intransigent, embittered white voters in heartland states remained largely united, meaning that the Republican Party maintained a disproportionate share of power for decades, fueled by incoherent conspiracy theories and an entirely negative policy agenda. By 2065, the idea that the United States had once been the planet’s leading economic and military power, and a symbol of modernity and prosperity, had come to seem ridiculous. In 2083, it was finally broken up into five loosely affiliated republics.

That’s really close to the Jim Comey text, am I right? Except with a bottle of Old Crow poured over its head to bring it back to the real world.

  1. Dude, There’s No “I” in “Woke”

Leading a wave of reformist social-democratic populism that would ultimately sweep away the resurgent right across the Western world, Bernie Sanders was elected president in 2020, winning every state outside the Deep South, Utah and Wyoming. (The Southern states would later have their constitutions revoked under the terms of the New Reconstruction Act, leading to decades of military occupation, while Utah was allowed to secede peacefully under its prophet, president and CEO, Mitt Romney.) Sanders served only one term before handing over his office to the graduating classes of Wesleyan University, Morehouse College and Cal State-Dominguez Hills, which ruled collectively as the Directorate or “the D” (in later years, “the Douche”) until the Great Sundering of 2048. Advances: Universal hand-cranked broadband; free college education with no fixed endpoint. (Graduation was deemed “epistemologically dubious.”) Controversies: All gender pronouns were banned, and then all nouns. After much discussion, 20th-century literature was not censored, but was flooded with negative reviews on Amazon. (“Old dude big fish THIS SUCKED.” “H8 to tell yall but theres no fkg mockingbird in this story LOL.”)

I mean that with love, kinda: As I have argued many times, the Sanders insurrection was an important event in American political history, reintroducing ideology and big ideas to a party that had defined itself for 20 years as not having either of those things. But what role the newly energized progressive movement will play in the Democratic Party’s future, and how Sanders acolytes will adjust to the partial and unsatisfying victories that are the substance of politics, remains very much in question. The Sanders tendency has been somewhat too focused all along on Sanders himself as a Hugo Chávez-style messiah (although he would deny any such intention) and suffers from the puritanical, millenarian, ahistorical thinking of most radical movements, without even being one.

  1. A Long Road, a New Awakening

While the election of President Donald Trump had numerous deleterious consequences for human rights and the rule of law, and did irreparable damage to the already-tattered global image of the United States, it also served as a moment of reckoning for a nation that had believed itself immune to history. It brought a dramatic end to the relatively stable, if increasingly dysfunctional, two-party system that had prevailed since the end of the Cold War, in which Republicans and Democrats represented different factions of the nation’s elite classes.

Neither party was ever the same after this debacle: Republicans were forced to face the fact that their flirtation with racism and xenophobia had become their core ideology, and that virtually no one supported the party’s supposed policy agenda of slashing government services and regulations at home while waging endless wars of aggression overseas. Democrats, on the other hand, could no longer avoid the paradox that consistently undermined them: Their policy positions were widely popular and they represented a majority coalition, but the party’s lack of any coherent social or economic vision had produced repeated defeat (including to the most blatantly ignorant candidate in recent history) and widespread public distrust.

This party-system meltdown of the 2020s, of course, led to a surprising new era in American politics in which …

Sorry, I can’t read anything after that, it’s smudged. No, those aren’t tears in my eyes. Definitely allergies.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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