If there is one concept that’s taken a massive hit from Donald Trump’s election, it is the idea that secular history can be predicted with certainty by “experts.” Trump’s election, along with the re-election of an energetic Republican Congress, is hardly the first to surprise political pundits, but it is surely one of the most stunning of modern times. And therein lies a lesson. People who speak about inexorable historical trends, or assert (often for ideological reasons) that they are on the “right” side of history, and can therefore read it with pin-point accuracy, are no more reliable than broken weathervanes.
That much became clear in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, and even as we approached election night. Among the commentators most confident of the outcome was the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, who told a national audience:
A lot of people have no idea that Trump is headed for a historic defeat. That’s why I think the larger the defeat, in a sense, the healthier it will be for the Republican Party. … Because it might be a wake-up call to those Republicans who have existed in this little thought bubble of their own that this isn’t a winning form of politics.
As it turned out it, it was Mr. Stephens who remained trapped inside a political bubble, though he was hardly alone. This year’s presidential election has featured prominent journalists, pollsters, academics, and humorless comedians assuring us where the unstoppable march of history was heading, and why Hillary Clinton would be the first female president. What they’ve since discovered is that history is a wild beast, and that those who try to ride it invariably get thrown of their saddles.
It’s not as if the now-humbled prognosticators haven’t had sufficient warning. The philosophers Hegel and Marx tried to unlock the secrets of history. More recently, Francis Fukuyama wrote confidently of “the end of history,” predicting the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy, only to see his theories crash and burn like a racing car losing its wheels. In 2009, Sam Tanenhaus wrote a book titled The Death of Conservatism, but both political and religious conservatism has only spread since then. With a month to go in the recent election, Tanenhaus tried to resurrect his narrative, writing about “the free fall” of the Trump campaign, and celebrating how many Republicans were abandoning Trump’s supposedly sinking ship.
Nowhere were delusions about the historical dominance of the Democratic Party more intense, and its presumed political lock on the electoral college more certain, than within Barack Obama’s political circle. Despite his two terms as president, his time in office has been an electoral disaster for Democrats elsewhere.
Since his election to the presidency, Obama has actually boosted Republican appeal among governorships and within state legislatures. The Democratic Party now stands at its lowest political ebb, nationally, since 1928. The Obama “coalition” has failed to maintain itself. And despite suffering a series of setbacks and controversies within its ranks, the Religious Right refuses to die, reminding its critics that it is still a force to be reckoned with. Trump received nearly 40 percent of the 18-29 year-old vote, revealing that the frequently noted social liberalism of young voters may not be a driving force in their voting decisions. Nor is there any guarantee that many of them won’t change their views as they grow older, just as many young rebels from the 1960s wound up voting for Ronald Reagan.
None of which is to say that Trump will keep his campaign vows or become a successful president, or that Republicans will not fall prey to hubris and find themselves on the political outskirts once again. Trump’s critics may yet be able to say, “I told you so!” But the fact that we are now discussing a Trump administration, and the possibility of what it might do to an overconfident liberal establishment, reveals just how foolish historical predictions are.
In all the talk about where history is supposedly headed, there have been few references, at least among secularists, to the person most relevant to this discussion: Jesus Christ. One would never know, listening to our most revered talking heads, where transcendent history is moving, and that long after this world brings down its curtains, and politics passes like a meteor in the night, we will all meet our Maker in a far different dimension.
Secular commentators may not realize it yet, even after this momentous election, but they’ve lost control of history, and the only way to recover is to adopt a more spiritual outlook, and devote their lives to the true Lord of history, our Savior, Jesus Christ.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.