by Chris R. Morgan
In a year that was full of debates at varying degrees of bitterness, detachment, resignation, and sorrow, perhaps the most irritating—if only because its very basis only served to exemplify its participants’ high literacy—was trying to pinpoint which novelist’s work best complemented this year’s events and temper. Conservatives seemed to argue for Tom Wolfe, liberals for Philip Roth, feminists for Margaret Atwood. I tried to make a case for Anne Rice and people just stopped taking me seriously at that point, which would be entirely fair if all of us hadn’t been equally wrong.
If we don’t know of W.W. Jacobs’s short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” we at least know the basic lore* it popularized, of a luckless protagonist receiving a charmed object that grants wishes but for a steep price. Jacobs’s married couple wishes for $200 and it comes, in the form of compensation when their son is killed in a work accident. They wish their weeks-buried son back to life, and get that as well, in the most literal sense. And so on and so forth. It turns out to be a fitting assessment for events that defy easy rationalization or acceptance. Donald Trump’s election seemed all but obstructed by his own mercurial impulses and incompetence, giving his mandate-light victory an air of the supernatural. Someone, maybe more than one person, had a debt on their hands that we are all paying down.
What else sensibly explains the unforeseen downfall of Hillary Clinton? She who was ready, and we for her, to take the reins from her former rival and boss to not only perpetuate his vision, but to improve upon it with her vast wealth of governmental qualifications. There was no conversation to be had about it with anybody, not out of intolerance, mind you, but as a matter of simple logic. This was all very sensible and simple; this was not a grand game of chess but a puzzle. Everything was going to fall into place and the Grandma Moses landscape we made together was going to be enjoyed for all as autumn trudged into winter. On the surface it would take a markedly malignant thinking to counteract that kind of certainty.
Hillary Clinton is competent, intelligent, and savvy. She may be stiff among her lessers and cunning when she tries to reach them but she is serious, both with a vision to implement and the practical know-how of implementing it. She had won elections, gained appointments, and with the powers inherent in those earnings used her personal prowess to put decisions into action. Hillary Clinton was the most qualified candidate for President in recent memory. She was qualified in the same way that James Madison was qualified, that John Quincy Adams was qualified, that James Buchanan, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and Lyndon Johnson were all able and qualified. She was a part of an American political tradition, not a particularly hallowed one, but one that had its roots, which voters proceeded to cut.
“Authoritarian” must rank as one of the most frequently used terms of 2016 after “dumpster fire.” Critics trying desperately to foretell the kind of hardened governance that would be imposed from a White House in which Donald Trump had taken residence lobbed it against him without relent. An ironic use, certainly, as following a stricter definition, Donald Trump isn’t much of an authority in anything; certainly not in government, just barely in business, maybe, if nothing else, in marketing. Political scientists could spend the whole of their tenures parsing the reasons for which certain voters went for Trump, what remains foremost, however, is that they took essentially a blind chance on an open-ended model. Authoritative governance—that is, one infused with the knowledge and resources for managing power—seems a tempting alternative compared to the possibilities of chaotic, irrational, paranoid, indifferent, or corrupt governance. But the semantics game had been played, and this precarious amateurism has won anyway.
That the ascendance of Trumpian amateurism is a worthy price for neutralizing Clintonian technocracy is not at all evident. But even so unsubtle a situation as this one still has a subtle silver lining that as many people as possible should heed. Provided there will be an option to do so.
Authoritative government, one of expertise, meritocracy, and girded networks, leaves little in the way of broader participation. One who doesn’t know the right things does not get very far. If you don’t know, then vote for the people who clearly do. Amateurism throws that concept into the incinerator. Peter Thiel, in joining the Trump transition team, assuming he is still on it as of this writing, claims Trump’s presidency will be “inclusive.” I have no idea what that means to him, but the very nature of Trump’s candidacy makes it true. The democratic process does not end with a single private act, a ceding of trust in one person’s judgment. We are all now able to be judges, to be participants, not to lack salient knowledge but to impart a broader range of thinking. People who have been long left out of the epicenter for whatever reason can reenter, people never seeking it to begin with find themselves thrust into it. This pattern, of course, has been going on for years since the ascendance of the internet, but the internet served as a kind of shell that election 2016 has broken. This is not to say that this situation is wholly optimistic, it is by no means assured that this will not entrench insanity. But the once predominant bulwark for sanity, our technocracy, is vulnerable, and the onus is now elsewhere, it is, rightly or wrongly, on us.
In Jacobs’s story, the possessor of the monkey’s paw has three wishes. One can only speculate as to what further fallout from further wishes in this very supernatural year could produce. I will not venture to suggest anything, but there is an ironic outcome I have in mind, if that does any good. An outcome perhaps that shows our new amateur political actors a way past the idea of central power and of singular greatness, and into a verdant oasis of humble small scale cooperation between concrete individuals who one could meet as equals, hear their pleas, and toss aside the old political baggage to forge new coalitions. This, like everything else, could foreseeably not come to fruition, but for my own sanity I can’t help but leave this hope in a lockbox in my mental palace. If one were a rather savvy wishmaker, consider yourself challenged.
*This was angle was admittedly inspired by the comment of a friend on Facebook.