My intention to avoid writing on political matters seems to be falling by the wayside. At least for the moment. Somehow, writing about ordinary everyday matters at this time is a little like what a great commander under whom I once served described as “berating the cooks for putting too much salt in the soup while the mess hall is burning down.”
But don’t expect me to offer answers to any questions you might have about the recent election or what to expect in the future. I have plenty of observations, but no answers. As Shakespeare said, “Aye, there’s the rub.” Mostly I’m just thinking back over elections I have known and trying to draw some knowledge from the experience.
I have lived during the administrations of 13 different presidents. I have voted in sixteen16 presidential elections. In nine of those elections, the candidate I supported won. Not once after coming out on the winning side did I mock, laugh at, attack, or belittle those who had voted for the losing side. Not because I’m a nice guy, but because it made no sense to denigrate someone for exercising the constitutional right to vote for the candidate of their choice. And why make an enemy for no reason?
Following the elections in which my choice lost, I took the position that, like him or not, this was now my president. We can only have one at a time and, as I see it, the one who wins is automatically mine, regardless of how I voted. My country, so my president. Even some I might have detested. And there have been a couple of cases where “detest” was too mild a word.
But it never occurred to me to demonstrate against the incoming regime. Not that we don’t all have a right to peaceably assemble and make known our grievances. I just never felt the need to do that, because we have a system, however rickety, for electing our presidents, and we can’t be bound by it only when we like the result. So I was willing to wait a while and see what happened before expressing opposition.
This election, though, has fallen well outside the norm. In my mind, the norm is an election where candidates of the two major parties fight viciously but within some very loose and mostly acceptable, at least familiar, boundaries. Democrats usually don’t like the Republican candidate, and Republicans usually don’t like the Democratic candidate, and both sides fight bitterly for what they believe is best, or at least palatable. When the results are in, some people are happy and some are sad, even angry. But the happy ones know that their winner is going to be scrutinized closely and that another election is coming. The sad and angry ones know that too. So it’s possible to carry on within a familiar, even if unhappy, landscape.
The post-election landscape of 2016 has been changed dramatically. Whether it will ever change back is unclear. To many citizens, it is a frightening landscape, not just because of some frightening threats that have been made, but because actions that can’t be camouflaged by soothing words seem poised to follow through on the threats. Immutable principles that outlined how Americans could live in freedom seem suddenly quite mutable. In the familiar, and chilling, words of poet William Butler Yeats, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
It’s awfully easy to overstate the case when political battles are fought and the results seem out of the ordinary and old standards seem to have disappeared. This country, this unique political experiment we’re privileged to live in, has survived some vicious shocks in its 240 years of existence. I expect it will hold together a while longer. And the people on both sides of the recent, and likely continuing, wrangle have skin in the game and a need to be sure it does live and flourish.
But it’s also easy to be complacent and assume things will fall back into place and the good aspects of American life will continue. That could be fatal. The real question is, what do we do if things don’t fall back into place?
As soon as I come up with an answer, I’ll let you know.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”