History strikes back

President Barack Obama won’t explicitly say that Donald Trump is on the wrong side of history, but surely he believes it. The president basically thinks anyone who gets in his way is transgressing the larger forces of history with a capital “H.” In 2008, he declared John McCain “on the wrong side of history right now” (the “right now” was a generous touch — allowing for the possibility that McCain might get right with History at some future date). Obama has returned to this phrase and argument obsessively. It is deeply embedded in his, and the larger progressive, mind — and indirectly contributed to the left’s catastrophic defeat on Nov. 8. The notion that History takes sides is a distant cousin to the Marxoid idea that we are on an inevitable path to socialism, and borrows heavily from the (genuine and very hard-won) moral capital of the abolitionists and civil-rights movement. Obama likes to quote Martin Luther King Jr. for the proposition that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. Whoever is considered on “the wrong side of history” by the left is always loosely associated with the opprobrium of slavery and Jim Crow. This means that progressives wield History as a weapon, and make it an occasion for constant self-congratulation. But there is a downside in the accompanying sense of smug inevitability that is off-putting at best and blinkered and self-deluding at worst. For the left, History is not a vast, unpredictable, untamable force, but has all the characteristics of a stereotypical Whole Foods shopper. History reads The Huffington Post, and follows Lena Dunham on Twitter. It really cares whether transgender people get to use the appropriate bathroom. History was probably hanging out at the Javits Center on election night, and collapsed into a puddle of tears right around the time Wisconsin was called. The political dangers of this point of view should now be obvious: It assumes that certain classes of people are retrograde. Why would Democrats bother to try to appeal to working-class white voters if they are stamped with the disapproval of History? It becomes a warrant for all manner of overreach. History evidently favored trying to get nuns to sign up for contraceptives they didn’t want and forcing small business to bake cakes for gay weddings. And, if History is thought to have an ascendant electoral coalition (and a hell of a data operation), it creates an unjustified sense of political inevitably. This is what the theorists of the “emerging Democratic majority,” and most pundits on the left, bought into. All that said, the evidence was pretty good for the proposition that welfare-state programs, once ensconced, could never be reversed and therefore must enjoy the approval of History. This assumption pervaded the Obamacare debate. Sen. Harry Reid lambasted Republicans for not “joining us on the right side of history” and compared them — of course — to defenders of slavery. In retrospect, History might not have been so enamored of sprawling legislation based on faulty economic premises. When Republicans pass a repeal bill, it will constitute the most significant rollback of the welfare state ever. Another progressive assumption is that the nation-state is bound to decline, as supranational institutions like the European Union grow and cross-border migrations increase. In a trip to Germany in April, President Obama deemed Angela Merkel’s policy of welcoming a massive wave of migrants as “on the right side of history.” Never mind that its recklessness has caused a backlash that is still brewing. Obama believed the same of his own latitudinarian views on immigration, apparently never imagining people might consider it progress to tighten our borders rather than render them more porous. Now, a president who so confidently associated himself and his cause with the tide of the future has presided over a political wipeout that will send much of his legacy into the dustbin. If nothing else, History has a keen sense of humor.

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