The Duke of Wellington, speaking to a colleague about his victory at Waterloo in 1815, which ended the Napoleonic Wars, described it as a “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” Historians have simplified the remark as “a close-run thing.”
Watching what may or may not be a turning point in the Trump presidency this week, it occurs to me how often history is a close-run thing. Brett Kavanaugh may or may not go down, because of the almost random decision of Christine Blasey Ford to come forward and risk invasion of her privacy and public humiliation.
Trump may or may not fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. That, in turn, may or may not prefigure the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which may or may not put some spine in a handful of Republicans and begin the march to an impeachment.
Watergate, similarly, was a close-run thing, beginning with the random discovery by a security guard of some tape over the lock on a door to the DNC Headquarters that Nixon’s plumbers were attempting to burglarize. The 2016 election, with its Watergate echoes of the theft of Democratic emails, was about as closely run an election as it gets.
History, we are reminded, is a blend of deep historical forces and random events, lucky or unlucky. In February 1933, when FDR was giving a speech in Miami, an anarchist got within several feet of the president-elect, fired several shots, and missed Roosevelt, hitting the mayor of Chicago instead. Had Giuseppe Zangara’s aim been true, and FDR’s vice president-elect “Cactus Jack” Garner assumed the presidency, the New Deal never would have happened. Conversely, if Lee Harvey Oswald had been a slightly worse marksman, JFK and the country would have been spared.
The deep historical force in the Kavanaugh affair is that women have finally had enough of a male privilege that goes back to King David. Powerful men get to have their way with women. Overturning that privilege is the most revolutionary force of our time. The random event is that Kavanaugh, who was apparently a drunk as well as a brute in high school, got picked for the high court rather than some other far-right court nominee, who might have sailed through.
Another deep historical force is the decades-long corruption of the Republican Party, to the point where Republican leaders are willing to make common cause with an aspiring dictator if that serves their ends. The random event is the question of which way Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins will vote. That, in turn, will depend largely on Dr. Ford’s credibility as a live witness: deep forces and random events.
As for Trump’s presidency, it is a big dose of random bad luck for the American republic. But it is also the result of a decades-long pattern of leaders of both parties turning their back on America’s working people, who were sufficiently aggrieved that they resorted to a fake populist crackpot tyrant.
Based on some random events, American democracy may yet be spared—or not. Either way, a close-run thing.