October 20, 2021

The Value of Political Hindsight

By: Matt Hampton

In politics it is important to celebrate your wins and take ownership for your losses. Hindsight is 20-20, but if you don’t reckon with past mistakes, you are bound to make the same mistakes in the future.

A few years after the Soviet Union collapsed, Eugene D. Genovese—a Marxist historian turned conservative— wrote an essay, “The Question,” in which he asked himself and the Left the following question regarding the 20th century’s socialist atrocities: “What did we know, and when did we know it?” 

He concluded that “We knew everything essential and knew it from the beginning,” that members of the Left, even those who condemned atrocities, needed to admit that they bore guilt for supporting the ideology that caused them because they maintained willful ignorance about where socialism would lead: “The horrors did not arise from perversions of radical ideology but from the ideology itself.” 

I was never enthusiastic about Trump, and I never voted for him, but I gave credit where credit was due when he accomplished some of what he said he would. In the face of hyperbolic predictions of impending fascism, I assumed Trump would cause no serious political crises, minimizing his brashness as embarrassing but not catastrophic, as I think a lot of conservatives did. When he avoided committing to a peaceful transfer of power, I had grown accustomed to his antics and assumed that he was simply offended by the suggestion that he would lose, not that he would actually refuse to concede. 

None of us should have been surprised when that threat became reality. Conservatives largely conceded that Trump had no particular personal concern for principles, but that he would push conservative policies. After seeing his obvious lawless character—from cheering on violence at rallies to ramming his policies through, rules be damned, to saying “I have the right to do whatever I want as president.”—we shouldn’t have underestimated his disregard for the rule of law after the election. 

People on the Left and Right have argued that Trump is not an authoritarian, pointing out that he didn’t take advantage of COVID-19 to seize emergency power, and instead promoted reducing restrictions. They argue that lust for power didn’t motivate him, but rather that he only cared about his own ego. Nonetheless, his egotistical carelessness had the same effect, and was evident from the start. 

The attempts to minimize the Capitol Riot have been discussed endlessly, but there is no doubt that the president egged on conspiracy theories in an attempt to delegitimize the election and disrupt the peaceful transfer of power. 

The ultimate result of Trump’s antics was that the Republican Party embraced cynical recklessness, hoping for  a political win. The Republican Party took a gamble on Trump and it’s time to admit that it wasn’t worth the sticker price. Some may argue that the Left is just as bad and that their complaints about Trump are in bad faith. All of this is true. In Genovese’s article, he addressed a similar idea: leftists believed that talking about socialist authoritarianism played into a “reactionary ploy” by people who themselves ignored oppression in anti-Communist countries. But by ignoring it, they took part in the same hypocrisy. 

Of course our political opponents are going to do all sorts of outrageous things. But that does not change whether or not what happened was good. Almost exclusively, the arguments on Trump’s behalf are framed as some sort of political strategy in the crusade against the Left.  Those battles should be fought. But concentrating only on the partisan crossfire will prevent us from recognizing our own mistakes. Sociologists have written that a society that views itself as being in mortal danger will succumb to a mob mentality in which internal disagreement is silenced through witch hunts. But in order to maintain our constitutional republican form of government, the GOP needs to reckon with its mistakes.