'They Did Not Know How Things Would Turn Out'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
We know now how the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 turned out, and that they were the beginning of the end for the Red-baiting career of Senator Joe McCarthy. Neither McCarthy (right) nor his nemesis Joseph Welch (left) could have known it at the time. (Wikipedia)

For several weeks I’ve been running a Trump Time Capsule series, chronicling things Donald Trump has done and said that in normal circumstances would be considered disqualifying for a presidential candidate. I’ve thought it valuable to compile this record at a time when we don’t know whether Trump actually might become president. Last night I posted a complaint from a reader who found this approach too passive and detached.

Now, some reader response. First, two brief messages supporting the approach. One reader says:

I think the reader who finds the time capsule fatalistic fundamentally misunderstands its purpose. It exists not to serve as a record of the development of a certain event (Trump's election) but to prevent that event by portraying his behavior in an objective context to demonstrate how much of a mistake electing him would be. Therefore, it actually plays a very active role in the attempt to slow or halt his rise to power.

And the other says he’s glad for time capsules, because:

I for one want to be able to show my children that we all didn’t lose our minds in 2016.

I think a lot of people feel helpless with the rise of Trump. I certainly do. I have college-educated friends who sincerely believe everything Trump says, and nothing anyone does or says seems to change that. The attack has only reinforced the polarization of America, and anyone who has any conservative principals risks getting labeled a Trump supporter.

Trump scares the hell out of me and I feel powerless to stop him. Ignoring him didn’t work, laughing at him isn’t working, arguing against him never seems to work. How do we move past this nonsense?


Now a longer historical perspective, from reader Mark Bernstein, who is head of a small tech company and was a one-time guest blogger here. He writes:

One of the hardest challenges to understanding history is remembering—and believing—that people in another time did not always know how things would turn out. They knew something about what was possible and what was likely; in some cases, they knew more than us. But often, they didn’t know what would happen, and it can be hard for us to really believe that because we know what did happen.  

We know, for example, that Joe McCarthy was a knave and that by 1954 his force was nearly spent. But people in 1954 didn’t know that “McCarthyism” was about to become a proverbial story with which to scare the children.  [Cont.]

We know, watching Amistad and Glory and Gettysburg, that slavery would soon end. They didn’t. (I recently revisited The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and was astonished at how DuBois—a maximalist disinclined to accommodate the status quo—assumed that the struggle for integration and civil rights was unlikely to begin, even haltingly, for another century.)  

We know that the Know-Nothings and the America Firsters would come to nothing; they didn’t. We know that the Bund and the Anarchists would be squibs, that Eugene Debs and George Wallace would not get traction.  They didn’t.

The time capsule reminds us that—sooner than we can imagine—this struggle will be a history lesson. It will soon take an act of will to remember that the nature of that lesson was not always self-evident. The Founding Fathers thought long and hard about a candidate like Trump, and the danger that could be posed by a short-fingered vulgarian was seldom far from their minds. Ancient democracies had failed when faced with such men: Alcibiades, Sulla, Cataline, Clodius, Octavian. Designing a democracy that would not succumb was their explicit intent. (John Adams, I think, was never comfortable that they had done enough.)

But, even if (as I fully expect) the center holds and Trump will soon take his deserved place in the pantheon of political parables—joining George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, Charles Lindbergh, John Calhoun, Neville Chamberlain, Pierre Laval—we’ll need to recapture that terrible moment when, it seemed, Trump could conceivably win.