Amer­ica’s lead­ers could learn much from the ghosts of 1918

The Sentinel-Record - - VIEWPOINTS - David Ig­natius

WASH­ING­TON — What would the ghosts of 1918 — not just the sol­diers who were slaugh­tered in the trenches of World War I, but the states­men who failed to make a durable peace af­ter­ward — tell politi­cians a cen­tury later about the per­ilous world we in­habit to­day?

Ru­mi­na­tions about past and present are in­escapable this week. Amer­ica just fin­ished a snarling, bit­terly di­vi­sive elec­tion, and we’re all puz­zling over how to in­ter­pret the re­sults. Pres­i­dent Trump, mean­while, heads for Paris this week­end to com­mem­o­rate the armistice of what his­to­rian Mar­garet MacMil­lan has called “the war that ended peace.”

I asked some of my his­to­rian friends to re­flect on the les­sons of 1918 for our post­elec­tion Amer­ica.

They cited some com­mon themes: the fragility of the world or­der, then and now; the big, some­times dis­as­trous out­comes that can be­gin with small events at the mar­gins; the mo­ral hubris that dooms in­flex­i­ble lead­ers to fail­ure; and the hu­mil­ity that al­lows great lead­ers to see events through the eyes of ad­ver­saries, and thereby avert dis­as­ter.

Let’s start with the is­sue of lead­er­ship. Trump in his first two years un­for­tu­nately has played the role of di­vider-in-chief. He tends to see him­self as the vic­tim in every drama, which makes it al­most im­pos­si­ble to em­pathize with crit­ics. When he sees a scab heal­ing over a ra­cial or eth­nic wound, he of­ten rips it off. He has turned re­sent­ment into a po­tent na­tional move­ment.

Trump’s un­com­pro­mis­ing style, ob­serves pres­i­den­tial his­to­rian Evan Thomas, is weirdly sim­i­lar to that of Woodrow Wil­son, an ide­al­is­tic Demo­cratic pres­i­dent. Wil­son failed to achieve his life’s dream of rat­i­fy­ing the League of Na­tions treaty be­cause he couldn’t find com­mon ground with his chief ad­ver­sary, Repub­li­can Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge.

In a re­cent study of lead­er­ship, ti­tled “His­tory’s Peo­ple,” MacMil­lan writes that great lead­ers man­aged “to avoid the trap … of think­ing that they were al­ways right.” She says of Wil­son: “When he was con­vinced, as he of­ten was, of the right­ness of his cause, he re­garded those who dis­agreed with him as not just wrong but wicked.”

Does that sound fa­mil­iar? Thomas notes that Trump isn’t alone in re­gard­ing his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents as bad peo­ple. These days, he says, “ev­ery­one feels morally su­pe­rior to ev­ery­one else.” Tol­er­ance is tra­di­tion­ally a core Amer­i­can value, but there is an emerg­ing, bi­fur­cated mo­ral in­tol­er­ance that treats peo­ple with dif­fer­ent views as en­e­mies.

Against this back­drop, let’s look at the midterm elec­tions. The re­sults are a mixed bag, to be sure, but my sense is that Amer­ica took a col­lec­tive step back from the brink on Tues­day. The elec­tion was largely about Trump’s lead­er­ship, and bal­lot­ing for the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives — the broad­est mea­sure we have of what the coun­try thinks — tells us that the na­tion wants a change from Trump’s style of gov­ern­ing.

This elec­tion was a char­ac­ter test for Amer­ica, notes Rick Atkin­son, whose “Lib­er­a­tion Tril­ogy” painted an un­for­get­table por­trait of U.S. lead­er­ship in World War II in Eu­rope. “You find your­self hop­ing for a sav­ior — some­one who will arise and be­come a states­man. But that’s a fool’s er­rand. Pol­i­tics is a col­lec­tive act, just as war is a col­lec­tive act.” The only safe­guard against cat­a­strophic lead­er­ship is sound pub­lic judg­ment.

His­tory is a re­cur­ring les­son in un­in­tended con­se­quences, ar­gues Kai Bird, a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning bi­og­ra­pher who’s now work­ing on a book about Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter. Bird’s fas­ci­na­tion with his­tory be­gan with Bar­bara Tuch­man’s “The Guns of Au­gust,” an ac­count of the path to catas­tro­phe in 1914. It’s a saga, ex­plains Bird, of “how gen­er­als, kings and pres­i­dents stum­bled into war — each side think­ing it would be over in a few weeks.”

For Bird, there’s an eerie sense that “we’re on a precipice” again be­cause of pos­si­ble po­lit­i­cal mis­judge­ments. “As a his­to­rian, I feel things are hap­pen­ing now that may have un­in­tended con­se­quences, es­pe­cially with a pres­i­dent who is such a lone ac­tor, who may be about to cre­ate a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis [by fir­ing spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller] with­out know­ing where he’s head­ing.”

Democ­racy, in the­ory, is a self-cor­rect­ing sys­tem. If vot­ers think the coun­try is veer­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion, they can do some­thing about it — by elect­ing new lead­ers and chang­ing course. That seems to be hap­pen­ing. Even with Repub­li­can vic­to­ries in some key Se­nate and gu­ber­na­to­rial races, the elec­torate’s un­hap­pi­ness with Trump seems clear, as it does con­sis­tently in opin­ion polls.

Trump can pre­tend that he won the midterms and con­tinue on a course that a ma­jor­ity of the coun­try ap­pears to re­ject. But that would be a march of folly.

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