There will be two events of major significance this week.
One looks forward, the other looks backward but both, in the circular nature of humanity’s never-ending struggle with itself, speak to the future through the past. America goes to the polls tomorrow to elect a new House of Representatives. One third of the Senate will be elected and three dozen governorships are in play. Of the 36 states voting for a governor, 26 have Republican incumbents, nine are Democrats and there is one independent.
One Republican, Matt Shea, seeking a fifth term in Washington State, has advanced policies last seen in Europe in the late 1930s when simmering hatreds became a genocide. Such comparisons may seem outlandish but Shea’s programme includes a “Biblical Basis for War” and show a Rubicon has been crossed.
Next Sunday the world will mark Armistice Day. Four years of fighting, that cost an estimated 37m lives came to an end on November 11, 1918. It is one of the tragedies of the modern world that the penal terms then imposed on a defeated Germany sowed the seeds of the next catastrophe. The Treaty of Versailles made the Second World War inevitable.
It may be a stretch to compare America’s mid-term elections with Versailles but there is, tragically, an undeniable commonality. One went very wrong because of the victors’ hubris was indulged beyond reason or charity. The other has the capacity to do pretty much the same but the world will not know until tomorrow’s votes are counted what path the once-admirable superpower has chosen.
America will tell the world tomorrow if the last two years have been an aberration or an overture for a world where its founding truths are dismissed as fake principles. It is hard to think of a political event in this century — even Brexit — that carries such weight. Tomorrow’s vote is a referendum on the age of Donald Trump. America’s voters may endorse the last two years, suggesting to would-be Trumps that he has found a template they might successfully copy. Or, hopefully, they will use democracy to wave a big stick at their bullying, lying, odious president and restore the sort of equilibrium pursued after the second world war when a supportive, rebuilding Marshall Plan replaced the vindictive Treaty of Versailles.
If Democrats retake the House, even if they chose not to pursue impeachment, they will be free to hold hearings into the corruption scandals that surround Trump. However, tomorrow, core substance goes far beyond empowering Republicans or Democrats. What matters is whether Trump is cowed or emboldened. If Democrats prevail then November 2016 will look more like a freak event. If they fall short, then Trump and all that means will be the winner, the status he craves more than anything. He can boast, as he surely will, that he has been vindicated in style and in substance.
That grim prospect would add a chilling air of foreboding to Sunday’s Armistice ceremonies. Already sober, grim, and, still a century later, heartbreaking, those events would inevitably take on a new air of looming, sharpening threat and renew the oldest question of all: “Will we ever learn?”