Politics, said Bismarck, is the art of the possible. Among other things, that apothegm pays homage to the pressure of the impossible, since deployment of the possible tacitly acknowledges the alternative.
Invocation of ‘the possible’ is what makes Bismarck’s mot memorable; but what gives it teeth (not to mention logical coherence) is the appeal to ‘art’. The statesman displays his skill by dancing gracefully among alternatives while avoiding the potholes of mere possibility that would topple him. In this sense, Bismarck’s observation is at odds with Jesus’s claim that ‘With God all things are possible’ (Matthew 19:26). For the statesman, at any rate, wisdom consists not only in negotiating the possible but also in the frank admission that plenty of things are impossible. Another way of putting this is to say that, outside the mystical frontiers of spiritual striving, possibility is cheap. To say that something is possible is to say very little, since the expanse of the merely possible is as wide as it is vacuous.
This exordium brings me to a curious column in Axios warning about ‘The GOP’s nightmare scenario.’ I say ‘warning’, but for many Axios readers something more celebratory would be in order. The eventuality that the column imagines — ‘a total wipeout in 2020: House, Senate, and White House’ — will be greeted as a consummation devoutly to be wished, not a nightmare, for those who regard the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as a malicious and illegitimate mountebank.
Put on your wish-upon-a-star golden slippers. ‘A growing number of Republicans,’ and you can almost hear the hands rub together in glee, ‘are privately warning of increasing fears of a total wipeout in 2020.’ ‘Privately,’ you see, because anyone who warned about that in public would be laughed out of court.
But let’s play along. Let’s stick a toe into the empyrean of the possible and see what gives.
The House: ‘House Republicans in swing districts are retiring at a very fast pace, especially in the suburbs of Texas and elsewhere.’ (Parse that ‘and elsewhere’, will you?) ‘Rep. Greg Walden — the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the only Republican in Oregon’s congressional delegation — yesterday shocked the party by becoming the 19th GOP House member to not seek re-election.’ That’s ‘shocked’ as in ‘I’m shocked, shocked to discover that there is gambling going on here at Rick’s.’
The Senate: ‘The Republican Senate majority,’ we read. ‘once considered relatively safe, suddenly looks in serious jeopardy.’ Does it? According to Axios, ‘Democrats are raising more money, and polling better, than Republican incumbents in battleground after battleground.’ Oh, there. How about everywhere else?
Then is the presidency. ‘President Trump trails every major Democratic candidate nationally and in swing states — and his favorable ratings remain well under 50 percent.’ According to whom, Kemo Sabe? Trump vs. Warren. Trump vs. Sanders. Trump vs. Biden. Seriously?
Well, the column goes on to quote Scott Reed, ‘the US Chamber of Commerce senior political strategist’ and establishment shill, who says that ‘third-quarter fundraising reports showing three Republican senators being out-raised by Democratic challengers.’ This, he says, is ‘a three-alarm fire.’
The one alarm we need, though, is the one attached to the clock. It’s time to wake up and smell the bacon.
Donald Trump may have run a scrappy, low-budget campaign the first time around. This time it is a well-oiled machine, and a large part of the lubricant comes with a dollar sign attached. He is assembling, notes The Washington Post, an ‘historically large war chest.’ In the third-quarter, Trump blew away all the competition, raising some $125 million. The country is at peace. It is ostentatiously prosperous. Unemployment, especially minority unemployment, is at historic lows. Wages are rising. Manufacturing is flooding back to the the United States. Transgender bathrooms are no longer a priority of the federal government. The mood of the nation is upbeat. The president just presided over the very public liquidation of Isis bad-guy al-Baghdadi and a chief lieutenant. Everyone except The Washington Post and Mad Max Boot thought that was a good thing to rid the world of the chap whom the Post hilariously called ‘an austere religious scholar.’
I suppose one might describe that column in Axios as an exercise in political make believe or magical thinking. ‘If only we say something a hundred or a thousand times, maybe it will come true.’ Perhaps it is intended as a sort of softening-up gesture, addressed not to the public, really, but to vacillating senators who (the story goes) might somehow be induced to vote against Trump should the House actually get around to impeaching him as distinct from talking about getting around to impeaching him.
The only nightmare on offer in the political arena these days is one afflicting Democrats who are awake, not woke. Like King Belshazzar at that fancy supper, they can see the writing on the wall and, curiously enough, the message is the same for the Dems as it was for Belshazzar: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN: ‘You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.’
You cannot really blame Axios for publishing fairy tales like ‘The GOP’s Nightmare Scenario.’ What else do they have to offer their groundlings?
No, Conrad Black cut to the chase about the 2020 election: ‘Trump is unbeatable on his record and the Democrats don’t have anyone electable to nominate. The election will be an anti-climax, but the people will speak decisively, and perhaps this president will finally get a honeymoon and will display the convivial personality that those who knew him before his elevation remember.’ California will whine. The NeverTrumpers will stamp their little feet. Once-watched networks like CNN will slide even further towards oblivion, as will once-read newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. But the sound you hear off in the distance is the sound of the gathering tsunami of Republican victory in 2020. Everyone knows, though it pleases some to pretend otherwise. It helps with fund-raising and makes it possible to talk about something at cocktail parties.
Sure, it is possible that Trump will lose. It is also possible that Elizabeth Warren knows something about American Indian cookery. That should offer the opponents of President Trump scant consolation, though. We live our political and social lives not in the realm of abstract possibility but in the realm of the actual, where probability, not naked possibility, is king. The editors of Axios probably understand this home truth, but acknowledging it is just too painful. I get that. T.S. Eliot put it well: ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality.’