George McGovern's Revenge (A Dish Eaten Cold)

A few months ago, I was at dinner with an eminent jurist. It had become apparent that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee, and we discussed whether he could be elected. But that wasn't really the point. What stuck with me was my companion's saying, with subdued horror: "How could this happen? How can we be in a situation where 41, 45, even 47 percent of the American electorate will vote for someone so extreme and delusional?" He knew, we all know, that Trump has long been a garden-variety narcissist, a trickster, "a fraud and a phony," in Mitt Romney's words. But it doesn't matter. His support is deep if narrow and nothing will budge it.

The advent of Trump the candidate, Trumpism as a bastard ideology of feel-good despair, and Trump's America--a white nationalist bloc controlling twenty-plus mostly small, poor states--looks like a true moment of historical descent. I've always resisted the sentimentality of declension narratives, one-time radicals getting moony about the Sixties or the Thirties so as to ignore present-day struggles. But opposing declension can lead to presupposing progress. Historians who have insisted on the fact of an ongoing democratic revolution across the twentieth century (sometimes dubbed "the long civil rights movement") have gotten their comeuppance, it would seem.

Not so fast. From a different perspective, this is a fine time to be alive, if you are not too pure a progressive to savor the pleasures of schadenfreude. As we head into the fall, I'm relishing Trump's flailing collapse and what it is doing to his nominal party. Every day, we see a settling of accounts on the New American Right that has evolved since the first Goldwater campaign in 1960. For half a century, these people--Republican operatives, the court intellectuals who gussy up their schemes with giblets from Burke and Friedman, the brute rich who give the orders--have elaborated a politics based on white ressentiment. Repeatedly, they have sloughed off those Republicans who could not abide their vulgar racialism; it's no wonder that ever since 1993, observers have compared the Clintonistas to "socially liberal" Eisenhower Republicans--the latter had to go somewhere! And those busy turning the Party of Lincoln into the White Party thought they could get away with it because power is its own justification.

Seeing a party implode and spin off centrifugally has a particular resonance if you're old enough. I remember watching with excitement in 1972 as Senator George McGovern pushed past George Wallace and Hubert Humphrey to win the Democratic nomination on a platform full of radical commitments, not just unconditional withdrawal from Vietnam ("Come Home America") but a thirty percent cut in the military budget to fund a vast expansion of social programs. And then McGovern lost as badly as anyone can, with Nixon carrying 49 states (all but Massachusetts), while the then-massive AFL-CIO union apparatus boycotted their party's nominee. Since then, we have heard nothing but mockery of McGovern as a candidate and his radical liberalism as a program, especially within the Democratic Party.

But let us savor the contrast: instead of a deranged demagogue with a fake blond mane, McGovern was one of the most decent human beings ever to become a major political leader. He never did a mean, corrupt, or venal thing. He was what used to be called a "prairie radical," with a PhD in history from Northwestern, and a campaigner for Henry Wallace in 1948, after which he personally rebuilt South Dakota's Democratic Party into a powerful progressive force. Supposedly, we have been getting over McGovernite foolishness ever since, via the Clintonian Democratic Leadership Council, with neoliberalism to the fore and not likely to go away soon. McGovern's appeal was to our better angels, but we just did not have enough of them, especially against a wily operator like Nixon, governing from the center and waging détente while extracting the troops from Vietnam. But no one who licked envelopes for McGovern has anything of which to be ashamed. What Republican, for years to come, will be able to say that?