Counterfactual history—i.e., what if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated?, etc—is a popular though fatuous genre. “What is, is singular,” Churchill wrote; “What might have been is infinite.”
Quite true, but over the weekend in my item “Five Ways to Think About the IG Report” I offered a contingent counterfactual that Joe Biden might—I emphasize might—have beaten Trump if Biden had been the nominee instead of Hillary. This speculation excited a lot of heated disagreement for entirely plausible reasons, namely that Biden is a goof, and Trump’s appeal was deep enough to overcome any Democrat. Perhaps so, but the case that Biden would have been a stronger candidate is easy to make, because anybody would have been a stronger candidate than Hillary. Biden says many ridiculous things (such as, in 2012, how Mitt Romney wanted to restore slavery), but I doubt even Slow Joe would have insulted so many voters by calling them “deplorable.” And in an election as close as 2016 was, it is not hard to imagine Biden getting the extra 80,000 votes that Hillary needed to win the Electoral College.
We can never know of course, and I’m not especially interested in extending this line of argument because I was actually trying to make a different point in that example about what might be called “the bad karma of liberalism”—in other words, how the moral relativism of liberalism is coming back to bite them. But I think I was too indirect.
So let me try out the argument again with some different examples. To go back to the initial counterfactual, suppose John F. Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, but then the news had come out of his ill health and appalling sexual practices in the White House. I suspect the scandal would have been so explosive that he’d have been gone within 48 hours. Those were different times. But then fast-forward to 1998, by which time the moral relativism and trashing of standards of behavior by the cultural left made it possible for Bill Clinton to ride out the Monica Lewinski scandal. It was just private behavior, we were told; only about sex and that’s no big deal any more. Character isn’t important in the Oval Office any more; only job performance counts. (Joe Klein of Time magazine made this argument directly.)
But then try this out: had the older morality been in force, and Clinton been made to resign from office (there remain persistent stories that senior Capitol Hill Democrats were close to demanding his resignation), then Al Gore might have won the 2000 election as the incumbent president.
I emphasize might once again: it is not at all hard to see him, as the incumbent president, finding another 700 votes in Florida. The point is, had the Democrats followed the dictates of traditional morality in the case of Clinton—and correct legal procedure in the case of the FBI’s handling of Hillary in 2016—the Democrats might have come out a lot better than they did. And in the case of Bill Clinton, had he been forced to resign in 1998 it is possible that Trump would have been done in by the Access Hollywood tape in the fall of 2016. Hard to know, but the coarsening of our public morals—the conscious embrace by liberals of the view that “character doesn’t matter” was likely a factor in Trump being able to ride it out.
To borrow from Horace again, you can expel nature (meaning traditional moral codes) with a pitchfork, but it will come back at you through the window. Trump is the president liberals richly deserve, because they made him possible—and also necessary.