Back in July, as the implications of Brexit set in and the Republican and Democratic conventions were held, a certain blog post began to make waves among certain corners of the internet. Written by English historian Tobias Stone, it was titled “History Tells Us What May Happen Next with Brexit and Trump.” It was, and perhaps remains, the scariest thing I read in 2016 along with various climate change articles. For those of you who have not read it, the blog post follows this basic argument: Every so often, usually about 50 to 100 years but sometimes shorter or longer, the world gets caught in a period of destruction where a lot of people die, progress in many areas gets set back, and which the world eventually recovers from—always better for it but at a tremendous cost. Some of the examples he laid out included the Black Death, both World Wars, the fall of Rome, and the Civil War. Now, he says, with liberal democracy being upended by populists and demagogues and autocrats, the increased military actions of Russia, and the gradually warming climate (which to be fair we’re taking measures against but still too slowly), there is a higher chance of this happening then ever before. Of course, as he points out, the world is so complicated and there are so many moving parts that none of his predictions may end up happening, and the whole thing can get sorted out in an easier way, ideally not involving anyone using one or more nuclear weapons.
I am proposing a different theory, and I think Stone’s own logic will suffice in how I explain this, and that is simply: we have no idea how Trump/the populist resurgence/Putin’s military actions are going to end. This is very scary, especially since we’ve spent essentially the last few months floating endless speculation and prediction, but here are some key things to think about regarding how trying to figure out what’s going to happen is a waste of time.
It’s very appealing in some ways to have an apocalypse—a feeling of the end being near, and it may in fact be possible that this is humanity’s last year on Earth, but as Stone says in his own essay: “things are much less predictable then they seem.” Take a look at World War I, an unprecedented act of violence that directly resulted from the assassination of an Arch-Duke which led to a domino effect. Or World War II, which was the direct result of a combination of a vindictive treaty and the Great Depression. Nobody in those moments as they were living them thought that was how things were going to turn out. We may think that Brexit, Trump and Putin are going to lead us to the destruction of order and World War III which will kill the entire planet, but that’s not necessarily the case.
In fact, we must remember that from 1949, when the Soviets tested their first nuclear bomb, to 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union, nuclear war between Russia and America was considered a near certainty. We twice came incredibly close to it: the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was only stopped because one man named Vasili Arkhipov refused to allow the launch of a nuclear missile from the submarine, and the 1983 computer error where the Soviets thought the US had initiated a first strike, which was only stopped because the commander of the radar base, Stalinsas Petrov, realized that the error made no sense based on the agreements of Mutually Assured Destruction (essentially, the US would not send just five warheads, but everything they had). While the dangers are still very present, the fact we came to two incredible pressure points of kind that would be a filter to see our species survival, and passed it, gives some reason for optimism.
Consequently, it’s easy to forget that there were things that seemed inevitable and unstoppable when the past was the present. Take one of Stone’s own examples (World War II), for instance: in his 1933 appointment to the Chancellorship, Adolf Hitler claimed the Third Reich would last for 1000 years and they didn’t even make it to fifteen. Nobody who saw that speech thought Hitler’s reign would end just twelve years later in suicide trying to make sure the Russians didn’t capture him for torture. If you want to worry about another alliance like Trump’s and Putin’s, consider the alliance Hitler made with Stalin to take Poland. They agreed to align with each other and to not go to war in 1939 provided they each got a chunk of the country. Together the two were virtually unstoppable, and had they indeed worked together they would have very likely taken over the world.
What happened instead was that Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded Russia. To give you an idea of how unexpected this was—historians and people who were with Stalin at this period of his life describe his utter denial that this was happening, first convinced that it was a few rogue Germans, and then horrified at the utter betrayal as Moscow essentially fell. Stalin had historically never been betrayed, because he was always the one who moved first. Stalin had always thought he would betray Hitler first, so not even the people who make history know what they’re doing.
Trump, for all his pure reprehensibility is not a tyrant in a conventional sense. I have no doubt he aspires to this very thing, but the simple fact is that he is a weakling and a coward. Tyrants are people capable of incredible strength in certain moments, typically with a military background or steeped in political theory. They do what they do because they honestly believe in it, and are very shrewd at seeming moderate. Many regimes work incredibly hard to seem moderate, or to give the people reason to place their trust in them. Trump believes in nothing except his own superiority and his endless greed, and expects us to fall to his level rather than rise to it or pretend he is on ours. This is a very bad combination in general but it makes him much more precarious then he first appears. He is surrounded by an entire government (keep an eye on the intelligence organizations: they took down Nixon) and world who hates him, and except for several hacks and two lunatics (Bannon and Flynn) whom no establishment Republican would even think of allowing into their club, has essentially nobody on his side in significant power. There is every reason to believe that with minimal repercussions the Republicans would impeach him the first chance they got.
But will they? The answer is probably no, but again, the simple fact is we are in uncharted waters. Providing there’s no global nuclear war, we will not become extinct in this possible period of destruction, but a lot of us will suffer unless we act. You can accelerate the way to a better, peaceful world without having to wait for history to feed the populists through the shredder. Continue to protest, follow every resistance guide you can, devote yourself to organizations who will fight his policies, and perhaps most importantly, invest in as much clean energy as you can. Tyrants run petrostates, and no matter how invincible they seem, petrostates collapse incredibly easily under the right conditions. Look at Venezuela, which was once very prosperous under Chavez and now is essentially collapsed. We don’t have to be that way. We can be something better. Though the Nazis reigned over Germany, the country reinvented itself into one of the beacons of Democracy in the western world and learned from its mistakes far better then most countries ever do.