The mix of politics and culture is far too complex to be predictable. Even the best-laid political plans can lead to unintended consequences, both good and bad – what we sometimes call irony, nemesis or karma.
Take the election of 2008, which ushered Barack Obama and the Democrats into absolute control of the presidency, House and Senate, also generating popular goodwill over Obama’s landmark candidacy.
Instead of ensuring a heralded generation of Democratic rule, Obama alienated both friends and foes almost immediately. He rammed through the unworkable Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote. He prevaricated about Obamacare’s costs and savings. Huge budget deficits followed. Racial polarization ensured. Apologies abroad on behalf of America proved a national turnoff.
By the final pushback of 2016, the Obama administration had proven to be a rare gift to the Republican Party. The GOP now controls the presidency, Congress, governorships and state legislatures to a degree not seen since the 1920s. “Hope and change” ebullition in 2008 brought the Republicans salvation – and the Democrats countless disasters.
The Republican establishment hated Donald Trump. So did the conservative media. His unorthodox positions on trade, immigration and entitlements alienated many. His vulgarity turned off even more. Pundits warned that he had brought civil war and ruin to the Republican Party.
But instead of ruin, Trump delivered to the Republicans their most astounding political edge in nearly a century. The candidate who was most despised by the party unified it in a way no other nominee could have.
Obama proved Israel’s best friend – even though that was never his intention. By simultaneously alienating Israel and the Sunni moderates in Jordan and Egypt, and by warming up to the Muslim Brotherhood, appeasing Iran and issuing empty red lines to the Assad regime in Syria, Obama infuriated but also united the entire so-called moderate Middle East.
The result was that Arab nations suddenly no longer saw Israel as an existential threat. Instead, it was seen as similarly shunned by the U.S. – and as the only military power capable of standing up to the soon-to-be-nuclear theocracy in Iran that hates Sunni Arabs and Israelis alike.
Today, Israel is in the historic position of being courted by its former enemies, as foreign fuel importers line up to buy its huge, newly discovered deposits of natural gas. As the Arab Spring and the Islamic State destroyed neighboring nations, Israel’s democracy and free market appeared as an even stronger beacon in the storm.
Almost every major initiative that Obama pushed has largely failed. Obamacare is a mess. He nearly doubled the national debt in eight years. Economic growth is at its slowest in decades. Reset with Russia, the Asian pivot, abruptly leaving Iraq, discounting the Islamic State, red lines in Syria, the Iran deal – all proved foreign policy disasters.
Yet Obama has been quiet about one of the greatest economic revolutions in American history, one that has kept the U.S. economy afloat: a radical transformation from crippling energy dependency to veritable fossil-fuel independence. The United States has become the world’s greatest combined producer of coal, natural gas and oil. It is poised to be an energy exporter to much of the world.
The revolution in fracking and horizontal drilling has brought in much-needed federal revenue, increased jobs, weakened Russia and our OPEC rivals, and has given trillions of dollars in fuel savings to American consumers.
Yet Obama opposed the energy revolution at every step. He radically curtailed the leasing of federal lands for new drilling, stopped the Keystone XL pipeline, and subsidized inefficient and often crony-capitalist wind and solar projects. Nonetheless, Obama’s eventual failure to stop new drilling ended up his one success.
Hillary Clinton, in her presidential bid, did everything by the playbook – and therefore her campaign went catastrophically wrong. Her campaign raised more than $1 billion. She ran far more ads than did Trump. She won over the sycophantic press. She got all the celebrity endorsements. She united the Democratic Party.
Logically, Clinton should have won. The media worked hand in glove with her campaign. Her ground game and voter registration drives made Trump’s look pathetic.
Yet all that money, press and orthodoxy only confirmed suspicions that Clinton was a slick but wooden candidate. She became so scripted that even her Twitter feed was composed by a committee.
The more she followed her boring narrative, the more she made the amateur Trump seem authentic and energized in comparison. Doing everything right ended up for Hillary as doing everything wrong – and ensured the greatest upset in American political history.
The ancient Greeks taught us that arrogance brings payback, that nothing is sure in a fickle universe, that none of us can be judged successful and happy until we die, and that moderation and humility alone protect us from own darker sides.
In 2016, what could never have happened usually did.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of “The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.” You can reach him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.