The Turning Point in the Presidential Election—and the Nation’s Future?

11/20/2016 01:02 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2016

In his essay, “The Turning Point in My Life,” Mark Twain speaks of the small, unexpected and usually insignificant events that can have a dramatic effect on the course of a person’s life--and on the trajectory of history. Twain gives the example of nearly dying from measles when an epidemic swept through the Mississippi Valley when he was twelve. Being quarantined, Twain writes, “was a turning-point of my life. . . . For when I got well my mother closed my school career and apprenticed me to a printer,” which led to his becoming one of America’s most beloved writers.

Considering this, I couldn’t help but reflect on the recent presidential election and the many small incidents, accidents and turns that led to Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Donald Trump’s election. The difference in the election, in which Trump won a plurality of the Electoral College votes and Clinton won the popular vote by a what is projected to be two million votes, suggests that any one of a number of things (e.g., private e-mail server, Bengazi, Wikileaks, Clinton Foundation, Bernie Sanders, Gary Johnson, James Comey, etc.) could have tipped the scales away from Clinton. Any one might have, but the totality (some, at least, beyond Clinton’s control), certainly did.

In “The Turning Point in My Life,” Twain says that a greater determinant to the unfolding of a life or a nation is not a single incident, but, rather, temperament. Donald Trump’s temperament has been on dramatic display, not only during the past eighteen months, but, perhaps more meaningfully, during the past two weeks. His tweets, criticism of the media, attacks on critics, and first political appointments reveal a temperament that should give many citizens cause for concern, if not alarm. The question is whether he has the character to transcend his temperament for the good of the country. The turning point for the nation--and the world--may well depend on the answer to that question.

It is popular these days to cite the chaos theory metaphor of a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world and eventually producing a hurricane on the other side, but there is little doubt that whatever tipped the election away from Clinton and toward Trump could end up causing something much more catastrophic than a hurricane. As W.H. Auden wrote, “The crack in the tea-cup opens to a lane that leads to the land of the dead.”

In his essay, Twain identifies Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon River in 49 B.C. as the most significant turning point in Western history. Today, “Crossing the Rubicon” is a familiar idiom for a fateful, irrevocable decision from which there is no turning back. The election of Donald Trump may indeed prove fateful. In a democracy, however, nothing is irrevocable.

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