Watching the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, I’m overwhelmed by two emotions: anger and despair. The anger comes from being reminded so vividly of what Trump did from Nov. 4 through the morning of Jan. 6 to foment an insurrection against American democracy. The despair is a product of knowing that it almost certainly won’t matter in the near term, since insufficient numbers of Republican senators will vote to convict him, and that it may well never matter in the long run either.
That last suspicion is where I part ways with most Trump critics. Over and over we hear that, although Trump is overwhelmingly likely to be acquitted, that outcome will be judged harshly by history, with Trump himself treated as an outright traitor and his partisan enablers living out their lives under a shadow of shame, their grandchildren viewing them as monsters who put their own advantage ahead of both the good of their country and truth itself.
I want to be clear: I consider Trump a traitor and think the Republicans who vote to acquit him are acting shamefully. But I am far from certain that “history” will agree with me on this. In fact, I don’t even believe that “history” takes any position on such questions at all. Historians do their work and render judgments from the standpoint of their own contingent moments in the flow of time, and those judgments change as well, with later historians often altering their views about the same set of events in the past.
And this means that I derive no consolation about the present from pondering the future. I’d like to think that people living decades and centuries from now will agree with my judgments in the present. But I have no way to know they will — or even reason to presume that the prevailing consensus of people living at a given point in the future should definitively settle questions of who and what is right or wrong during my own lifetime.
In a word, I have no faith in divine providence or in its secular analogue, moral progress. I don’t believe that the vicious automatically pay for their evil deeds or that the virtuous are rewarded in the end.
That’s something of a heresy in America, since it amounts to a rejection of our civil religion, which has always posited something special about us, something divinely favored. We have a mission, a destiny. Our national fate, the fate of humanity, and the fate of democracy and freedom in the world are somehow deeply intertwined and guided by God’s hand. He is not an impartial observer. Bad things might happen to us from time to time. But when it does, it is a test that we are predestined to pass and that God uses as a goad to spur us to greater acts of righteousness.
I’ll grant that if the formative events of your life were America’s victory against fascism in World War II and its triumph over communist totalitarianism in the Cold War, this way of looking at history can feel very right. Our opponents in both conflicts were responsible for a lot of evil. There were many moments in each struggle when the outcome appeared uncertain. And yet in both cases, the good guys won and the bad guys lost, with the latter’s ideological justifications seemingly relegated (in the words of George W. Bush) to “history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”
But is that what actually happened? Is history really a morality play in which the creator of the universe moves us around like chess pieces, unfolding his will through our words and deeds, ensuring the righteous get rewarded and the wicked receive their just deserts — if not in the present then surely in the fullness of time, or at least a few decades down the road?
Looking at the broader sweep of history, I find that doubtful.
Empires rise and fall. Armies clash on battlefields and sweep across landscapes, leaving widows and orphans in their wake. Contingencies — an assassin’s bullet, a misinterpreted mistake — decide the fates of countless millions and everything that follows from the bare, wrenching fact of who lives and who dies, when and where. And all the while, the people swept up in these tidal flows cast about for meaning and purpose, trying to find a point to the suffering and struggles, triumphs and tribulations.
Sometimes one of them makes a wager. As I’ve pointed out on other occasions, back in the fourth century, Eusebius of Ceasarea did exactly that, writing an influential history of the Christian church, which had gone in the space of three centuries from a provincial, persecuted, apocalyptic offshoot of Second Temple Judaism to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. According to Eusebius, this could only be explained by positing that God had used the empire as a providential conduit for spreading Christianity throughout the world.
The interpretation was perfectly persuasive — at least while Rome maintained its preeminence. But when the empire was invaded and the city sacked by the Visigoths in 410, the Eusebian equation of the fate of Rome with the fate of the church seemed to imply that Christianity was under assault and in retreat. Had God abandoned the faithful, withdrawing his guidance and protection?
This terrifying thought eventually inspired St. Augustine to write an elaborate and sustained refutation of Eusebian history. In the City of God, Augustine insisted that divine providence is and must remain a mystery to human beings, arising as it does from outside of history and ultimately pointing beyond history altogether, toward transcendent ends known only to God. As a Christian, Augustine had faith and hope that God plays a role in guiding the course of human events. But he maintained that it is our fate as finite and fallen human beings to remain forever in the dark about precisely how he does so.
To suppose otherwise is to fall prey to a basic historical fallacy — the fallacy of mistaking one’s own passing moment in the flow of time for a privileged vantage point, for the eternal vantage point of God. Not only does this fallacy gravely distort one’s judgments and unjustly exaggerate the importance of one’s time and place in the order of creation, but it also ties the church too closely to the world of politics, tempting Christians to find their salvation in the city of man — with its partisan pursuits and lust for power — instead of in the city of God that lies beyond this life.
It’s just a few short steps from Augustine’s Christian realism and skepticism to the darker doubts that shadow my own historical speculations. Maybe in decades to come, the number of people saying Trump deserved to be convicted in his second impeachment will rise above their current level of 56 percent to something approaching an overwhelming consensus that endures over time. Maybe future Republicans will look back at their ideological ancestors today with disgust and contempt, as the moral consensus of the mid-20thcentury surges back to prominence — or the neo-Puritanism of woke progressivism takes over American public life across the political spectrum.
Then again, maybe the moral earnestness of today’s buckling political center will collapse entirely over the coming years and be succeeded by ever-more vulgar and violent expressions of populist grievance and resentment. Maybe we’ll end up in a new civil war. Or at war with China.
All I do know is that we can’t know. And because we can’t know, we have to make our moral judgments and choices, about Trump’s impeachment or anything else, solely in light of the present — and avoid seeking consolation or validation in applause emanating from the black box of an imagined future.