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Commentary: Wishful Thinking


This commentary is about wishful thinking. The phrase translates interestingly.  In German it’s wunschdenken.  In Italian it’s pensiero speranzoso. 

We Americans are probably better wishful thinkers than most. We tend to be more optimistic and less cynical. This has certainly described electoral politics. Think about presidential elections over the last century or so. The more hopeful candidate has usually won: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, Obama. The elections when the more negative candidate won took place during dark times: Nixon in 1968 and Trump in 2016.

America had a quarter-century during which it was indisputably the economic, military and spiritual leader of the world. It began in 1945, when we emerged from WW II as the only major country not in ruins or economically supine. We dominated the world economy: In 1950, with less than four percent of the world’s population, we produced 50 percent of the world’s iron and copper, 60 percent of its oil and 40 percent of its coal. Our aid programs, especially the Marshall Plan, were very generous and Europe and Japan would not have recovered without them. By example we exported freedom and democracy.

But nothing lasts forever. Our quarter-century ended in 1973, the year we withdrew from Vietnam and the year of the Arab oil embargo. We remain today the strongest and most influential nation on earth, but relatively we have been in decline for forty years.

There are many all across the political spectrum who are in denial about this. For different reasons they wish for the good old days: America the Great Moral Force, America the Dominant Economic Powerhouse. “If only . . . .” they say.

Many of these same people say that our recent slide would have happened even if Donald Trump had never been born. All the dark stars were lined up, they say, and America would be where it is in 2021 even if Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush had been elected president.

This is nonsense. It is wishful thinking. The United States would be a very different place if Clinton or Bush – anyone but Trump – had been elected in 2016. The reasons for this would take up an entire new commentary.

And it is wishful thinking to believe that Trump will just pass from the scene. He is running for president in 2024. Why wouldn’t he? It is absolutely risk-free for him. Some pundits say he won’t run because he couldn’t stand to lose twice. News flash: He doesn’t think he lost once. The entrance to Mar-a-Lago looks like a freshly-plowed field from all the groveling. He is raising millions. He freezes the Republican Party in place as long as he doesn’t categorically renounce all interest in running again. He is having a blast at his rallies. He has gone to Iowa, always a good sign that someone is at least interested in running. Most importantly, he remains in the public eye and forces the media to cover him. As usual, this is not about the country or even about the presidency. This is about him.

Lots of Americans wish he would go away, or abandon further political ambitions, or at least conform to their idea of a normal politician. Good luck with that. He is not, and never has been, a normal politician, but when politics is a hall of mirrors, as it is today, and in a “I’ll mess with history” sense, and in a “I don’t care what you think” sense, he may be the best politician we’ve ever seen.

The Spanish word for wishful thinking captures it best: “Ilusiones.”

Dr. Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.