Rene Girard, our Mimetic Master Craftsman, was first and foremost a professor of literature. In his studies, he began to recognize that almost of the good literature, from Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky to the hundreds if not thousands or more esoteric novels he read, involved the same basic principle -- they were all rooted in how mimetic desires create complex narratives and conflicts. Going backward to ancient texts in particular, he found that the Greek tragedies, and in particular Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, represented the archetype from which virtually all tragedies were derived.
The basic arc of the Greek tragedy involves an heroic figure of great skills and ability struggling to complete a series of difficult challenges and defeat the enemies standing in his way. The hero is successful in overcoming the challenges from without, but in the end is undone by his own personal failings, of which he may or may not be even aware and often involve a series of improbable events. Thus, in spite of immense achievements, the hero ultimately perishes or is humiliated and degraded in the end. A tragedy warns us that even the mighty can fall by their own hands and bad luck, but also comforts us with the knowledge that no one is perfect--even the best of us may make mistakes that lead to our undoing.
There is also an apt aphorism, attributed apocryphally to Mark Twain, that "history does not repeat but it rhymes." So it is with the tragic characters of history -- they seem to walk the same mimetic tightrope, having the same kinds of challenges, rivals, outward successes and personal failures.
Now consider this tale of an ambitious politician. He is raised in a conservative household and shows great interest in politics and promise as a young leader. He excels in public speaking and graduates near the top of his class in college and law school. He is likeable and is elected to several positions of leadership while in school. Everyone who encounters him recognizes him as one of the smartest and most capable people that they have ever met.
After law school, he makes his way to Washington and finds himself in the midst of investigating one of the biggest scandals of the day. He acquits himself well, and later goes on to serve in the administration of a president, where he again shines as a leader. His ascent is not without scandal, though, which tarnishes his reputation somewhat. He develops a reputation for being insular and a bit paranoid. He blames the media for unfavorable coverage. But no one questions his competence or ability. The opposition party appreciates this and fears his political prowess and craftiness.
Our hero takes the next step and runs for President himself. He finds himself up against a rival that is neither as experienced nor as competent as he, and from a group of people that has never produced a president in the past. But his rival is very charismatic and exciting, and has beautiful mannerisms and a beautiful spouse. Our hero seems wooden and unattractive by comparison. Despite an expectation of victory, our hero goes down to defeat, and it is questionable whether he will continue in politics.
Yet our hero rallies. He shows himself to be resilient, and a team player. He organizes behind the scenes. He lines up support from a broad coalition and plots a comeback. In the meantime, some fortuitous events have occurred. Although the opposition party controls the legislature and the presidency, it has become fractured, leaving an opening. Our hero seizes the day and runs a brilliant campaign. He is on the cusp of destiny and wins a hard-fought election.
He serves his first term and it is a rousing success. Despite not controlling the legislature, he is able to push through many programs on his agenda. He is also lauded by most for making tremendous strides in foreign policy and entering into talks with the country's most intransigent and long-standing enemies, while maintaining national security. He becomes so popular that he wins his next election almost by popular acclaim.
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By now, those of you of a certain age will recognize this narrative as the story of Richard Milhous Nixon. But if I were to change one pronoun -- make that "he" a "she" -- up until the last paragraph you may also recognize it as the story of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Like Nixon, Clinton was raised in a conservative household, did extremely well in school and was tapped as leadership material almost from the beginning. Interestingly, she worked on the Nixon and Goldwater campaigns as a teenager.
Like Nixon's involvement in the Alger Hiss investigation which burnished his credentials, Clinton's first work in Washington involved another scandal -- Nixon and Watergate -- which also burnished her credentials.
Like Nixon's service in an important role in the Eisenhower administration, Clinton served important roles in both the Clinton and Obama administrations.
Like Nixon's personal scandals over funding and other intrigues, Clinton has had more than her fair share. Nixon was reviled by the Democratic opposition as the generally dishonest "Tricky Dick". Clinton is similarly reviled for dishonesty by her Republican opposition.
Like Nixon, Clinton surrounds herself with an insular group of confidants, places a high value on secrecy and loyalty, and is generally suspicious of the media.
Like Nixon, Clinton is one of the smartest and most competent in her party, knows how to work the backrooms and is grudgingly admired by the opposition, who focus mostly on attacking personal failings.
Like Nixon, Clinton often appears stiff and wooden in public and is prone to occasional rhetorical gaffes that the opposition and the media are only too happy to repeat.
Like Nixon's run against Kennedy, Clinton lost to Obama, an opponent who was inferior on paper, but was a fresh face who was more charismatic and appealing.
Like Nixon after his failed first run, Clinton has spent some time in the political wilderness re-tooling and re-organizing for a run eight years later. Interestingly, Nixon's main Republican opponent in 1968 was none other than Mitt Romney's father, George.
Like Nixon, Clinton will have the advantage of facing an opposition in disarray, and perhaps multiple candidates. After a fractious primary season and a convention remembered for its riots, the third-party candidacy of George Wallace all but doomed Democratic efforts to retain the White House in 1968. Nixon won with a mere plurality of the popular vote and about 300 electoral votes. The 2016 election is setting up in a similar way for Clinton.
So what does this mean exactly for the future? Honestly, it may be merely a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. Remember that history only rhymes, not repeats. And this essay IS a frolic and detour.
Clinton's political career may end with a defeat in November, perhaps due to a tragic mistake that she has yet to make or has yet to be completely revealed.
But even assuming she is elected, Clinton is unlikely to have the same success in a first term that Nixon had, although she is certainly capable and it is certainly possible. Despite his partisanship, Nixon approached the job as a peacemaker, stating in his inaugural address:
"In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading. We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another, until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices."
Clinton could easily use the exact same words.
Nixon worked very effectively with Congress in his first term. Strange at it may now seem by today's standards of his party, he oversaw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed health insurance reforms. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which passed both houses of Congress in 1972 and was sent to the states (where it eventually stalled). He oversaw the winding down of the Vietnam War and got rid of the draft. He continued the desegregation of public schools. He made progress on many fronts.
His foreign policy legacy is gigantic. He opened talks with the Soviet Union on nuclear disarmament, re-established relations with Egypt and restarted Middle East peace talks, and most significantly, reopened U.S. relations with China.
By 1972 Nixon was so popular that he won reelection in one of the largest landslides ever with over 60 percent of the popular vote.
Clinton could also see some success in dealing with Congress, especially if Republican unity continues to deteriorate. That Congress and Obama were able to agree on a budget package this year may be an indication that more thawing is possible once Obama leaves office.
In foreign policy, she is also well-positioned and has the kind of experience and connections that Nixon acquired during his travels as Vice President under Eisenhower.
Yet, in the end, Nixon's story concluded as a classic tragedy that could have been written by Sophocles or Shakespeare. Having vanquished all opposition and climbed to great heights, it was Nixon who brought Nixon down. It was his personal failings -- his insular behavior and paranoid obsessions with security and conspiracies against him -- that did him in. He oversaw a criminal enterprise that was both feckless and completely unnecessary.
Clinton has already demonstrated similar propensities for self-inflicted wounding. Her coterie of loyal confidants, comments from the 1990s about "vast right wing conspiracies" and recent email server scandal are all very Nixonian. She certainly has the potential to eventually succumb to a tragedy of her own making in the classic Greek or Shakespearean manner.
Girard would note that the mimetic resemblance between Nixon and Clinton is uncanny and undeniable, but that it is also to be expected that there would be such mirror images as the parties often do their best to mirror each other. But future histories are not already written and, as the Fractal Lens tells us, are merely probabilistic and can never be certain.
From the perspective of the Prospecting Lens , as a would-be pundit, I would prefer to be known as a System 2 Fox than a System 1 Hedgehog.
Whether Clinton's story will ultimately end in triumph or tragedy likely depends slightly more upon herself than on her stars. With my sincere apologies to the Bard for that last reference.
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.