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Five awkward ways the 2016 U.S. election was not like 'Les Miserables'

By Pieta Woolley

The word, “revolution,” certainly hung in the air as businessman and former reality TV star Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton competed for the presidency. For many of us, it’s the stuff of history books, such as the 1776 American Revolution. Or news in a faraway place, such as the Arab Spring. Revolutions, in Canada and much of the Western world, are not experienced up-close and personal generally speaking. Instead, they are experienced in a much-adored, fictionalized way – in our obsession with Les Miserables, for instance. The 1862 book by Victor Hugo was first interpreted as a musical in 1980. It has run continuously in London since 1985 – the second longest-running stage musical ever – and, in 2012, was made into a movie starring Hugh Jackman (yes, Wolverine!).

Indeed, watching from the sidelines, Canadians may have viewed the U.S. election as an epic musical, complete with dramatic twists and bizarre characters. Still, the narrative was not nearly as tidy.

Here are five awkward ways the 2016 U.S. election was not like Les Miserables.

1. Revolting revolutionaries

Imagine Les Miz re-written, with the gauche innkeepers in the role of the idealistic revolutionaries. Trumps gaudy casinos equals the Thenardier’s pub.

In Les Miz, the revolution is led by a group of attractive, philosophical, socialist university students — the radical sons of wealthy aristocrats fighting on behalf of the poor. In the U.S. election, the revolutionaries are often rowdy, working-class Americans lashing out against elitism, including progressive values, such as immigration and religious equality.

Trumpians, to the barricades!

2. The modern Javert is not stalwart

In both Les Miz and this year’s U.S. election, the dramatic tension relies on law-enforcers. In the former, Inspector Javert ruthlessly pursues parole-breaker Jean Val Jean. In the later, FBI head James Comey is responsible for evaluating Clinton’s email debacle.

Both men faltered in their duties: Javert’s inability to shoot Val Jean when he had the chance and Comey’s much-public, much-criticized Oct. 28 letter. But while Javert’s decision to be merciful revealed his humanity, Comey’s actions seemed trite and manipulative. 

3. No epic Catholicism here

Sin! Redemption! Innocence! Mercy! Love! Faith! Transformation! Justice! Hugo’s carefully crafted and complex morality tale is designed to reveal deeply Christian themes in nuanced circumstances. Think of the ever-criminal Val Jean’s rescue of the wronged prostitute, Fantine, and her daughter, Cossette. ‘Who are the sinners?’ Hugo asks. ‘Who are the faithful?’

In contrast, what great Christian themes are revealed while watching the 2016 presidential campaigns? Revulsion? Embarassment? Fear? Blame? Ire?

Hopefully, whoever turns this year's U.S. election into a stage musical 200 years hence will view things in hindsight that we don’t see at present.

4. Wider repercussions

The June Rebellion had very little impact beyond the streets of Paris. POTUS, on the other hand, is still the Master of the Universe. 

5. Revolution confusion (Alright, here’s the exception.).

Often, viewers mistake the revolution in Les Miz for the French Revolution. It is not. Instead, it was the 1832 June Rebellion, an anti-monarchist revolt and one of the aftershocks of nearly a century of French civil unrest. Mass waves of disease, crop failure, a workers uprising in Lyon – all of these were precursors to the events of 1832.

Although the rage that fueled the U.S. election seemed to have caught observers off-guard, perhaps historians will see it — and the events that follow — as part of a larger era of civil unrest, too.

Did it start with the 2015 reaction to police brutality, including Black Lives Matter, or the 2008 financial collapse that crushed the working poor? Perhaps it was the 1999 anti-globalization riots in Seattle or even the 1960s social revolutions?

6. Who won?

In Les Miz, the Paris Uprising of 1832 ends in blood, leaving the young revolutionaries dead, draped in flags over the barricades. They lost. Surveying the site of the defeat, Marius sings:

Here they talked of revolution
Here it was they lit the flame
Here they dreamed about tomorrow
But tomorrow never came

In the U.S. election, the revolutionaries voted. They elected Trump, with a minimum of bloodshed, and Clinton has promised a peaceful transition of power. After his victory speech on Nov. 8, Trump's staffers pumped the Rolling Stones into the rally.

You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, youll find
You get what you need

Is a Trump presidency not what America wants, but what it needs? Stay tuned.

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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