Roy Moore, Donald Trump, and the Flight 93 Presidency
So many of the major ongoing fights among those opposed to Donald Trump concern how best to adjust to norms being breached and rules being broken. Do you shift your own code of conduct in response, or do you uphold the old standards, even if it allows the enemy to take advantage of you? The latest flare-up has concerned the resignation of Al Franken, even as Republicans prepare to welcome Roy Moore, but the dispute never goes away. Whether people go with side one or two depends heavily on their perception of the threat level. If you think we’re in a crisis—an emergency—then you’re likelier to throw off old restraints. You fight dirtier. This, in turn, prompts the other side to outdo you. It’s where crisis thinking leads.
The rise of Trump gave rise to a lot of essays, but few are likelier to make it into history books than the one entitled “The Flight 93 Election,” published by the Claremont Review of Books under the pen name Publius Decius Mus, later revealed to be conservative writer—and now Trump administration employee—Michael Anton. Using the arresting imagery of United Airlines Flight 93, on which passengers banded together to charge the cockpit of a plane they knew would be used as a missile, Decius argued that the United States was on a fatal course and that the only hope for conservatives was to take a crazy risk, in the form of Donald Trump, in order to right it. Otherwise, the hegemony of liberalism would extinguish any hope of preserving the United States as we’d known it. Again, this was decision-making through the prism of crisis.
After Trump was elected, Flight-93-style thinking arguably gained momentum, becoming just as pronounced among Trump’s enemies as among his supporters. Comedian Sarah Silverman, a prominent speaker at the Democratic National Convention, seemed to yearn for a coup, tweeting that “ONCE THE MILITARY IS W US FASCISTS GET OVERTHROWN.” Among calmer voices, talk of impeachment and the “palace-coup” 25th Amendment (which New York Times columnist Ross Douthat called to be unleashed) still bubbled up regularly. Recently, Brookings fellow and legal journalist Benjamin Wittes fired off a widely circulated tweet storm that called for Democrats and Republicans to preserve the status quo in every possible area of policy while countering the “national emergency” of Donald Trump.
The assumption of crisis leads to emergency measures and a wartime mentality, particularly obviously on the extremes, but sweeping up more and more people in the middle. Break the rules if you must, and burn things to save them. Elections and appointments, fraught enough already, become life-or-death affairs. Better to risk crashing with our guy, said Trump supporters, rather than accept certain death with the other candidate. Better to support a teen-stalking kook, goes the argument of Roy Moore’s supporters, rather than accept the destruction of your way of life in the hands of Doug Jones. It’s doubtful that Democrats, faced with a similar dilemma, would perform much better these days. (Liberals could afford to renounce Al Franken, because he’ll be succeeded by another Democrat. But imagine if his replacement were someone with the politics of Ted Cruz.)
What made Decius’s essay effective was that it wasn’t crazy, provided that you accepted the premise. For immigration restrictionists, the temptation of Trump was especially high, not unlike the urgency felt by climate-change activists over tipping points, with a choice between getting control of the border and losing it for good. Similarly, what made Wittes’s tweets gain the notice they did was a similar rationality, provided that you accepted the premise. “National emergency” seems apt to Trump’s foes, who see the president smashing delicate governmental and societal institutions right and left, like a golden retriever playing fetch in a room full of stemware.
But were—are—such premises sound? Start with Decius’s argument. On immigration, the Gang of Eight bill had failed, and most Republicans had learned a lesson. Even if Hillary Clinton had been elected, she wouldn’t have been able to revive it. As for the alarm of Wittes, Trump may be appalling, but Congress is still independent-minded and truculent. The rule of law remains in place, ensnaring Trump himself. And our press, despite nonstop insults from the White House, seems abundantly free—not to mention energized. (People seem to forget that the Nation was warning in 2005 of Bush’s “unprecedented” manipulation and “war on the press,” or that New York Times reporter James Risen once called the Obama White House the “greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”)
A sense of crisis can become the crisis. History has seen countless episodes of Flight-93-style thinking in governance, and almost all are cautionary tales. When Argentina was racked by left-wing terrorism in the 1970s, a group of military leaders felt obliged to restore order by throwing out the rules and suppressing the rebels extrajudicially, “disappearing” over 10,000 people and leaving the country’s institutions in shambles. It’s possible that failing to take such measures would have allowed the country to fall into totalitarian communism, but it’s certain that taking them caused a prosperous nation to descend into a darkness from which it has yet to emerge fully.
We’re still far from such extremes, but the destroy-the-town-to-save-it mindset has fed on itself. It’s what gave us Trump. It’s what causes people to stick with Roy Moore even if he’s a cretin. It’s what leads intelligence agents to blow the cover on sources and methods just to embarrass Trump with leaks. It’s what leads journalists to get ever closer to blurring the line between writing and outright advocacy.
The heroes on Flight 93 knew what was in store if they didn’t take action; we don’t have such knowledge. Just because conservatives failed to reject Decius’s premises doesn’t mean that liberals are better off countering it with their own Flight 93 approach to policy. No one wants to play the sap, stubbornly sticking to rules when everyone else is getting ahead by breaking them. But unless things get a lot worse, our deliverance won’t come from twisting our morals, habits, and institutions. It will come from upholding them. So that after Trump we’ll have something to go back to.
via Vanity Fair http://bit.ly/2xvuIXg
December 10, 2017 at 03:27PM