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Letter from Washington: The perils of Flight 93 democracy

When politics is all-out war, everyone’s a loser

Four years ago, the closest thing to the thinking man’s case for Donald Trump came from Michael Anton, who famously characterised the 2016 race as “The Flight 93 Election” in a website-crashing essay for the Claremont Review of Books: “Charge the cockpit or you die. You might die anyway. You — or the leader of your party — may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.”

Hillary Clinton and the liberal establishment she represented had hijacked the country. Conservatives needed to do whatever it took — including voting for Trump — to wrestle back the controls.

Notwithstanding the poor taste in Anton’s choice of metaphor (today, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump will commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 with a visit to the site where United Flight 93 crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside), it never struck me as especially apt. Where is the self-sacrifice in Anton’s crass framing? What is the Flight 93 comparison other than a lurid repackaging of your willingness to ignore your preferred candidate’s shortcomings as something more heroic?

Tellingly, Anton wrote his lurid cri de coeur under a pseudonym — Publius Decius Mus (he does not wear his learning lightly) — only revealing his identity after Trump won. In 2017 he was awarded a job in the White House, which he left the following year.

This month Anton has released another pre-election warning, this time in book form: The Stakes: America At The Point Of No Return, in which he once more argues that the US is one vote away from the end. Never mind that Trump won four years ago, the cockpit needs to be stormed all over again!

In two respects, Anton is no longer the outlier he once was. First, there are many more pro-Trump conservative intellectuals today than there were four years ago. Second, his Flight 93 logic, however misguided, now forms the heart of the Trump campaign’s argument to the country: without a second Trump term, America as we know it will cease to exist.

The left is no less hyperbolic. On liberal cable news networks and the opinion pages of the New York Times it is increasingly taken as given that American democracy will more or less be over if Trump is re-elected.

The (absurd, mildly insulting) idea that that this year’s vote is the most important in America’s history was maybe the only thing keynote speakers at last month’s Democratic and Republican conventions could agree on. It’s not just another Flight 93 election; America now functions as a Flight 93 democracy.

This is not, however, one of those nihilistic columns that argues they’re all as bad as each other. There is a very significant choice to be made by US voters in November, and I don’t think it’s a difficult one.

This week’s revelations, courtesy of Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame), regarding Trump’s handling of the coronavirus and the dysfunction in the White House add detail to an already fairly complete picture of a man unfit for the job he was elected to do. Because of the embarrassing incompetence, the petty corruption, the moronic public statements or the tendency to exacerbate rather than resolve civil strife, Trump is a bad president. And bad presidents do lasting damage. It’s generally not a good idea to give them a second term.

But can American democracy survive four more years of Trump? It has certainly dealt with worse in the past.

That’s why, when I worry about November, it’s how America decides, not what it decides, that keeps me up at night.

Much has been made of whether or not Trump will accept the result in the event of a Biden victory. The challenge of getting from November to January in the case of a Democratic win that is less than emphatic is certainly daunting. But what if Trump prevails?

Hillary Clinton says there are no circumstances under which Biden should concede defeat on election night. For swathes of the left, the electoral college is nothing more than an instrument of white supremacy. If the Democratic candidate wins the popular vote but loses the electoral college for the second time in eight years, the politician who says “Admit it, we lost” won’t be doing much for his or her standing in the party.

All of this is why I hope Biden doesn’t just win, but wins big, rendering the question of how the left would have handled a second Trump term academic and leaving as little room as possible for Trump to undermine faith in the process as the mail-in votes are counted.

But even after such a result, will the warnings each party issues about what the other side will do with power become any less apocalyptic? As both Anton’s new book and the official line of the Trump campaign against Biden suggest, the American right will yell “socialism!” regardless of who the Democrats choose as their candidate. More thoughtful left-wingers surely regret the way in which they cried wolf about Republicans like Mitt Romney, who they now hold up as heroes of the anti-Trump resistance. Even so, I doubt they will be much more restrained when it comes to attacking Trump’s successor.

Trump or no Trump, the infrastructure of American civil society is now set up for all-out war all the time. In such circumstances, the ends will always justify the means. Or, to indulge in Anton’s Flight 93 analogy, there is no such thing as a qualified, trustworthy pilot. Instead, the hijackers and the hijacked just switch roles every four or eight years. Whoever is in the cockpit, the plane continues to lose altitude.

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