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Last fall, current Deputy Assistant to the President Michael Anton set off a firestorm with a pro-Trump essay titled “The Flight 93 Election.” Anton argued that the election of Hillary Clinton was so threatening to America that she could be likened to the terrorists who took control of the doomed 9/11 Flight 93, intending to use her victory as a missile to destroy what remained of American republicanism. “Charge the cockpit”—elect Trump despite all his manifest deficiencies—“or die.”
The year since that essay has shown one thing above all: Anton was an optimist. Successfully charging the cockpit did not result in anything other than a ratcheting up of the decades-long war over America’s soul between a Left that finds America deficient and a Right that sees everything American government has done since 1912 as deficient. (That’s what attacks on “Progressives” mean). The result is the daily tribal war chants anyone politically aware sees and hears around them, a cacophony that has only led to louder, clearer, angrier chanting.
We did not just have the Flight 93 Election. We are at the beginning of the Flight 93 Decade.
“Well, that’s a cheery Christmas thought,” you might ironically say to yourself. But to quote the most infamous character from the world-famous, good versus evil movie franchise, whose latest installment (in its 40th year!) is launching this weekend, “search your feelings; you know this to be true!”
The Democratic Party has reacted to its stunning defeat with a one-word mantra: Resist. Driven by the mania of its left wing, Democrats are embracing a strategy of pure opposition with an admixture of calumny thrown in for good measure. Their cause is so pure, the evil of Trump so manifest, they contend, that anyone who might disagree with them or even seek a broader anti-Trump coalition (think Bill Kristol) is no better than Trump himself. Those who have condemned McCarthyism are now repeating its central flaws, exaggerating the evil that does exist, and throwing genuinely innocent people into the fire in the pursuit of purging anyone associated with their foe.
Which leaves the Republicans, who have reacted to Trump’s unexpected victory in two diametrically opposed ways. The establishment Republicans have moved heaven and earth to co-opt the White House, stacking its appointments with their allies and presenting the president with barely warmed-over versions of the policies they have advanced for decades. The tax cut bill they are on the verge of passing, for example, violates almost all of Trump’s promises, doing little to nothing for working-class and middle-class taxpayers and in exchange vastly reducing taxation of capital in almost every form it takes. This isn’t Trumpian concern for the middle class: this is Romneyism unmodified.
Oppose the Left—Then What?
The Trump voting base, meanwhile, is reacting by doubling down on its vitriolic opposition to the Left. How else to explain Roy Moore, who has taken on all factions of the GOP and the entire force of the Left with a worldview that can only charitably be called antebellum? Forget the allegations of sexual misconduct, as disqualifying as they might have been in a less charged era. This is a man who agrees with radio hosts that every amendment after the 10th is problematic, who says that America was better when families were stronger even if there was slavery, and who takes Vladimir Putin’s opposition to homosexuality as a sign that maybe he and Putin have more in common than he thought. Whatever he may actually mean by these things, there was a time when his rhetoric alone would have pushed him out. But such are our times that so long as he is opposed to the Left, he commands the allegiance of the Right.
One might think I’m exaggerating. But how else to explain the data I just saw from a national poll from the Public Research and Religion Institute? In their recent American Values Survey, 54 percent of Democrats say Republican policies “are so misguided that they pose a threat to the country.” Republicans believe the same about the Democrats: 52 percent of Republicans say Democratic policies pose a threat to the country, too.
America has faced a moment like this before, and it wasn’t pretty. The 1860 election had four parties running, but it was effectively a two-party race: A Northern party and a Southern party. In each, a candidate represented a viewpoint that effectively said the other side’s priority was so misguided that continuing it posed a threat to the country. Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans, which viewed the spread of slavery as unacceptable, won the Northern primary with Stephen Douglas’ Democrats by winning every free state but one. John Breckenridge’s Southern Democrats, who viewed the spread of slavery as essential to the maintenance of that peculiar institution, won the Southern primary by carrying eleven of the fifteen slave states. The Civil War followed.
More Conflict Ahead
America is not on the verge of a shooting civil war, but the Flight 93 Decade will see a protracted democratic civil war between two sides who command political majorities in our two major parties, which thus effectively makes every election a battle to the death between two mutually antagonistic adversaries. In a shooting war, one side wins and subjects the other to its rule without the defeated side’s consent. That is how the dispute that led to the Civil War was ended. But since that cannot by definition happen in a political contest, the prospects for escalated political conflict remain incredibly high.
Each side already sees this and worries that, the exigencies of war being the operative framework, the other side will start to suppress their ability to speak and organize. The right points to the episodes on college campuses where conservative speakers are protested, sometimes violently. The Left points to Trump’s regular blasts against the press and wonders if their freedom to criticize will soon come under legal assault. Neither side is wholly right about their wildest charges, but neither are both sides wholly wrong. If the political adversary is really a mortal foe, then it begins to be clear that normal tolerance of opposing viewpoints becomes a weakness rather than a strength.
And this is why Anton’s essay was optimistic. The Flight 93 Election assumes that once the cockpit is seized it will remain in control of the party who seized it. In fact, we are the passengers in a plane where the cockpit is under constant assault and moving from one side to the other with such rapidity that the plane itself is being turned and shaken, leaving the passengers increasingly nauseous and unable to leave their seats from the terror. The only way to right the plane and stop the terror is to stop the conflict, and that cannot happen in a democratic system when normal democratic rights—the ability to contest control of the cockpit—are maintained.
I am not arguing one side should impose their will, only that it is logical that one side could. I am mindful of Thucydides’ famous description of internecine civil conflict in the Greek city-states during the Peloponnesian War. Then, the battle between democratic friends of Athens and oligarchic friends of Sparta meant “reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any.” This continued dog-eat-dog conflict destroyed the cities afflicted and “the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two, either for not joining in the quarrel, or because envy would not suffer them to escape.”
A Middle Way to a Majority
Fact is, democratic politics offers us a way out of Thucydides’ hell, a way to stop the Flight 93 Decade from ever happening. That involves how the two sides in this interminable conflict deal with the moderate members of the American polity, and with how the moderate members view one another.
If one side was to craft an approach to the conflict that reaches out to the moderate members of the other party, the 40 percent or more of each group who in the words of the PRRI survey either think the other side’s ideas are “misguided but not dangerous” or “are moving the country in the right direction,” then one side can gain the upper hand in the battle for the cockpit. Having a less extreme argument would help to lessen the other side’s hatred while simultaneously adding numbers to one side’s cause.
To borrow from Thucydides again, both “justice” (having the better argument) and “necessity” (the fact that continuing the old debate will mean one side inevitably loses again and again) would move America back towards a normal politics.
Failing that, the moderate citizens could take matters into their own hands and form their own party. Forty percent of each party combined translates into 40 percent of the electorate, enough if unified to beat both extremes under our first-past-the-post voting system. This could not be done in the Civil War-era because the combat was inherently sectional: uniting Northern and Southern moderates would not have changed anything. But our current two-party system is merely convention: it can be changed at any time by people if they believe changing it advances their interests. That’s what French President Emmanuel Macron did earlier this year, combining centrists with moderates from the left and right to form a new party that swept to power against the two extremes.
I know this might leave many readers cold. This moderation might be thought to be “a cloak for unmanliness.” But let’s think through the alternatives before we decide.
If the Left wins with an unmodified agenda, surely it will seek to finish the work the incomplete post-Civil War Reconstruction failed to accomplish. A transformative Left would surely use federal regulation, law, and tax preferences, backed by force if necessary, to weaken and thereby transform the institutions that undergird resistance to its policies: churches, the military, businesses, and elements of the media. The yoke of that Reconstruction would, in turn, lead to more “forceful” reaction, which in turn would lead to more “forceful” impositions. Surely that is not an America in which we want to live.
But the same is true of the Right. Would a victorious and unmodified Right be satisfied with universities, media, and entertainment largely under the control of its foes? Would not some form of regulation and control be in the offing, often under the guise of “fairness” or “balance”? Would that be an America we want to live in?
And why would the states controlled by the Left stand for this? The states backing the Democrats are now largely contiguous, wealthy, and on the coasts. In an age where regional discontent leads to calls for secession in Catalonia, Scotland, and elsewhere, why should California and New York consent to be ruled by people from the Heartland whom many consider to be yokels? And would the rest of America really want to fight to keep the Silicon Valley and Manhattan within our country by force? Or would they tell the people whom many view as un-American tormentors not to let the door hit their behinds as they leave? Would you really want to live in a divided America?
Toward a New Americanism
American citizenship is ultimately based on shared ideals. If we no longer have those and cannot find those, then our only choices are secession or subjugation of one half of the nation by the other. But that cannot be what our deepest longings are for; it cannot be what patriots died at Lexington to build or soldiers gave the last measures of their devotion on countless battlefields around the world to establish.
For me, I am what Mike Pence told the Republican convention he is: a conservative, a Republican, and a Christian. But I would add another item that, in a political sense, precedes all of those: I am an American. I hope as we approach a season that unites the eternal fight for liberty (Hannukah) with the promise of universal brotherly love (Christmas), that you, dear reader, can make the same statement for yourself. And with that declaration of those few simple words, “I am an American,” we can begin to take back our country from the frightful horror of a Flight 93 Decade.
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