The ruling ideology of the Trump era, it seems, is not populism but catastrophism. Trump’s intellectual vanguard, though puny in number, makes up for it in hyperventilation.
When Michael Anton dubbed the 2016 presidential contest “the Flight 93 election,” in which conservatives had to “charge the cockpit” or die, Donald Trump’s supporters did not dismiss it as the poorly written, racially tinged, half-baked, over-caffeinated effusions of an adolescent intellect. Instead, they took it as reporting from the culture war’s front lines.
In the run-up to the 2018 midterms, Civil War analogies abounded. Robert Curry of the Claremont Institute, for one, found them lacking in urgency. A Democratic victory, he predicted, would transform America “perhaps even more radically” than a Democratic victory against Abraham Lincoln in 1864. So, an even bigger deal than the failure of the 13th Amendment?
Court philosopher Lou Dobbs has urged the president “to declare a national emergency, and simply sweep aside the recalcitrant left in this country.” Of what would such sweeping consist? Well, you can’t have a revolution without breaking a few eggheads.
The president of the United States himself argues that he is the victim of a plot by the “deep state” — a conspiracy he locates in any part of government that refuses to affirm and demonstrate loyalty to his person.
It is worth noting, first of all, that all these comparisons and conspiracies are utter rubbish — the work of people who monetize hysteria or benefit from ignorance and paranoia. The current investigations targeting the Trump administration are not partisan witch hunts. They are the natural result when a leader surrounds himself with crooks, cronies and con men. Trump’s inner circle — including, at various points, Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone — constitutes a sliminess hall of fame.
Nothing is more damaging to the Trump administration than the application of Occam’s razor. Those who employ full-time “fixers” generally have things to fix. Those who regard financial transparency as the violation of a legal “red line” generally have something they want to hide. Those who regularly hire hucksters are, well, you know.
Another problem with apocalyptic language is that the comparisons don’t allow for limits. If we are really facing a coup against the Constitution, then why not use the military to impose Dobbs’s conservative police state? If we are really involved in a civil war of good against evil, why not seek unconditional surrender of the enemy? If we are really facing a subversive and sinister deep state, why not use the Marines, or the Secret Service, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement to clean out the subversion?
The problem, of course, is that of all these comparisons are absurd, dangerous, inappropriate metaphors, used by adults who should know better. What we have in this country are serious political disagreements, which can be decided only through political means. We are not really on a hijacked plane, or in a bloody civil war, or dealing with a coup, or hunting witches, or facing the apocalypse.
If there is a danger that impressionable people might confuse vivid metaphors with reality, then there is one more risk that should be named. One of the easily led people consuming these deceptions sits in the Oval Office. Political commentators once speculated whether Henry Kissinger was manipulating President Richard M. Nixon. Now we are left to wonder whether Trump is unduly influenced by the cast of “Fox & Friends.” The president is a Fox News addict, who sometimes prefers the views of ideological balloon figures to the testimony of government experts. We saw this problem lead to the longest partial government shutdown in history. At another point, it threatened the updated Patriot Act. And Trump seems to believe, against all evidence, that the situation on the southern border is a national emergency.
It is a sad thing when a president manipulates the public. It is a sad and scary thing when the president is manipulated by people with a vested interest in cultivating crisis.
The worst danger of civil war or subversion comparisons is that Trump might actually believe them. And act on them.