The Disease of Delegitimization


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I’ve mostly stayed off Twitter these past few days. But even so, it's been impossible to avoid sensing that the rhetorical temperature has shot up by several degrees. All the incessant framing of Trump-as-fascist throughout the past four years, and especially leading up to the election, has now given way to ominous talk of looming coups. It’s gotten so bad that people who really ought to know better are reading preparations for a putsch into Trump's firing of his Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

To be clear, I am quite worried at the turn of events this past week. The last thing I want to do is to downplay just how toxic, dangerous, and reckless Donald Trump’s insistence that he didn’t lose has been. That said, all this coup talk not only obscures the true nature of where things are heading, it is itself a symptom of our sad situation, and in no small part contributes to the general degradation of our democracy.

Let me explain.

A little over two years ago, I wrote an article titled “The Problem of Donald Trump Didn’t Start with Donald Trump”. In it, I started to outline the idea that Trump is both a symptom and an accelerant of a trend that started as the Cold War ended. To put a tidy date on it, I chose August 17, 1992, the day Patrick Buchanan delivered his famous “Culture War” speech at the Republican National Convention. Nut graf from said speech:

My friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe, and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.

Clinton was, of course, elected, and soon became the embodiment of the internal enemy that Buchanan was describing. Interminable investigations followed, and somehow, six years later, voters found themselves transfixed by the spectacle of a sitting U.S. president wagging his finger at them while denying "having sexual relations" with his young intern. Clinton survived impeachment and left office a relatively popular president only for his party to endure the ignominy of a cliffhanger loss to George W. Bush abetted by a controversial Supreme Court decision. The cloud of illegitimacy that subsequently hung around George W. Bush was nothing compared to the miasmas that descended on his successors. But already the logic of endless internal conflict so memorably sketched out by Buchanan had started to take hold on both sides.

That the birther conspiracy was most prominently pushed by Donald Trump is one of those perverse historical details that illustrates a much larger trend. And that Democrats and media elites ended up mirroring Trump’s tabloid derangements with their own overwrought conspiracy theory (Russiagate) is evidence that the disease is self-perpetuating—that we are now in the grasp of an ineluctable process that may be impossible to halt.

I was texting with my friend Nils Gilman as the outlines of the final results started to drift into focus last week. Like on the podcast and on Twitter in those heady days, I was very optimistic. All the right people had lost. Donald Trump had been defeated, but so had the activists on the Left who doubtless would have been emboldened had the Blue Wave materialized. Even the NeverTrumpers were chastened, as voters failed to repudiate the elements of Trumpism—skepticism to trade, immigration, and foreign entanglements—that will define his legacy as much as his incontinent mouth. With everyone having lost, I said to Nils, we have an opportunity, collectively, for a rethink. I expressed hope that we would seize it, though I admitted it’s quite possible that we would not.

As of right now, it looks like we will not have the chance after all.

Trump did not concede. By all accounts, Trump has no intention of ever publicly conceding. And he seems hell-bent on going down screaming the most unhinged conspiracy theory yet—that an election he handsomely lost in several states was somehow stolen from him. This is all plenty bad. But focusing solely on Trump is a mistake. Rather, it's Republicans' decision to play along, even if cautiously and cynically, that is really the worst news of all.

Let’s not waste time trying to figure out whether someone like Mitch McConnell really believes Trump has a legal leg to stand on or not. Let’s not even wonder how Cocaine Mitch is planning to shift from backing Trump to admitting defeat when faced with Trump’s loss being officially certified. Let’s focus instead on what his language of support for Trump’s conspiracy theory portends: On some level, McConnell plans to anchor his looming intransigence in the Senate not in legitimate opposition to sweeping Democratic policy demands, but rather in the suggestion that Biden is somehow politically illegitimate.

I’m not a pollster, and I don’t have any pollster friends. I don’t know how deeply Trump’s latest poisonous conspiracy has seeped into the Republican electorate. We can infer, however, that judiciously shoving Trump under the bus ahead of the Georgia run-off has been judged by Republican leaders to be too dangerous to contemplate. McConnell has therefore put a saddle on this tiger, and is preparing to ride off to battle. His battle-cry will be, at least in part, that Biden was not properly elected. Even if Mitch intends to disparage his opponents' policies, he has shown that he will not renounce the legitimacy canard. Indeed, he will end up relying on it to buck up his troops.

And this brings us back full circle: I worry that this foulness will be met with no small degree of mirroring on the other side. Outraged Dems and NeverTrumpers, especially in the media, will persist in their loose talk of fascism and fret about coups being readied. Part of that will be muscle memory honed throughout the fat Trump years, which were, after all, terrific for business. Part of it will be a genuinely-felt pragmatic justification: the threat from Trump is vast, they'll say, and motivating a response is our duty. And part of it will be laziness and vanity: instead of wondering why it is that their policy platform not only failed to flip the Senate but also completely shredded their majority in the House, these people will fixate on how evil the other side is—especially with Trump out of power but not out of sight. That last one is key. As Samuel Moyn recently noted, Trump has completely colonized his opponents' imaginations. The sole source of his strength is that he compels his enemies to mirror him, dragging them down into the kind of ugly fights at which he is peerless.

But wait a second, you might say. Doesn’t it matter that all this started with Pat Buchanan? Doesn’t it matter that Trump was a birther, and is now the fountainhead of an even more pernicious lie that is likely to befoul American politics for the foreseeable future? Isn’t it a fact that the Republican Party bears the bulk of the blame?

Well, so what if I agreed? Do you feel better now?

You shouldn’t, for two reasons. First, it doesn’t matter who is worse or who started it. We live in a democracy, and if roughly half the country really is “to blame” for something, we are all going to have to live with the consequences. If we want to remain a democracy, that is; you simply can't wish these people away. And second, your righteousness is not just useless, it’s as much an accelerant as Trump’s toxicity. Not only will you never out-Trump Trump, you feel so justified that you don't see how your attitude only deepens the divide and wrecks things more. Indeed, glib and moralizing invocations of fascism underscore just how badly people understand their history. All Germans undermined democracy in Weimar. There were no heroes. It's only after democracy was good and destroyed that Hitler was able to waltz in.

Luckily, Joe Biden does not appear to be falling into any of these traps. His transition planning is proceeding with the self-assurance that comes from knowing that Trump's conspiracy theory is especially poorly grounded in fact. He mocks and dismisses Trump's froth rather than dignifying it with breathless coup language. And in doing so, he is placing a bet on the common sense of the majority of American voters—on the belief that our system, while perhaps flawed, still works pretty well on balance. There are no calls to vigilance, no demonization. Just a calm claim to leadership.

I'd like to think it’s a smart bet, and that it will redound to Biden's benefit. But I say this as much out of hope as out of conviction that there is no alternative path that leads to good outcomes. What the #Resistance is trying to do, in any case, is dangerously counterproductive. Extremism in (the imagined) defense of democracy is no virtue.