Tearing up our civic institutions is a bad way to go politically, but it’s particularly ill-suited for opposing someone who, just for the sake of argument, may actually want to tear up our civic institutions. Robin Hanson urges Trump-panickers to “dial it back,” which I think in general is good advice.
Still it puts many progressives in the odd, awkward position of acting like conservatives: It forces them to insist on the proper channels and forms whereby power is exercised in ordinary political life. I don’t expect progressives to be credible here, or be good at it, or to keep perspective. What follows are some notes on how to keep perspective anyway, in light of the fact that we don’t actually know what we’re headed for.
Which scenarios are we likely to get? Which ones would be cause for “panic,” and which would not? And what would that mean? Let’s start with the worst and least likely.
If Trump is on track to be Hitler – which I have certainly heard – then the next items on the agenda will be a Night of the Long Knives – political extrajudicial killings of opponents within and outside the party – and then Gleichschaltung – the wholesale, forcible subversion of the institutions of civil society.
I have to say: That really, really doesn’t feel like where we’re headed. It just doesn’t.
Of course, either of these steps would be reason to panic. If there were political extrajudicial killings, or if the freedoms of the press and of private civic association were directly attacked, then we should all rise up in bloody revolution. At that point we have nothing left to lose.
That’s interesting, but it’s not interesting because it’s likely. It’s interesting because it fuels a lot of political agitation despite its being wildly improbable.
And not just on the left: Those who listen to the extreme right inevitably hear that the left has already done exactly this stuff. Conspiracy theorists already believe that the Clintons are happy to murder any and all who get in their way, starting with Vince Foster and running all the way to Seth Rich. And even the mainstream right wing believes in a kind of Gleichschaltung, in which leftists came to predominate in the academy, pop culture, and the bureaucratic elite of Washington.
In this they are not completely wrong. The left really does dominate in those places. And although it hardly happened through state violence, it seems silly to quibble about this with someone who also believes that the Clintons just bump off anyone who happens to displease them.
Anyway. Key here is that some share of the political right believes that we already live in the nightmare. For them, both sides doing it wouldn’t be a radical departure. A lot more could be said about the left-right disconnect here, but for the moment the key fact is that it makes the nightmare a whole lot easier to realize.
The very worst sorts on both sides of the political spectrum have a strong interest in making the present look exactly like 1933. Everyone else ought to deny them the pleasure. We should seek to disappoint rather than validate an individual like Richard Spencer, just for example:
By the time Richard B. Spencer, the leading ideologue of the alt-right movement and the final speaker of the night, rose to address a gathering of his followers on Saturday, the crowd was restless…
He railed against Jews and, with a smile, quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German. America, he said, belonged to white people, whom he called the “children of the sun,” a race of conquerors and creators who had been marginalized but now, in the era of President-elect Donald J. Trump, were “awakening to their own identity.”
As he finished, several audience members had their arms outstretched in a Nazi salute. When Mr. Spencer, or perhaps another person standing near him at the front of the room — it was not clear who — shouted, “Heil the people! Heil victory,” the room shouted it back.
“Heil victory” is just “Sieg heil” translated for American consumption, but you probably knew that already.
Let’s circle back around, though, because I don’t believe that this is the path we’re taking. Spencer is as capable of misreading the signals as anyone else – more, probably, because he would appear to hold sincerely some very silly beliefs that the Nazis cooked up about themselves – the children of the sun legend &ndah; except that Spencer thinks they apply to white Americans, whatever that means, and not Germans. This simply has to do a number on one’s foresight.
So the risks that this is the path we’re on may have gone up, but if so they’ve gone up from essentially nil to essentially nil times two, if that. Let’s consider more realistic scenarios, because many otherwise unmitigated disasters fall short of literally electing Hitler. Too much Hitler talk makes us not pay attention to the rest, and the rest can be plenty bad.
What would be the appropriate response, for example, to someone who governs like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and who engages in the mass internment of first- and second-generation Americans whose ethnicity he considers suspect?
What would be the appropriate response to someone who brings back waterboarding, and who adds “much worse,” as Trump has promised to do?
What would be the appropriate response to someone who governs like Silvio Berlusconi? That is, someone who is overtly venal, frequently embarrassing, and apparently interested chiefly in enriching his own business?
None of these things requires Night of the Long Knives or a Gleichschaltung. All of them have happened, either here or elsewhere. All have been causes of enduring national shame. I’ve listed them in what I think is an ascending order of probability; none are mutually exclusive. I would bet on the last two, but not yet on the first. All would be catastrophes as far as I’m concerned.
How much worry, exactly, should I have about these other, vastly more plausible scenarios? How much am I supposed to be comforted by the idea that panicking isn’t yet in order, and that it might not be in order at all?