On September 5, 2016, the Claremont Review of Books published online Michael Anton's essay "The Flight 93 Election," which began this way:
"2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may 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."
"Except one: if you don't try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances" (61).Two days later, on September 7, Rush Limbaugh began reading "The Flight 93 Election" in its entirety on the air. The website for the Claremont Review of Books crashed from the flood of people trying to access the article. Anton has said that many people have told him that his article persuaded them to vote for Trump. At the very least, this signified that the Claremont Institute had decided to support Trump, and so most of the "West Coast Straussians" would be Trumpets. Anton has served for a time as a national security official in the Trump Administration.
"Charge the cockpit or you die." Was Anton right about that? Is it true that the election of Hillary Clinton would have meant that "death is certain"? Death of whom or what? Has Donald Trump's presidency saved us or saved America from death? If so, how so? And if Trump has saved us from death, does that mean that we will still die if he is defeated in 2020? If that is so, does that mean that we should hope that he will refuse to step down if he loses the next election, because if a Democrat becomes President, "death is certain"? Or does Anton's claim that the Democratic Party poses an existential threat to America manifest a dangerously apocalyptic rhetoric that could support Trumpian demagogic authoritarianism?
The publication this year of Anton's After the Flight 93 Election: The Vote that Saved America and What We Still Have to Lose (Encounter Books) helps us to think about those questions. This book reprints Anton's original article and some new writing defending the article. His "Pre-Statement on Flight 93" (23-59) provides his Aristotelian philosophic account of how the "American Solution" can be rooted in both the universality of human nature and the particularity of the American nation. Also helpful is Anton's online essay "Toward a Sensible, Coherent Trumpism," which was originally published by the online Journal of American Greatness, and his essay "Will the Real Authoritarian Please Stand Up?" published in the Claremont Review of Books (summer 2018).
A good profile of Anton was published two years ago in Vanity Fair, with the title "Machiavelli in the White House: Is This the Most Powerful Man in Trump's Administration?" Anton became the senior communications director for Trump's National Security Council under Michael Flynn and then H. R. McMaster. He was forced to leave in the spring of 2018 when John Bolton took McMaster's place as national security adviser. Now Anton is based in Washington, DC, and he has an affiliation with Hillsdale College.
Death of whom or what? I assume that Anton was not suggesting that Clinton was leading a terrorist gang trying to kill as many Americans as possible. So what was her death threat? Anton wrote: "The Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes. And how does one deal with a Nazi--that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don't compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him" (69).
Anton's claim seems to be that the two political parties are in a deadly war, because each side believes that the other side will use electoral victory to "crush" the losers. Anton spoke of "the Left's all-consuming drive for absolute power, its hostility to all American and Western norms--constitutional, moral, prudential--and its boundless destructive enmity" (11). Anton warned that "the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally America with every cycle" (70-71). He observed: "This is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die. Trump, alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end the insanity" (72).
If Hillary wins, Anton explained, "the country will go on, but it will not be a constitutional republic. It will be a blue state on a national scale. Only one party will really matter. A Republican may win now and again--once in a generation, perhaps--but only a neutered one who has 'updated' all his positions so as to be more in tune with the new electorate" (93).
On the one side of this war to the death, Trump fights for the true Americans, the middle-class Americans, who are not Third World immigrants or urban poor minorities or cosmopolitan elites, and these Trump voters support constitutional republicanism. On the other side, Hillary and the Democrats represent "half the country and all our elites" (21), who wish to overturn the constitutional republic and replace it with one-party rule with absolute power to rule over the country. Actually, "half the country" is a majority of the voters, because as Anton indicates, the Republicans have lost the popular vote for the presidency in every election since 1988 except for 2004; and in 2004, Bush won with only 50.7 percent (69-70). And, of course, Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary in 2016; and he lost again in the mid-term congressional elections in 2018. Moreover, as increasing immigration from the Third World adds to the anti-American electorate for the Democratic Party, the Republican Party will almost never win the popular vote in the future.
Anton employs a populist rhetoric that presents a Manichaean war between good and evil--the virtuous People versus the evil Elites. This becomes complicated, however, as soon as one notices that some of the People are evil, because they vote for the evil Elites, and some of the Elites are virtuous (like Trump and Anton) because they lead the virtuous People against the evil Elites. Furthermore, the virtuous People are a minority of the voters, and so they will often lose any contest based on simple majority rule. Anton worries that the electorate for the Democrats is growing so fast that they might have an overwhelming permanent majority by 2020.
If Trump loses the election in 2020, then what? Since Anton supports constitutional government, one might expect that he would say that the Constitution requires Trump to step down. But if Anton is right about his claim that a government controlled by the Democrats would destroy constitutional republicanism, establish absolute one-party rule, crush all of their opponents, and set up an anti-American government, wouldn't he have to hope that Trump would declare a state of emergency in response to a "rigged election," and rule by executive decree in punishing the "enemies of the people"? Doesn't this follow logically from Anton's argument? If a Democrat winning the presidency means "death is certain" for Republicans and for the true America they love, shouldn't Republicans "charge the cockpit" and allow Trump to pilot the plane for life, regardless of whether he has lost an election? This would confirm the fear felt by many of Trump's critics that he is a populist authoritarian.
The scholarly critics of Trump have argued that his populist propensity to authoritarianism confirms the fear of demagoguery expressed by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist. "History will teach us," Hamilton warned, "that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants" (no. 1). Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (in How Democracies Die ) quotes this as showing that the American founders saw the need for "gatekeepers" to filter out candidates for the presidency who could become dangerous demagogues. Originally, the Electoral College was to perform this gatekeeping function: as Hamilton said in Federalist number 68, "the office of president will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications," because men with "talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity" would be filtered out.
The rise of the two-party system in the early 1800s changed the way the Electoral College worked, because each state legislature began to elect delegates to the Electoral College who were loyal to their party. Thus, the parties took over the gatekeeping function. It was then up to party leaders to choose candidates for the presidency who would be popular, while keeping out demagogues. At first, presidential candidates were chosen by caucuses of congressmen in Washington. Then, beginning in the 1830s, candidates were nominated in national party conventions with delegates chosen by state and local party committees.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Progressives denounced the convention system as undemocratic, and they introduced presidential primaries in some states as a more democratic way to select presidential candidates without gatekeeping by party leaders. But many states did not have primaries, and elected delegates were not required to support the candidates who won the primaries. So party insiders continued to act as gatekeepers who filtered out extremist demagogues.
For example, Henry Ford was one of the richest and most famous men in the world, and he used his wealth and his celebrity to advance his extremist views--such as campaigning against Jewish banking interests--and possibly running for the presidency in 1924 as a Democrat or a Republican. In the summer of 1923, national polls conducted by Collier's showed Ford to be the most popular candidate. But party leaders ruled him out. Senator James Couzens said his candidacy was "most ridiculous"--"how can a man over sixty years old, who . . . has no training, no experience, aspire to such an office?"
Party gatekeeping in selecting presidential nominees continued up to 1968, when Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic Party's nomination without competing in the presidential primaries. But the violent protests against Humphrey at the Democratic Convention in Chicago provoked a demand for a more democratic procedure for nominating presidential candidates. Under the influence of the Democratic Party's McGovern-Fraser Commission, both parties adopted a system of binding presidential primaries beginning in 1972, which was intended to fulfill the original plan of the Progressives for primaries as a purely democratic procedure that would circumvent party gatekeepers. Political scientists Nelson Polsby and Aaron Wildavsky warned that primaries could "lead to the appearance of extremist candidates and demagogues," who "have little to lose by stirring up mass hatreds or making absurd promises."
Some outsiders were able to run in the presidential primaries--such as Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, Pat Robertson in 1988, Pat Buchanan in 1992, 1996, and 2000, and Steve Forbes in 1996. But they all lost. Winning a majority of delegates in primaries all over the country required first winning the support of party elites, which was called by Arthur Hadley in 1976 the "invisible primary," which preserved a form of gatekeeping.
In 2015 and 2016, Trump broke through the invisible primary by using his wealth, his celebrity, and his bombastic rhetoric to win primaries without the support of the party establishment. The gatekeepers failed to stop him, and a demagogue was nominated and then elected president.
Levitsky and Ziblatt tell this story to show that the American founders were right about the need for gatekeeping to keep demagogues out of the presidency. Oddly, in his review of their book, Anton says nothing about this ("The Real Authoritarian"). But in his support of Trump, Anton implicitly rejects the founders' position and embraces the Progressives' argument that presidential primaries and elections should allow the most popular candidate to win, because gatekeeping to filter out demagogues is undemocratic.
The problem, however, as Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, is that democratically elected demagogues can easily become authoritarian leaders who overturn democracy itself. In recent history, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, and Viktor Orban in Hungary have all begun as democratically elected leaders who became authoritarians suppressing democratic norms.
Levitsky and Ziblatt see four key indicators of authoritarian behavior: (1) rejection of democratic rules of the game, (2) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, (3) toleration or encouragement of violence, and (4) readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. They see Trump as showing all four indicators of authoritarianism. He has questioned the legitimacy of the electoral process by claiming that millions of votes were cast illegally for Clinton in 2016. He has denied the legitimacy of his political opponents by saying that they are criminals, unpatriotic, and anti-American. He has tolerated or encouraged violence against those who lead protests against him. He has threatened to curtail the civil liberties of his opponents by suggesting that libel or defamation laws should restrict criticism from his political opponents or from the news media.
Levitsky and Ziblatt concede, however, that on all four points, "the president has talked more than he has acted, and his most notorious threats have not be realized," and therefore, "we did not cross the line into authoritarianism" in the first year of Trump's term (187). But that's just the point, Anton insists: "Trump has said some ill-advised things," but "he hasn't acted on any of it" ("Real Authoritarian," 9).
And yet Anton does not respond to the point made by Levitsky and Ziblatt that some elected demagogues who became authoritarian--like Fujimori, Erdogan, and Orban--did not show their authoritarianism during the first year or two after they were elected. They moved gradually in that direction. So the question is whether Trump shows an authoritarian propensity that could be fully expressed over time.
As I have already indicated, we see that authoritarian propensity in Anton's arguments. If the election of a Democratic President means "death is certain," doesn't that suggest that Trump would be justified in any authoritarian suppression of such an electoral outcome?
On the contrary, Anton contends, the real threat of authoritarianism today comes not from the Right but from the Left--from Leftist leaders like Hugo Chavez and Leftist support for the administrative state. He accuses Levitsky and Ziblatt of showing their left-wing bias by restricting their criticism of Chavez to only four pages of their book, so that they can devote the rest of the book to attacking right-wing authoritarianism ("Real Authoritarian," 8). But Anton does not tell his readers that Levitsky and Ziblatt actually offer extensive references to Chavez covering over 23 pages of their 231 page book.
I agree with Anton that the concentration of power in the fourth branch of government--the administrative state--is the greatest authoritarian threat to American democracy, and therefore we could see Trump as an anti-authoritarian leader if he were attacking the administrative state. But I don't see that Trump is really working for the "deconstruction of the administrative state," as Steve Bannon called it.
Here is a video of Susan Dudley speaking on "Is the Trump Administration Deconstructing the Administrative State?" She shows that there has been a clear reduction in the number of new major regulations. But slowing the growth in new regulations is not the same as cutting back regulation by the administrative state. Trump has claimed that he was going to cut back to the levels of 1960. There is no evidence that he is trying to do that. The deregulatory actions that his administration has taken are very small--mostly reducing paperwork but not really decreasing regulation.
Moreover, as Dudley points out, the Trump Administration has largely failed in its court cases involving its regulatory changes--losing 34 cases out of 36.
The fundamental problem here is that the Trump Administration has relied mostly on presidential decrees that can easily be rescinded by a new President. If the Trump Administration were serious about "deconstructing the administrative state," they would do so by supporting legislation that would radically reduce the power of the administrative state by having the Congress reclaim the lawmaking powers that it has delegated to the administrative agencies.
One example of how this could be done is the "Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act," which has been proposed in the 115th Congress. This would require Congressional approval of any administrative rule that would impose compliance costs of more than $100 million a year, so that if Congress failed to approve the rule in 70 days after its promulgation, it be rendered void. If the Congress were to pass such legislation, I am not sure that Trump would sign it, because it would restrict his power working through the regulatory state in favor of congressional power.
It is also remarkable that Anton says nothing about Trump's trade war as a massive increase in the regulatory state based on arbitrary presidential decrees without any congressional authorization. How is this not presidential authoritarianism?
Some of my previous posts on Trump's chimpanzee politics can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.