For some reason I was possessed yesterday with the idea of reading for the first time the infamous “Flight 93 Election” essay about why conservatives should vote for Donald Trump, published by Publius Decius Mus, aka Michael Anton, in September of 2016, in which the then-pseudonymous author advocacy for the election of a maximally corrupt and incompetent moron was still the love that dared not speak its name among most conservative public intellectuals.
The essay is kind of masterpiece of neo-paleoconservative paranoia, in the Hofstadterian sense, mixing open longing for herrenvolk democracy, with old school isolationist foreign policy, and a characteristic culture war freakout, in roughly equal measures. Here’s the nut graph, as they say in the business:
If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.
The rest of the piece is a classic nativist rant about how the entire media and intellectual establishment of the United States is opposed to these things, while conservative intellectuals are bought off to play the role of well-compensated punching bags in rigged public debates, while the West is overrun by lesser breeds without the law (I don’t recommend getting out of the boat).
Anton’s solution to moral decay at home and liberal internationalist/neo-con interventionism overseas is to elect noted champion of traditional moral values Donald Trump, who Anton admits is an imperfect vessel, but who at least isn’t the kind of man who is going to name John Bolton as his national security advisor.
Anyway, comrades, what lessons can we take from this particular epistle to the gentiles?
It occurs to me that Anton’s jeremiad could easily enough be translated into its left equivalent, roughly speaking. Thus:
If progressives are right about the importance of some semblance of economic equality, and of an accompanying sense of social solidarity, to the amelioration of the most dire effects of class hierarchy, and so on, in society as a whole; if they are right about how late capitalism corrodes and ultimately destroys even the possibility of real community; if they are right about how our educational institutions need to be independent of the Lords of Capital if they are to engage in genuinely meaningful critique of the status quo; if they are right about the increasingly authoritarian and even fascistic quality of demands for “public order” from the American right wing; if they are right about how we are in the process of making much of the planet increasingly uninhabitable for human beings, not to mention other creatures, because of the untrammeled worship of economic growth as a kind of God substitute; if they are right about the essentially imperialistic character of American foreign policy, both historically and today — if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.
The difference between these two laments comes down to the inevitable clash between two fundamentally opposed value systems. It can’t be resolved by reference to empirical facts, because these are not empirical disputes, except at the (fairly trivial) margins. It can’t be mediated, or at least not very successfully, by consensus-driven politics, because it represents a conflict between two completely irreconcilable world views, between which there can be no real compromise.
In one sense, Anton is right: the American political system is increasingly faced with a choice between two paths that are pointed in diametrically opposite directions. (This is why reactionary centrism is reactionary: it fails, consciously or not, to recognize that, in times like these, centrism is an incoherent response to clash of fundamentally irreconcilable world views, and it therefore it must end up supporting one of those views by functional default. See also too, the short happy political career of Howard Schultz).
All of which raises a particular question: Suppose the situation in 2016 were reversed. Suppose progressives were faced with the choice of either supporting a right wing nativist ethno-nationalist plutocratic reactionary who was NOT obviously both personally corrupt and comically unfit for office in purely pragmatic, non-ideological terms, or a progressive candidate who was all those things, to the same extent that Donald Trump so obviously is? As noxious as Anton’s views are, ideologically speaking, the moral dilemma he addressed two and a half years ago was real enough, and will remain so.