Sunday, February 18, 2018

Trump and Consequences

One of the major questions of the Trump era is whether political actors will attempt reform in the wake of dis-Trumption (what direction that reform takes, is of course, up for debate) or will instead double down on the socio-economic-political trends that gave Trump an opening in 2015-2016 in the first place.  Related to that question is another one: Will political actors attempt to restore a rhetoric of civic integration and humane humility, or will they escalate narratives of negative partisanship and ideological totalization?

The election of Trump has caused many in Washington to embrace a kind of politics of emergency--in which all norms should be overthrown to save America from the supposed horrors of a Trump presidency.  As I've written before, "destroy the public square in order to save it" is a highly problematic strategy and will likely end up making politics even more toxic.

 In a time of frenzy, it is especially important to remember the power of precedent--and to think hard about the consequences of an argument.  Any weapon to hand tactics might at first seem appealing, but they have deeply destructive results.  For instance, there's a growing interest at the highest levels of the media-government infrastructure in promoting the notions that "Russian bots" somehow determined the outcome of the 2016 election and that maybe, just maybe, Donald Trump is therefore not a legitimately elected president.*  (This claim is often talked around, but it haunts many "resistance" narratives of the Trump presidency.)  However, if one is concerned about "authoritarianism," normalizing this argument seems incredibly risky.  After all, one of the major tactics of authoritarian regimes is to argue that nefarious outside forces have contaminated election results, so the powerful should feel free to ignore those elections.

Indeed, it doesn't take too much imagination to come up with the following scenario: A politician facing a tough reelection has a friend create a company in a foreign nation that uses social-media bots to target that politician.  If that politician lost reelection, he could say that his opponent didn't legitimately win--foreign bots disqualified that result.  Saying that American democracy has been rigged by foreign bots sets a very dangerous--and, so far, entirely unsubstantiated--precedent.  If you want to oppose the undermining of faith in democratic institutions, the "bots hacked the election" narrative is counterproductive in the extreme.

Andrew C. McCarthy's latest column is worth reading in its entirety, but the end in particular drives home a key point: The escalating factionalism of American politics is increasingly paralyzing the governing process and dividing the body-politic.  By voiding norms of good faith, social trust, courtesy, and so forth, we risk undermining our ability to form a political consensus on any topic.  There doesn't need to be (and never will be) a consensus on every topic, but, if there is no consensus on anything, the political system itself might start to disintegrate.  If you're an anarchist, that lack of consensus might not be a bad thing.  If, however, you want a durable republic under the rule of law, destroying the foundations of consensus is a far more troubling prospect.

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*This has nothing to do with whether or not alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election should be investigated.  Of course, it should be.

3 comments:

  1. I would suggest that almost any thoughtful person, on the Right or the Left, would find little to disagree with in what you have written. However, we have found ourselves in a very difficult spot. You can call it a tit for tat strategy gone to tat or a local equilibria that is well away from the optimum, but the bottom line is the same. It will take an extraordinary political leader to lead us out of this deep valley. Maybe we can continue to flop around in this valley indefinitely? After all, the rest of the world is certainly more dysfunctional. Maybe it will end in a dissolution of the Union. Who knows? I am hopeful that leader comes to the fore before this gets uglier.

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