In “The Flight 93 Election,” two months before ballots were cast, Michael Anton built an argument that heavily influenced the conservative intelligentsia and roughly articulated the cost-benefit-analysis driving certain voters to Trump. “Yes,” Anton wrote. “Trump is worse than imperfect. So what? We can lament until we choke the lack of a great statesman to address the fundamental issues of our time—or, more importantly, to connect them.” His case was widely derided by the political class.
“I would vote for Joe Biden if he boiled babies and ate them.” So said Katha Pollitt in The Nation this week. Compare this encapsulation of her argument to Anton’s:
He wasn’t my candidate, but taking back the White House is that important. Four more years of Trump will replace what remains of our democracy with unchecked rule by kleptocrats, fascists, religious fanatics, gun nuts, and know-nothings. The environment? Education? Public health? The rights of voters, workers, immigrants, people of color, and yes, women? Forget them. And not just for the next four years: A Trump victory will lock down the courts for decades. I cannot believe that a rational person can grasp the disaster that is Donald Trump and withhold their support from Biden because of Tara Reade.
Pollitt effectively declared 2020 the Flight 93 election. At their core, these arguments are the same. Anton’s case for Trump also functioned as a comprehensive undressing of “Conservative, Inc.” Pollitt’s case for Biden, meanwhile, amusingly insisted, “Democrats and those to their left care deeply about their principles.” (Some, sure. Ask Al Franken about the rest.)
“We do not have the luxury of sitting out the election to feel morally pure or send a message about sexual assault and #BelieveWomen,” Pollitt declared. Anton put it this way, “If you don’t try, death is certain.”
“We are headed off a cliff,” he argued, rendering Trump’s vulgarity immaterial to the conservative cause. Anton described a Clinton presidency as “Russian Roulette with a semi-auto.”
“With Trump,” said the future White House official, “at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”
Pollitt and Anton agree: The stakes are so high that a presidential candidate’s character is secondary to their policy goals. The vessel is much less important than the cargo.
This calculation fuels much of Trump’s support. Most of the political class has rejected it. In New York, Jonathan Chait labeled Anton, “America’s Leading Authoritarian Intellectual.”
“‘The Flight 93 Election’ exemplified the apocalypticism that gripped the American conservative movement during the Obama years, a totalizing politics that portrays its democratic opposition as an existential threat,” James Kirchik contended in The Daily Beast. Bret Stephens held the essay up as proof the conservative movement has “become unhinged.” A search of Verified Twitter supplies a bounty of similar examples.
That’s just fine. I think their argument is perfectly rational. I also think Anton’s argument is perfectly rational; Pollitt’s, too. If you believe four more years of Trump or four years of Clinton would damage America beyond repair, whether that’s because of their abortion policies, court appointments, environmental agenda, or everything combined, the logic checks out. In a sense, the Never Trump movement was always built on a similar calculation, accepting Clinton’s flaws to prevent a presidency they believed to be enormously dangerous.
Some of Anton’s detractors chafed at the 9/11 metaphor. There were other valid critiques. Ben Shapiro torched the essay, disputing that “turning over the future of conservatism to a Big Government corporatist ad hoc blue dog Democrat” would solve the problem. At the very least, it ignited a constructive debate—one in which the position of many Trump voters had more accurate representation.
Pollitt’s honesty should help clarify the conversation about Biden. Her #AlwaysBiden argument will be repeated many more times by many more people in the coming months. It will catch less scorn than Anton’s. Unlike the right in 2016, the #AlwaysBiden coalition is divided: one part is centrists who see Trump as a unique threat, the other is leftists who would make the same case against any Republican.
See Max Boot’s declaration of support for any Democratic nominee, written last fall, as evidence of the first category. Given her laundry list of concerns, it’s probably safe to slot Pollitt into the second. The causes she frets about under Trump are also largely the causes of the establishment agenda President Obama successfully enacted, with one caveat—both she and Anton worry about workers, and presumably in a populist sense.
Much of Anton’s concern was over the cultural issues Pollitt wants a president to champion. While some on the left still bafflingly see themselves as victims of rather than victorious aggressors in the culture war, they have clearly conquered the halls of power.
If realized, Pollitt’s post-Trump cultural goals would mark a return, not the breaking of new ground at 1600 Penn. In 2020, both the leftist case for Biden and the conservative case for Trump will at least outwardly base part of their case on prioritization of the working class.
The Flight 93 Election: # NeverTrump edition. https://t.co/cyN5bQU8pI
— Sean T at RCP (@SeanTrende) September 1, 2019
It’s not elitist to argue that character matters. It’s elitist not to understand exactly why character is a low priority for some Trump voters. Stephens mocked the notion that certain conservatives see their opposition as an existential threat to the country. Boot, his Never Trump contemporary, turned around and did the same thing two years later, justifying his decision thusly: “Saving U.S. democracy from a mad king matters more than the specific policies of his successor.”
Just over half a year before he wrote that column, Boot tweeted about “The Flight 93 Election.”
“Never understood that essay,” he wrote.
Never understood that essay. Flight 93 crashed. How is that a model for America? Prophetic, alas, but not prescriptive. https://t.co/gRyFK50LOm
— Max Boot (@MaxBoot) February 2, 2017
Boot really didn’t understand the essay because his mind was closed to any justification for Trump. He understood the same argument, however, when the threat was not Hillary Clinton, but a second term for the “mad king.”
Of course Clinton didn’t represent an existential threat to Boot and his centrist peers. This is really their disagreement with Flight 93 conservatives, in the Beltway or otherwise. To Trump supporters, the existential threat was the calcified political establishment and its embrace of cultural leftism. To #AlwaysBiden supporters, the existential threat is voters’ chosen solution to that calcification.
They do not buy into the notion that establishment politics have us teetering off a cliff. But they do buy into the notion that Trump does. The former is understandable given that establishment politics have been kind to the commentariat. The latter makes their sanctimony baseless.
The Lincoln Project, a Never Trump group, is trying to turn right-leaning voters against the president by running ads that emphasize Trump’s vulgarity. This is proof positive that elites who huff and puff about Trump supporters still don’t fundamentally understand the cost-benefit-analysis at the heart of their approval for the president.
As this election cycle unfolds, Pollitt and Boot will find themselves in good company. The #AlwaysBiden case will ring from green room to green room, met with approving nods by besuited professionals half preoccupied by the pressing business of dreaming up their next tweet. That’s fine. It’s possible to see an existential threat in Trump and not Clinton. It is, however, telling that some see one existential threat in a president many voters elected to prevent another.
For Trump supporters, the “Flight 93” calculus was a method of smashing the establishment. For Biden supporters, it’s a method of preserving it.