Flight 93 Redux

Flight 93 Redux

Unlike in 2016, in 2024 there’s no obvious happy ending.

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A good lens through which to view the impending presidential race is Michael Anton’s essay “The Flight 93 Election,” published in September 2016. With enviable panache, Anton sought to shame the Trump-adverse conservative establishment to shed its resistance to the GOP nominee. The political situation was desperate, he argued: progressives were approaching a permanent victory that would destroy whatever remained of the traditional American republic. To hold off 16 years of uninterrupted rule by Obama and Hillary, conservatives had no choice but to swallow their doubts and storm the cockpit; with Trump they would at least have a chance. Filling his piece with memorable tropes (“Conservative Inc.” as the Washington Generals, perennial foil to the Harlem Globetrotters, content to lose and get paid) Anton questioned whether the Washington network held any genuine conservative beliefs at all, so ready was it to lose gradually till there was nothing left to conserve. 

One question is whether the state of the nation is worse or better than it was then. The answer is not simple. The victorious Trump had a fair to middling term in the White House. He received no political honeymoon, facing strident opposition from the beginning of his term. He did not build much of his promised border wall, though his flurry of executive orders certainly helped slow illegal immigration. Until the pandemic the economy was strong, notably so for blue collar workers. He didn’t start any wars. 

Only towards the end of his term did he begin to realize that he could not hire luminaries from the Republican establishment to pursue his foreign policy agenda. He never achieved broad approval ratings, approaching fifty percent only for a brief moment shortly before the pandemic hit. He faced a highly dishonest impeachment effort (Russiagate) organized by Democratic elites with an assist from deep-state bureaucrats, experienced heavy losses in the 2018 midterms, and then Covid. Trump showed genuinely effective national leadership perhaps for the first time in rushing the development of vaccines that proved effective in diminishing the Covid danger. Leaders of the pharmaceutical establishment delayed the release of promising vaccine test results until after the 2020 vote, ensuring Trump received no political credit. 

Many (I among them) believed Trump’s election denial after November 2020 would wreck any hopes of subsequent political career; you don’t have to believe the Democratic claim that the clownish unarmed rioters of January 6 were engaged in “insurrection” to think Trump’s futile and legally unsubstantiated claims of election robbery were banana republic stuff, unworthy of an American president. Like most, I underestimated the loyalty Trump generated from working class voters, who had never been such a strong GOP demographic. 

Whether in reaction to Trump or moving to political rhythms untied to the presidency, the country turned sharply left during Trump’s term in office. Wokeness was already a major factor in the media and university circles by 2014, and various anti-policing measures or crude anti-white rhetoric continued to grow during the Trump presidency. They reached a spasmodic climax in the George Floyd riots in summer of 2020. Nancy Pelosi summoned her caucus to kneel in Kente cloth in the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall, while comparable acts of performative submissiveness proliferated wherever one looked. Throughout the country, Black Lives Matter and Antifa led rioters looted stores and burned down police stations, with large scale mainstream media support. 

Trump seemed to do little but send off angry tweets. Had it not been for the savvy hand of Attorney General William Barr, who mobilized federal law enforcement officials from all over the country, Washington, D.C. might have experienced a color revolution in early June, with Trump’s presidency ending in the White House basement where he was seeking shelter from the mobs. 

If Biden had presided over any kind of normal presidency, he would be a lock for re-election in 2024. He has benefitted from the inevitable post-covid economic rebound. Inflation is problematic, but not so bad as feared a year ago and far from the 1970s’ levels. It was not Biden’s intent, but wokeness has receded somewhat during his presidency: racial discrimination against whites and Asians in college admissions has been ruled illegal by the Supreme Court. Soros-funded pro criminal district attorneys have in at least one case been forced from office, and most now face spirited political resistance. The wave of pro-criminal local legislation passed during the Trump era is being chipped away or reversed. Corporate America is reducing its race commissars, otherwise known as DEI departments, and universities are beginning to debate whether mandatory DEI statements should be an inextricable part of their faculty hiring processes. That bundle of issues—a key reason many pulled the Trump emergency lever in 2016—proves to be at least somewhat disassociated from presidential politics. 

But on several critical issues, Biden has been genuinely awful, far worse than his detractors anticipated. Illegal immigration was a huge concern for Trump voters in 2016; Biden’s essentially open border policy managed to turn it into the number one issue for Democrats and independents as well. As an unforced political error, it is astonishing. Before Biden, immigration had never polled as a number one concern for Americans. The surges of people from all over the world crossing the southern border at will is a direct consequence of Biden policies, as his administration hastened to overturn every measure Trump and his predecessors had used to discourage illegal border crossing. 

It is hard to understand this behavior from an old line “centrist” Democrat except as a signifier of how much Democrats had changed internally, how important it was for new generation of activists rising to control the party to bring as many unvetted and unselected people into the country as rapidly as they could. The French author Renaud Camus’s concept of “the Great Replacement”—a process through which the historic populations of the West are essentially stripped of their sovereignty through demographic submergence—was long dismissed as conspiracy theory or over-the-top polemic. The Biden record makes one wonder.

In foreign policy, the Biden record is a disaster. From 2016 to 2020, the world was more or less at peace. Today, it is inflamed in conflict, with multiple dangers of escalation into wider war, even nuclear war. Much of this is Biden’s fault. He shouldn’t be blamed entirely for support of Israel and its Gaza operation, which has antagonized progressives in his coalition. Facing a choice between abetting (through imposing a ceasefire on Israel) a barbaric terrorist organization and backing an Israeli government committed to smothering both maximalist Palestinian aspirations and entirely legitimate ones, Biden has failed to find an acceptable path. Netanyahu has always been confident his pronouncements could be ignored without consequence. 

Ukraine, a war which has generated roughly twenty times the death toll of Gaza, is more obviously a Biden failure. The veteran American diplomat Chas Freeman recently described the presidential race as a contest “between a senile warmonger and a malignant narcissist.” With Ukraine, the description is apt. Why did Biden refuse seriously to negotiate during the run-up to war, what did he think would happen? He has tied American prestige to Ukrainian president Zelensky’s vision of what should be the only acceptable dispensation—Ukraine retains all of its territory, including its Russian-populated areas, including Crimea, and joins NATO. Anatol Lieven has pointed out that not a single hawk during the Reagan era (which today’s Democrats pretend to respect in counterpoint today’s America First Republicans) imagined bringing Crimea under NATO jurisdiction and evicting the Russian fleet from Sevastopol would be a desirable or feasible goal for the West. Now that Russia is no longer communist, it is American policy. 

The United States signed on to this by embracing Nato expansion. Biden as a hawkish NATO-enlarger was never a subject of interest in the 2020 election or any of the previous times Biden ran. (The mainstream press would typically credit his “foreign policy experience.”) It should have been. One can go back to the 1998 Senate debate over NATO enlargement, won inevitably by the side promising greater profits for the military industrial complex, to see its contours. That debate was spirited, and we might take solace from the fact (unlike the present) that it took place at all. 

Opposing NATO expansion, Senator Daniel Moynihan, the last intellectual in American politics, warned “We’re walking into ethnic historical enmities. We have no idea what we’re getting into.” Taking Moynihan’s side, Republican senator John Warner of Virginia warned of antagonizing Russia by building an “iron ring” around it. And from whom came the most strident objection to Warner and Moynihan? According to the New York Times, Joseph Biden, “took the floor and erupted…stalking the Senate floor, flailing his arms….” 

This was when NATO expansion concerned Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic, but Biden clearly saw no such limits. Foreshadowing future developments, he brought up Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania, and mocked Warner’s notion that Russia had any legitimate security interests on its borders. A quarter of a century later he would have the chance to translate those beliefs into American policy. 

We probably have not heard the last of Ukraine as an issue in this election. It is even money that Zelensky’s army will be facing some sort of collapse before November. Perhaps before that point is reached a figure willing to talk to Russia will emerge in Kiev; perhaps not, and Biden will be facing an Afghanistan-type situation on the eve of an election he apparently believes holds existential stakes for America. The temptation—and there will be many urging him on—will be to go all in to stave off both Ukrainian and his own electoral defeat, add American troops to the advisors and CIA operatives already on the ground in Ukraine and do everything he can to maintain Kiev as an anti-Russia bulwark. We could have a replay of the Cuban missile crisis, this time in Russia’s backyard, over an issue of unbounded emotional significance to the aging Biden and existential strategic import to Moscow. 

Biden’s chances to defeat Trump again might be greater with a vice president more people saw as a plausible president. Amy Klobuchar. Gretchen Whitmer. Sherrod Brown. But in Kamala Harris, who will likely be occupying the Oval Office in a year or two if Biden is re-elected, Biden has chosen a successor known for little beyond her difficulty in expressing herself as an adult unless reading from a script. Yes, she is a woman of color, yes, she sought to raise bail money for the rioters in 2020 when the Minneapolis 3rd precinct police station was still smoldering. Besides that, she is associated with no issue, no set of beliefs. The private musings of Democratic luminaries over where she might be parked—Supreme Court? presidency of Harvard?—would be comical were the situation not so dire. Bad as Biden may be, President Kamala?

I don’t concur with Chas Freeman’s view that Trump is a “malignant narcissist.” Narcissist he certainly is. He is not an authoritarian; he had ample opportunity to expand presidential powers during his first term but preferred tweeting to mastering the intricacies of governing. He yearns, at least as much as any politician, to be respected, indeed, to be adulated. With their efforts to keep him off the ballot, whether literally as attempted in several states or through imprisoning him, the Democrats have doubled down with their own version of Trump’s banana republic antics, betraying a lack of faith in “our democracy” surpassing that of any Proud Boy. Efforts to prevent Trump from running seem to have activated a fair play reflex buried deep in the American psyche. Republicans who hoped they might be done with him saw his popularity surge after the indictments; now facing transparently politicized charges in multiple jurisdictions, Trump is polling better nationwide than he ever has. 

To circle back to Anton’s analysis, America’s political situation is at once more promising and menacing than it was in 2016. The left is less ascendant locally and culturally: While it racked up huge gains during Trump’s first term, advancing transgenderism, hamstringing law enforcement, imposing ideological litmus tests (DEI statements) on the hiring of university professors, it is hard to defend those gains now. Aaron Sibarium on X, formerly Twitter, noted that the same New York Times editorialist who felt “in danger ” by her paper’s publication of Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed calling for the National Guard in the summer of 2020 recently embraced New York Governor Kathy Hochul’s actual ordering the National Guard to monitor the subways. People have to “feel safe,” the Times lady wrote. 

It is not obvious how Trump’s re-election would impact such battles. There is a considerable possibility that Trump would be unable to govern, and progressives would be re-galvanized by his election, especially if the vote is close and Trump won only an electoral college majority. On the other hand, Biden, freed from the constraint of facing voters again, would double down on the open border policy he embraced for the first three years of his presidency. A President Kamala would certainly go in this direction. And Biden is, unlike Trump, a warmonger. It is not a good moment in American politics.

The post Flight 93 Redux appeared first on The American Conservative.

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