Monday, November 7, 2016

Delegitimization of the Opposition

Suppose Bernie Sanders had forged a working alliance with Black Lives Matter and various immigrant's right activities, swung the black and Hispanic vote his way and won the Democratic nomination.  Can anyone doubt what would be happening now?  Republicans would be denouncing the Democratic nominee as a wild-eyed radical -- a former Socialist, for Pete's sake -- who posed an intolerable threat to all we hold dear.  Every riot, every murder of a police officer, every Black Lives Matter excess would be laid at his door.  And there really have been some ugly things by Sanders supporters that will give the finger-pointing some degree of plausibility.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is a perfectly typical Democratic nominee, ideologically almost indistinguishable from Obama, only somewhat more hawkish in foreign policy.  Republicans refer to electing Hillary as "a third Obama term."  But our economy is finally completing is slow and painful recovery.  Unemployment is under 5%.  Wages are finally beginning to rise.  We are not fighting any large-scale ground wars.  Crime has mostly continued its 25-year fall.  The Administration has avoided any major scandals.  In short, a third Obama term just doesn't seem all that bad.  What's a Republican to do?*

And the answer appears to be, argue that things aren't so bad now, but we are on a course toward complete and utter catastrophe unless stopped RIGHT NOW!!!!!!

This account describes the process in an aunt and uncle who were once reasonable Republicans:
At the outset, they supported Jeb!, then drifted to Rubio as Jeb flamed out. Finally to Cruz and/or Kasich. All the while, they hated Trump. They called him an incompetent, a moron, an imbecile. My aunt promised me point-blank "I will never vote for that idiot." 
And then, at some point around the Convention, my aunt began posting soft pro-Trump messages—mostly in the form of digs against Hillary. These were mixed in with paradoxical articles with titles like "A Christian Case for Trump." (They're evangelical.) 
When I confronted her and my uncle about her broken promise, she said "we're not voting for Trump, we're voting against Hillary." I think this is how many Republicans are justifying their awful choice. They'll never admit that they'd voted for such an historically terrible candidate, but will always frame it as voting against something. This logic completely frees them of any moral responsibility for Trump, and they can argue that they never supported his horrifying behavior. 
Yet in order for this logic to make sense, Hillary has to be worse than Trump. So my aunt, normally a reasonable person, has bought into an increasingly perverse version of who Hillary is. Only a year ago, she told me how much she respected Hillary, despite their political differences. Now, Hillary's supposed crimes define her. And, by the logic, the crimes must be true, otherwise why would my aunt have voted for Trump?
Thus the election is compared to a hijacked airplane with one desperate chance to storm the cockpit or die, or to a dead elephant in the road on swerving one way will take you over a sheer cliff.  The alternative, no matter how bad, is necessarily better.**  Thus I am inclined to agree with this assessment:
Many partisans will always find a way to persuade themselves that the other party’s candidate is bad enough to clearly justify their support for their party’s candidate. Therefore, their opinion of the opposing candidate is partly shaped by the quality of their party’s nominee—insofar as he or she is unusually hard to support, the opposing candidate will come to be regarded as even more unusually evil or dangerous. This enables them to support a person they regard as embarrassing or unworthy. Anything can be justified when you’ve got a gun to your head. 
Is that what is happening to some conservatives? They would clearly dislike and oppose Clinton regardless, but is it possible that if they liked their own nominee more, enough to feel that he deserved their vote, they would tell themselves less apocalyptic stories about the consequences of a Hillary Clinton, even if they still opposed it?
Many Republicans have convinced themselves that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be inherently illegitimate because she should be serving time for sending State Department e-mails on a private server.  Definitely they will undertake massive investigations (even more than they have been doing for the past four years).  Many think they should start impeachment proceedings on day one.

Many Republicans convinced themselves that the Bill Clinton presidency was illegitimate because he never got a majority of the popular vote and every Ross Perot vote should have gone to Republicans instead.  And they saw him as a uniquely sleazy womanizer.  Many supported his impeachment on trivial matter because they regarded him as a dangerous radical.  In the clear light of hindsight, that looks foolish.  But always they convinced themselves that it was personal.

No respectable Republicans actually believed the theory that Obama (who clearly got a majority of the vote) was not legitimate because he was a non-citizen, but many clearly did see him as extremely radical and possible disloyal.  Some even accepted Dinesh D'Souza's hypothesis that Obama was not a typical Democrat, but consumed with a desire to destroy Western civilization.  By the end of his second term, a lot of the wilder talk about Obama's radicalism looks rather foolish, too.  A narrative of Bernie Sanders as crazed radical would have some degree of plausibility.  But ultimately no one seriously disputes that Hillary Clinton is just a generic Democrat.

Which is particularly dangerous because a lot of Republicans are finally beginning to admit to themselves what has been apparent to me since the Bill Clinton Presidency.  Which is that their insane loathing about every single Democratic President has nothing to do with any of the individuals involved.  Republicans' attempts to deligitimize every single Democratic President is actually an attempt to delegitimize the Democratic Party.  It is most obvious with the Supreme Court.  The one argument reasonable and respectable Republicans who hated and despised Trump and everything he stood for was that at least it would be a Republican nominating justices for the Supreme Court.***  This went along, of course, with the Republicans' newly discovered principle that if a Supreme Court vacancy occurs in the last year of a presidential term, the next President should be allowed to name the successor.  Then John McCain made a rather off-the-cuff remark, presumably not meant literally, that if Hillary is elected, a Republican Senate will block all her Supreme Court nominees.  He was challenged on the remark and hastened to walk it back, but the Overton Window had been shifted. Soon a serious conservative constitutional scholar was arguing for just that.  And it is rapidly becoming a basic ideological litmus.  The theory here is that the Democrats' theory of governance is so extreme and unconstitutional that no Democratic nominee should ever be allowed on the Supreme Court to enact it.

And isn't it obvious where this is headed? If Democrat's governing theory is so unconstitutional that it should be barred from the Supreme Court even if the Supreme Court dwindles away, then why should the advocates of such an outrageously unconstitutional approach be allowed to hold elective office, either.  Why should Democrats in Congress be allowed to pass unconstitutional legislation, or Democrats in the White House be allowed to use the coercive machinery of the state to unconstitutional ends?  And if you regard the Democratic Party as basically unconstitutional -- well, where will it end?

The Republican Party was founded as the party of opposition to any expansion of slavery in the territories.  When the Supreme Court came out with the Dred Scott decision in 1857, it held that Congress could not restrict slavery in the territories.  It held, in short, that the Republican Party was unconstitutional.  Three years later, a Republican won the Presidency.  Some people argued that the Republicans should take steps to reassure nervous southerners, but there was nothing the Republican Party could do to reassure the Southerners, short of disbanding itself and ceasing ever to run candidates again.  And, well, we all know how that ended up.

I am not suggesting that the Republicans are there yet.  But I am saying that that is the logical outcome of their refusal to accept any Democratic nominee for Supreme Court.  And Donald Trump is willing to push a lot further in that direction than anyone would have suspected only weeks ago.

*This is not to deny that there are problems.  Crime, after falling for a quarter century, ticked up last year and no one knows yet if this is a trend or a fluke.  Obamacare premiums are spiking.  Mideastern terrorists no longer have the capacity to do large-scale attacks, but little one or two man rampages are impossible to stop.  ISIS is on the run, but actual peace in the Middle East is as remote a prospect as ever.  And Black Lives Matter signals a rise in racial tensions.  But we are far from the hellscape Trump and his followers are claiming.
**Nor is it just the crazy types, either.  My boss is a Republican, though a reasonable one, the kind who admires John Kasich and thinks Tim Kaine isn't so bad.  Certainly he is no fan of Donald Trump.  But he has concluded that Trump is a clever plan by Divine Providence to insure that a Democrat is in power when all the disasters Obama is leading us into finally come to roost, as they will any time now.
***Some have disputed that, saying that Trump cares nothing for conservative theories of the Constitution, only for interpretations that enhance his own power.  But I think their argument is sound for two reasons.  For one, despite all conservatives claim to be all upset about an out-of -control executive, those fears began the day Obama was inaugurated (just look at what they said about Bush and the "unitary executive"!) and will end the day a Republican takes over.  The other is that Trump is so ignorant about possible candidates for the Supreme Court and so unlikely to have the patience to sit through a briefing that his advisers should be able to get whoever they want.  The big question will be who his advisers are.

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