Sunday, February 25, 2018
Opinion

Bret Stephens: 'The Flight 93 Election' crashes again

In case you've had the pleasure of forgetting, "The Flight 93 Election" was the title of a portentous essay, published in September under a Roman pseudonym in the Claremont Review of Books, that declared the stakes for the United States in 2016 thus: "Charge the cockpit or you die."

In the lurid imagination of the author — it turned out to be Michael Anton, who now holds a senior job in the White House — the American republic was Flight 93, a plane deliberately set on a course for destruction by liberals and their accomplices in the Republican establishment and the globalist "Davoisie." As for Donald Trump, Anton implied that he was the political equivalent of Todd Beamer, the heroic passenger who cried "let's roll" in a desperate bid for salvation.

"You may die anyway," Anton warned. "You — or the leader of your party — may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: If you don't try, death is certain."

And here we are, not four months into the collapsing Trump presidency, living Anton's dreams.

In recent days, radio host Michael Savage has acknowledged "the administration is in trouble." John Podhoretz in the New York Post and later the Wall Street Journal's editorial page compared Trump to Jimmy Carter — the most damning of all conservative indictments.

Then there's Ann Coulter. In an interview with the Daily Caller, the author of In Trump We Trust said of the presidency that "it has been such a disaster so far," and that it was possible that "the Trump-haters were right." She even dropped the f-bomb — "fascist" — to describe Trump's hiring of his relatives to senior White House posts.

"If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America," Lyndon Johnson is reputed to have said (perhaps it's apocryphal) after the CBS anchorman said in 1968 that the Vietnam War was unwinnable.

Just so for Trump: If he's lost Coulter, he's lost angry America. That's not his entire base, but — let's face it — it's a critical fraction of it.

Now the hope of the president's dismayed supporters is that this moment of near-political bankruptcy will lead to a reinvention and a turnaround. Perhaps Trump can delegate his executive authorities in the same way as he used to license his name, pretending to be president just as he once pretended to be a real estate tycoon.

That would suit Trump's sole talent for playing a successful character on TV. But the reality of the presidency is that it tends to reflect and magnify the inner truth of the officeholder. The job requires — and exposes — that most conservative of concepts: character. And if we've learned anything about Trump, it's that his character isn't just bad. It's irrepressible.

Hence the past 10 days of our national life. Firing Jim Comey. Threatening Comey. Lying about the reasons for firing Comey. Admitting to the reasons for firing Comey. Blabbing secrets to Sergey Lavrov. Denying that secrets were blabbed. Then blabbing about blabbing to Lavrov.

No staff shake-up would have prevented any of this from happening. It would have descended on a hapless White House staff like a superheated pyroclastic flow from a presidential Pinatubo. And it will continue to descend, week after grim week, until Trump leaves or is forced from office.

That is the Trump reality. A man with a deformed personality and a defective intellect runs a dysfunctional administration — a fact finally visible even to its most ardent admirers. Who could have seen that one coming? Who knew that character might be destiny?

To reread "The Flight 93 Election" today is to understand what has gone wrong not only with the Trump presidency, but also with so much of the conservative movement writ large. In a word, it's become unhinged.

To imply, as Anton did, that Barack Obama, for all his shortcomings, was Ziad Jarrah, Flight 93's lead hijacker, is vile. To suppose that we'd all be dead if Hillary Clinton, for all her flaws, had been elected is hallucinatory. To argue that the United States, for all its problems, was the equivalent of a doomed aircraft is absurd. To suggest that Donald Trump, a man who has sacrificed nothing in his life for anyone or anything, is the worthy moral heir to the Flight 93 passengers is a travesty.

It is the mark of every millenarian fanatic to assume that the world stands on the verge of a precipice, and that only radical or violent action can save it. That's the premise of Anton's essay. It's also the kind of thinking that has inspired extremists from time immemorial, including the people who grabbed the planes on 9/11.

Maybe 2016 was the Flight 93 election, or something like it. Maybe the pilots are dead. Maybe the passengers failed to storm the cockpit. Maybe the hijackers reached their target by landing on the White House after all.

© 2017 New York Times

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