The Legitimacy of the “other side”: Two Can Play at this Game

The illegitimacy and supposed existential threat of the Democratic party provides much of the fuel for Trump supporters, especially among those in the academic world. According to them, a Biden victory is not just a loss for Donald Trump and the Republican party, it is a dangerous and potentially catastrophic loss for America. In the infamous Flight 93 essay, Michael Anton vociferously argued that the 2016 election was so important that a Clinton victory was akin to staying on the airplane as it prepared to crash into something important. Or, As Anton writes at the beginning of the essay, “a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto.” In both 2016 and in 2020, major portions of the Republican party have treated their opposition not just as wrong on policy but as dangerous to our civilization itself. The question then becomes: does the Democratic party behave in a similar manner: In a recent post on this site, Jeff Tulis characterizes this Republican extremism as asymmetric in comparison to the Democratic party. It is difficult to assess this question based on the current evidence. Extreme Democratic characterizations of Trump as an anti-constitutionalist threat to the regime are essentially correct. There seems to be asymmetry now because Trump is such an asymmetrical figure in contrast to what’s come before; when the Democrats call him a potential dictator who will tear down the Constitution, they may be correct. But, if we go back to 2012 and before, I’m not sure there’s as much asymmetry. Although George W. Bush was admittedly controversial in his handling of the war on terror, there wasn’t any real evidence that he wanted to be a dictator. Unlike Trump, he had respect for constitutional norms and didn’t try to tear them down. Yet, there was many articles like this, which use a passing comment of Bush’s about dictatorship to claim that was always his secret wish. Bush was rejected not just as wrong but as posing an existential threat to the regime itself. It is one thing to criticize your opponent, calling him a dictator-in-waiting is to deny his fundamental legitimacy. Even The Obama campaign rhetoric against both McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 portrayed them again as more than wrong, but as dangerously wrong. It seems that in Trump the Democrats finally got the dictator they’d been wrongly portraying since at least 2000. This isn’t to say that the Republicans didn’t engage in some of the same kinds of rhetoric; it’s only to say that the situation now is more aberrational. We’ve been in a divisive politics for a long time now.

As I was thinking these things through I experimented with posting something on Twitter trying to distinguish Trump from the Republican party that preceded him. Although Twitter obviously isn’t a great sample, it was nonetheless striking how many people rejected any such distinction. The Republican party, they argued, had always been secretly authoritarian. Trump just revealed fully what they always were. Or the Republican party had always advocated illegitimate policies, they just did not have an illegitimate leader alongside those policies.

One thought on “The Legitimacy of the “other side”: Two Can Play at this Game

  1. Because Ben mentions my earlier piece, I just want to be clear what I argued. As I say there, “At this moment in American political history, it is also important to note the striking asymmetry of partisanship in the United States.” I suggest that the key phenomena now are conspiracism and hyper-partisanship. The first is pretty much a Trump invention. (I say “pretty much” because one of his Orwellian innovations — the anticipatory projection of ones own mistakes or vices on to your opponent– was actually deployed by Karl Rove in the Bush II administration). But I think it is fair to say that fictional conspiracism (as distinct from conspiracy theories) is new to the Republican party with Trump. Hyper-partisanship precedes Trump and is largely a problem created by Mitch McConnell’s GOP. The key point is that, whatever the nuanced story of origins, there is profound asymmetry today and there wasn’t in the past.

    In the past, of course, political rhetoric of both parties was often heated and overcharged, in a more or less symmetrical way. It is common for partisans to think the policy trajectory of the other side will lead to the ruin of the nation. Both are wrong, precisely because both are committed to free and fair elections so the errors of either partisan project can be corrected. And both are wrong for the more obvious reason that exaggerated rhetoric on both sides is wrong — in the sense that it is exaggerated. Because of the symmetry in the past, Greg Weiner’s piece made a lot of sense for a kind of ethic to mitigate some of the vices partisanship in the past and in its usual form.

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