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The Flight from Virtue

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of Law & Liberty symposium on Michael Anton’s After the Flight 93 Election.

Thirty-seven Americans died on Flight 93. How many of them were Democrats? How many of them would have voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016?

We’ll never know of course, because four al-Qaeda terrorists killed them all. But reading Michael Anton’s After the Flight 93 Election, I wonder how many of those 37 dead Americans were the types of voters—namely, progressive Democrats—who Michael Anton would later analogize to the Flight 93 terrorists. 

And I wonder if Anton ever paused to think about the cruel irony of his metaphor before casting himself and other pro-Trump voters as heroic Todd Beamers and Sandra Bradshaws, and casting millions of his fellow Americans—including perhaps the families of Democrats who died on Flight 93—as latter-day Ziad Jarrahs. Did Anton actually think through the real-life implications of his Flight 93 metaphor, or did he deploy such a cruel and repugnant metaphor thoughtlessly?

Of course, if he dedicated more than a moment’s thought to the metaphor, then he surely recognized its deeper problems—especially its strangely deterministic premises. A commercial flight takes off for a predetermined destination, its path controlled by the pilots, the computers, the airline, and the air traffic controllers who bring its passive passengers from one fixed point to another. To compare this to politics and government makes no sense, unless one has a strikingly deterministic view of American politicians and government and a very low view of the powers and duties of the American citizens. Who, in Anton’s imagination, was piloting the plane in the first place? Who had the power to set the flight plan? In what view of politics would such a metaphor actually hold together?

Of course, to focus on the Flight 93 Election metaphor’s implicit premises is to miss the whole point of it. The point of Anton’s exercise was not to express an idea, but to convey an attitude. It was an early example of the now all-too-familiar trend of “performative wokeness.” 

Anton himself seems to recognize this in his book’s new introductory essay: “My intent in writing ‘The Flight 93 Election’ was to impress upon those who consider themselves principled conservatives the urgency of the moment,” he explains, and many “have told me that it ‘woke them up’ to the dangers that militant leftism poses to our country and our civilization.” In other words, get woke! Or, with this book, “stay woke!”

Success breeds imitation. In the early days of the 2020 campaign, Democrats already are rallying the end-of-the-world political rhetoric that Anton and other Trump supporters advocated in the last one. The 2020 election is their own Flight 93 Election (though they’ve so far had the decency to make the point without using 9/11 metaphors). Joe Biden calls President Trump an “existential threat to America” whose re-election would “fundamentally change who we are as a nation.” Beto O’Rourke warns that leaving Trump in the White House would be the “end of this democracy.” (Jeff Daniels, of the Dumb and Dumber movies, agrees.) The same mood that led Republicans to chant “lock her up” now leads Democrats to cheer candidates who will lock him up.

Then again, the Democratic politician whose rhetoric most closely mirrors Anton’s is, actually, the one whom he was opposing in 2016. In his glib denunciation of countless Americans with whom he disagrees politically, Anton resembled no one more than Hillary Clinton, who denounced “deplorables” just days after Anton’s essay was published in the Claremont Review of Books. “They are irredeemable,” she said of her fellow Americans, “but thankfully, they are not America.” Clinton’s hateful comment deserved all of the criticism that it received—even from people who cheered Anton’s own defamatory words two days earlier when Rush Limbaugh read his essay on the air. But at least Hillary Clinton stopped short of going “full Anton” by comparing her fellow Americans to al-Qaeda terrorists.

In this new book, Anton asserts that “[t]he leftist enterprise has staked its success on an absurd and obviously false account of inequality.” One could say the same of Anton, at least when he just pages earlier writes of “the Left’s all-consuming drive for absolute power, its hostility to all American and Western norms—constitutional, moral, prudential—and its boundless destructive enmity.” Or when he writes of the Left’s “spiritual sickness, the self-loathing and existential despair, with which it has infected the formerly confident and capable West.” There is no shortage of reasons to criticize the modern progressive political agenda and the worldview that undergirds it. But we can advance these criticisms without relying on such an absurd and obviously false caricature of American progressives as anti-American forces consumed with the desire for absolute power. 

Indeed, for our political agenda to actually succeed in the long run, conservatives should take a more realistic and less uncharitable view of those with whom we disagree, if only because our long-term political success requires persuading the vast middle of American voters who do not share Anton’s cartoonish view of Democrats—and who might be repulsed by the conservative movement’s eager adoption of the monstrous rhetoric that he espouses. The same goes for those on the Left who are just as committed to Antonian rhetoric, demagoguing and caricaturing their own political opponents as an anti-American deplorables.

Anton expresses “a growing alarm at the Left’s intensifying radicalization.” That’s a fair description of my own reaction to Anton’s essay three years ago, an alarm that has not abated over time. If anything, Anton’s reiteration and amplification of his attacks in this new book succeeds in reiterating and amplifying my own alarm. More than ever, the party of Lincoln needs to recall Lincoln’s own character and words, from his First Inaugural to his Second: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” And: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” 

If Anton truly fears for America’s “constitutional, moral, prudential” norms, then he might begin with the republican virtues that Lincoln exemplified, and which Publius recognized from the start as indispensable to American constitutionalism. In his book’s new essay he writes at length on what republican government requires, but the republican virtues that Publius invokes in Federalist 55 and elsewhere as indispensable prerequisites for republican self-government are altogether absent from Anton’s account. If anything, Anton’s essay revels in eschewing appeals to reason; it is a blunt attempt to stir the public’s passions. He surely knows, as Publius knew, the profound constitutional difference between appeals to public reason and inflammations of public passions, and the costs that the latter entail. Publius warned that if the republican virtues do not prevail among the American people, then virtually nothing will restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.” He was right. We see it today, mostly in the ever-ratcheting tensions of a mistrustful and antagonistic politics. Occasionally we see it more bluntly and bloodily; James Hodgkinson thought that 2016 was a Flight 93 Election, too

Any book is bound to contain errors. In this case, the book’s greatest error appears on the cover, in the title’s very first word: “After.” We have yet to see the days “after” the Flight 93 Election; if anything, we have only begun the Flight 93 Era of American politics. Many Democrats see 2020 as a Flight 93 Election. Many Republicans do, too; by all indications in this book, Anton himself is among them. 

But there is at least one point on which he is absolutely correct. “America cannot long go on like this,” he writes in his book’s introduction. “Something’s gotta give, and something will. What that ‘something’ will be depends in no small part on the actions of men and women of good character, good judgment, and goodwill.” 

Indeed, it does.

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