The country feels less like it's perched on a precipice than it did at numerous times during the presidency of Donald Trump — and certainly less so than during the white-knuckle weeks surrounding the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill.
Yet as some have noted, this impression is at least partially illusory. The United States remains deeply polarized, with the two parties and their supporters increasingly living out their lives in hermetically sealed realities — residing in different neighborhoods and communities, receiving their news from separate informational ecosystems, perceiving threats to the country and its citizens in radically divergent ways.
In that sense, the Trump era has continued into the Biden administration — and in one crucial respect in particular, that era's tendencies may be deepening.
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One of the things that helped push Trump over the top during the Republican primaries in 2016 was the conviction among a plurality of his party's voters that he alone could be trusted to stand his ground with ideological and partisan opponents. "He fights!" became a two-word justification for taking a risk on the politically untested real-estate mogul from Manhattan who had palled around with as many Democrats as Republicans down through the years.
Say what you will about Trump's many broken or fudged promises, his core bellicosity never wavered. In fact, it went far beyond what anyone seriously predicted or expected when he prevailed against Hillary Clinton that year. Trump fought ruthlessly against the media, against members of his party who dared to object to his words and behavior, against the Russia investigation, against two impeachments, and then, most portentously, against his own loss in the 2020 election.
That last battle is the one that shows most vividly just how dangerous it can be to valorize fighting in the way that Trump did.
One of the core things that separates liberal democratic government from other, less stable and fair political alternatives is the regular, lawful, peaceful transfer of power. This norm is itself grounded on the trust that every electoral loss will be followed by a future opportunity (another election) when it will be possible to try again. And underlying that trust is an even deeper presumption — namely, that living temporarily (until the next election) under the rule of the other side won't be intolerable. It might be irritating and require accepting policy initiatives that one's own side considers seriously wrong. But that error doesn't render one's opponents politically illegitimate.
But what happens when this most fundamental liberal democratic presumption fades away and disappears?
When one side becomes convinced that its political opponents represent a genuine threat to country, it finds itself tempted to change the rules of the game to advantage itself and disadvantage those opponents. And when that happens, the other side receives confirmation that its opponents are manipulating the system in their own favor, jeopardizing the legitimacy and trustworthiness of future contests for power.
The United States is well into just such a cycle of mutual recrimination right now. I have my own views about why it's happening and who deserves the bulk of the blame for setting the nation on the road that's led us here. But emphasizing blame just makes things worse. The troubling truth is that by now each side has ample reason to fear the other — both for posing a dangerous risk to the country while exercising rule, and for trying to rig the system to make that rule unchallengeable.
Democrats think Republicans want to pursue a range of immoral, racist, nativist, xenophobic, sexist, transphobic, and plutocratic policies that should not be permitted in a free and equal society. In the America the Democrats think the GOP wants to bring into being, an ideology of white supremacy would be used to benefit white men and oppress everyone else. And they also believe that Republicans are trying to rig the country's elections so that they can pursue this agenda even while failing to win majority support for it.
Republicans, for their part, think Democrats are attempting to leverage their power in America's cultural institutions to impose a radical moral outlook on the country using the power of the state. The practical result of this will be forced indoctrination into "woke" ideology in schools and in the workplace, with tech companies conspiring with other elite interests to institute a kind of social credit system that rewards conformity to the new moral order and penalizes dissent from it. And they also believe that Democrats are trying to insulate themselves from democratic objections to this agenda by adding left-leaning states to the country, packing the Supreme Court with progressive justices, and federalizing elections — all of which will make it impossible to stand against the nascent totalitarianism.
Each side can point to a fair bit of evidence to justify its fear and loathing, just as each is also guilty of succumbing to more than a little paranoia. The problem is that as the fear, loathing, and paranoia grow, the stakes in every election appear to grow higher, justifying a more uncompromising fight, which is where Trump's example comes in.
Trump was so committed to fighting to stay in power that he actively encouraged members of his party to defy the certified vote tallies in several states — and viciously denounced those who refused to do so. The impulse to fight was so strong that it drove him to burst the bounds of liberal democracy altogether. The prospect of yielding power to his opponents was so inconceivable that what was once unthinkable (an anti-democratic putsch) became an active possibility — for Trump, but also for dozens of Republican members of Congress, thousands of his supporters on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, and millions of Republican voters who continue to tell pollsters that they think the election was stolen from them.
The same uncompromising commitment to fighting opponents shapes the political outlook of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who (along with others who fought beside Trump during the final weeks of his presidency) has already managed to parlay partisan savagery into record-breaking fundraising totals, showing that Republicans around the country are eager to reward politicians who act like they're waging a war to the death against Americans they consider their enemies.
What this means is that Democrats now face an opponent openly flirting with refusing to go along with the regular, lawful, peaceful transfer of power. That has convinced some in the party to fight back by attempting to make it more difficult for Republicans to prevail in elections. Which convinces Republicans that Democrats are a threat deserving of an even stronger fight.
Each side thinks it's absolutely essential to fight harder to maintain control and deprive the other of a victory it fears will mark the end of free and fair elections. Down this road lies the specter of one-party rule, and (in reaction) the potential for outright political breakdown and ultimately violence, as fighting spills over from metaphorical and performative acts to literal combat over power.
Donald Trump was the first president to cross over into this new post-liberal and post-democratic form of politics by promising a ceaseless and merciless fight for his own side. In that respect, he truly was a pathbreaker — in the most ominous possible way.
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