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When I started this blog I mentioned politics as one possible subject, but lately it seems to be the dominant subject. With the election of Trump perhaps that’s unavoidable. I have already said that I don’t know if everything will be okay, though I pointed at some early indications and structural factors which I thought looked encouraging. That was a couple of weeks ago, and you wouldn’t think that I’d already be changing my mind, but I am. In fact, I’m starting to get the feeling that everything won’t be okay.
First I should emphasis that this feeling is very nascent. Just a hint that things may be developing in a way I didn’t expect. Which ironically is exactly what you should expect. As I repeatedly emphasis you can’t predict the future, so, to resort to a cliche, you should expect the unexpected. Part of the reason why these developments are unexpected is that they arrive from an unexpected source. Allow me to explain. I, along with most people in America, expect to be surprised by Trump, but the feeling I’m describing has very little to do with Trump’s actions. So far he’s acting about as I figured. He’s appears to still be running his own Twitter account and making remarks that probably strike a majority of people as not being very presidential. He’s put forth some divisive figures for high level appointments (Bannon and Sessions being chief among them). Most of what he talked about on the campaign trail is still out there, though some of it has been softened, at least a little bit. In other words I see no reason, yet, to modify the assessment I made of Trump in my election post. Trump is not the reason I’m starting to think that things might not be okay. But the opposition to Trump is another matter.
Now this may sound like I’m opposed to any opposition to Trump, which I suppose if taken to it’s logical conclusion would mean that I’m a Trump supporter. Neither of these are true. I’m not opposed to opposition, I think having a vigorous debate has all manner of benefits, including better decisions, and clearer thinking in general. And if you have any doubts you can refer back to the two posts I did on freedom of speech. In other words, I think my full-throated support for freedom of speech is unambiguous. And insofar as the opposition to Trump falls under the category of free speech, I support it. To the additional question of whether I’m a Trump supporter, I would describe my approach to Trump as more zen. There are things which happen that are beyond our ability to change. Who gets elected as president is one of those things. And freaking out about it has as much utility as freaking out about the weather. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t buy an umbrella.
Having come this far you may be confused. I seem to be simultaneously saying that the opposition to Trump worries me, but that also opposition is a healthy expression of freedom of speech. The resolution of this paradox is that I’m not talking about what’s happening right now I’m talking about the direction I fear things are headed. And I’m talking about when opposition moves from speech to something more concrete.
Obviously I considered the possibility that Trump might win, I would have bet against it, but the chances seemed great enough that I tried to model what it might be like. One obvious place to go when you’re attempting to understand something is to draw on past experience. And in this I was in luck. I had already lived through a time with a very unpopular conservative president who was hated by the left. His name was George W. Bush, and when I considered what the Trump presidency would be like, particularly what the liberal reaction to it would be, I figured it would look similar to opposition during the Bush presidency. It would be nasty, it would be everywhere, it would be filled with outrageous claims, and he would be the butt of basically all of the late night jokes, but after taking all of that into account, he would still be acknowledged, even if reluctantly, to be President. I should add, before continuing, that much of the criticism of Bush was completely justified, though sometimes the amount of criticism he drew for any given item appeared inversely proportional to the actual harm.
Returning to the most recent election, it appears that things may be playing out differently. Now of course in all of this I’m trying to compare the immediate aftermath of the 2000 election with the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election. Not only is there the problem of distance, distortion and memory, but also in 2000 there was no Facebook, so what I consider a difference in the message my in fact be a difference in the medium. All that said, I don’t recall anyone urging people not to normalize the Bush presidency. (Of course at this point in 2000 no one was quite sure who would be president.) In 2000 people were mad about things, definitely, and there were certainly calls to get rid of the electoral college or to try and flip an elector or two. The same calls are happening now (though Hillary would need 38 faithless electors as compared to the three that Gore needed) but there is also lots of rhetoric of a kind I don’t recall hearing in 2000. Back then my feeling was that people accepted the result, they weren’t happy about it, given the chance they would have loved to impeach Bush, but they agreed that he was president, and treated him as such. I’m getting a different vibe out of things today. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
The first thing I came across which offered a hint to this difference was an article in Slate. It wasn’t critical of Trump, it was critical of Clinton, and not of how she ran her campaign, but of how conciliatory her concession speech was. The article didn’t stop there, it moved on to calling the speech dangerous and even went so far as to say that Clinton might mainly be remembered, “more than anything else, for the toxic, dangerous, and deceptive concession speech she delivered on Wednesday.”
Wait, what? Her concession speech is going to be more important than being first lady? Senator from New York? Secretary of State? While I suppose that’s possible I think we may have wandered into the realm of hyperbole. And when you’re getting that level of outrage about Clinton, you can only imagine how the article writer feels about Trump himself.
As a source for this claim the author drew on the opinions of a Russian dissident, author of a previous article titled, Autocracy: Rules for Survival. The basic claim of both articles is that Trump is a tyrant in the making who will dismantle the judiciary, muzzle the press and turn the police into virtual death squads, and that only by continuing to fight him tooth and nail and most of all by refusing normalize him, that is treat him as a normal president winning a typical election, is there any hope.
I’ve mentioned the word “normalize” now a couple of times and this appears to be the favorite term for describing what we definitely should not be doing now that the election is over. Again, I could be misremembering or overlooking things, but this feels qualitatively different than when Bush was elected. I certainly don’t remember anyone criticizing Gore when he finally conceded for being too nice. And a search around the terms “george bush” and “normalize” brings up hardly anything, while doing the same search on Trump brings up all the articles I already linked to plus thousands more. In other words, in answer to the question posed in the blog title, this election is starting to appear qualitatively different than even the hotly contested 2000 election.
But what are people hoping to achieve when they warn against any attempts to normalize Trump? And how is this different than the derision and hate that Bush was subjected to? This is where we start to get into the realm of speculation, and as I’ve have said, it’s just a feeling, I could easily be wrong, but it also represents a hypothesis, something that should be kept out and occasionally compared against reality to see if the events and facts which have developed in the interim support this theory or are pointing in a different direction.
In any case, as I read it, when people caution against treating either Trump or his presidency as normal they are make a judgement call that he is so bad that extraordinary measures are called for. Extraordinary measures like seceding. I already mentioned the idea of California seceding in my post about the election, but in this context it seems like yet another way that this election is different. Of course, you might retort, that Texas was talking of seceding long before California and mostly in response to Obama (though they did pre-emptively bring up the threat again as a possible response to Clinton winning.) This fact doesn’t make things better, it makes things worse. And opens up the idea that it’s not just the election of Trump that is different but that things are moving in an alarming direction, possibly even in the absence of Trump.
So, yes, I think it’s safe to say that this election is different than the 2000 election. Trump’s presidency will be more divisive and uglier than Bush’s and it’s becoming apparent that the level of push-back and rage is greater than any modern election. Of course the divisiveness and outrage is not greater than in any previous election. Perhaps when I mentioned the potential secession of Texas and California your mind already went in this direction, but if you’re looking for a more divisive election I would direct you to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Indisputably that election was more divisive, but comparing this election to the election of 1860 should not bring any comfort, and in fact this is the situation that has been gnawing away at the edge of my consciousness.
Libertarians are fond of talking about how every law ever passed is ultimately enforced at the end of a gun barrel. In a similar fashion at some point if two groups just can’t agree, then, ultimately, the issue is going to be decided by force. Oliver Wendell Holmes, perhaps the best known of all the Supreme Court justices, said as much:
Between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy but force.
Historically this is how it has been. All important issues have ultimately been decided by the shedding of blood. Recent history is an anomaly, and not even much of an anomaly if you consider what’s currently taking place in Syria. However if we restrict ourselves to just the US, we still only have to go back as far as the Civil War, before we see the roll of bloodshed in deciding between two inconsistent worldviews.
Insofar as things aren’t decided by bloodshed, it’s because we have replaced that idea with the idea of settling issues through the will of the people and the rule of law, but if you decide that this time, with this election, that you’re no longer going to follow the system (and I’m aware that Clinton won the popular vote, but recall that’s not the system) then you’re implicitly opting to decide things by force. Perhaps you disagree, and think that this one time you can ignore the results of the system, achieve the desired outcome of keeping Trump from being President, and that everything will be fine. If this is what you’re thinking I would say that at best this line of thinking is delusional and at worst it’s deadly. Things are decided either by force or by the rule of law, there’s not some hidden third option. If you abandon the rule of law than, you’re choosing force, even if you don’t realize it. Which is not to say that this automatically means a second Civil War, but you’re definitely entering into uncharted territory, where at a minimum things are going to be decided by the threat of force.
You may counter that civil society is already only maintained by the threat of force. However, by making laws which restrict and codify the use of force, we greatly minimize its use. Which is not to say that force isn’t sometimes, or even often, used in an inconsistent and unfair manner. The rule of law isn’t perfect, but it’s vastly preferable to the alternative methods, particularly when you’re talking methods which have historically been used for deciding who is going to be king (or in our case president).
To return to the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote are we dealing with two groups who both want a different kind of world? Do we have Texas secessionists on one side and California secessionists on the other? Does the election of Trump mark the beginning of a permanent split between those two worlds? These are the thoughts I’ve been having over the last couple of weeks.
You can judge for yourself whether there’s anything to worry about, whether we’re seeing the beginning of a great schism or whether things will eventually normalize over the objections of a vocal minority. In case it’s not clear, my own opinion is that it’s far too early to tell, though some of the trends are worrying.
For the rest of the post I want to focus on what to do if this is in fact what’s happening. What are the current remedies if we’ve finally reached a point past which no compromise is possible? If our current course is leading us to either a giant secession crisis, or worse still a second Civil War, is there some way to avoid that?
As usual I offer the caveat that individually there’s very little we can do about politics or the weather, and probably the best course of action is to make sure you have an adequate stock of umbrellas. That said it’s still a subject worth discussing.
To start let’s examine our options if we decide that our highest value is to keep the country together. This was basically the thinking during the Civil War so there is some precedent for it. If this is what we decide then we have three possible strategies.
The first strategy is that of the status quo. Sure there are currently some disagreements, and some anger. But perhaps rather than looking all the way back to the Civil War, a better example is the Civil Rights Era. And a better analogy for the 2016 election is the 1968 election, the last time a third party candidate won any electoral votes. Times seemed pretty tumultuous then as well. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and the country was convulsed with race riots. It appeared that the gains made by the 1964 Civil Rights Act might be overturned, and yet, even though Nixon was elected President the country stayed together, the wounds eventually healed and we made it through. Under this strategy, perhaps you agree that things look ugly, but you don’t think any major changes need to be made. Everything will eventually work itself out, the rule of law and compromise will eventually win out in the end
But what if you pursue this strategy and it doesn’t work out? The rifts keep widening, things get worse. States vote to secede, and the country starts breaking apart. This brings us to our second strategy, if you can’t keep things together by the normal methods then the only other alternative is to keep things together through force, and just like in 1861 you go to war. In other words this isn’t exactly a different strategy, but an extension of the status quo, let’s-keep-everything-together strategy. Which further means that if the initial, trust-in-the-status-quo strategy doesn’t work out then you might very well find yourself in a situation where bloodshed is the only option. I would hope that there would be no bloodshed, but if you really are intent on keeping the two worlds together, whether your goal is to preserve the union or to dictate a set of laws and policies to an unwilling minority, then eventually it will come to bloodshed.
If you have doubts about the status quo, and if you don’t like the idea of a second Civil War, then you probably aren’t thrilled with either of the first two options, and you may be eager to hear what the third strategy is for keeping the country together. I’ve already said that there are two ways to decide something, you can decide things through the use of force or you can decide them via a system of law. If we reject force then we have to do something about the system. Right now the system is dominated by the federal government. The bulk of the tax burden is determined at the federal level, as is environmental regulation, discrimination laws, the legality of abortion and same-sex marriage, not to mention educational standards, healthcare and entitlements. In that list there’s a lot for California and Texas to disagree about, but what if there wasn’t. It’s interesting and ironic that so much is determined by the “federal” government, because under a truly federal system you would expect most of the aforementioned issues to be decided at the state level, which would allow California and Texas to be different, but that’s not the case.
An argument about whether federalism is actually dead, is beside the point. Whether federalism has died or just evolved, the point is not to argue semantics, but to figure out ways in which Texas and California could both exist in the same nation without Texas seceding if Clinton is elected and California seceding when Trump get’s elected. And more importantly to keep the country together without having to resort to force. I know that for many people the idea of allowing individual states to make their own environmental regulations, their own decision on same sex marriage, and their own labor laws is terrifying, but is it more terrifying than going to war in order to just have one standard for all those things? I personally think that, when the total number of deaths is taken into account, it may have been a mistake to not just let the South secede, but if we were going to have a big war over something at least the elimination of slavery was a cause worth fighting for. Are the issues which divide us today similarly important? I’m personally not willing to have my son’s fight and possible die in a war to keep either California or Texas in the country. And I assume a lot of people feel similarly.
This brings us to the final possible strategy. The strategy to pursue if preserving the USA isn’t your highest goal. This strategy might be most usefully described as the right of exit. If California wants to leave, then let them, same with Texas, same with New Jersey. Obviously this may mean that some people aren’t as happy being in Texas as they once were when the Texas was obligated to follow all the federal regulations. They should have a right of exit as well. I don’t know that the right of exit has a corresponding right of entry (a topic which is already controversial), but I assume that it would work itself out. Of course this would be an experiment on a massive scale, and who knows what would happen, though Europe may provide a preview of this process if things continue to head the way they’ve been.
Of all the strategies I think a return to a greater degree of federalism and state autonomy would work out best in the long run. Not only is this what the founders had in mind, but I think it provides the best trade off between joining the two different kinds of worlds, while avoiding most of the chaos occasioned by a completely break up of the United States. That said of all the possible strategies I’ve described it may be the most difficult to actually implement. Rolling back the trend of a century is unquestionably more difficult than just maintaining the status quo, and probably more difficult than the other two options as well.
This post has engaged in a lot of speculation, and as with many things I write about hopefully none of this will happen. Hopefully, the status quo will work, Trump will be a great president, and everything will be rainbows and unicorns. If I had to guess, I think we’ll survive the Trump presidency without having to worry about a second civil war, or states seceding, or whether we should have been trying to restore federalism this whole time. But even if we do, I don’t like the direction things are headed.