Between Healthcare and Fascism: Chaos

by Michael C. Dorf  (** New as of 10/31/2018: Updated with a Postscript)

A recent column by David Brooks takes Democratic candidates to task for focusing so much of their midterm election messaging on health care. It's easy to dismiss this column as just so much concern-trolling by Brooks, and in an important sense it is that. Brooks--self-appointed defender of the Republic from the evils of identity politics--thinks that the Democratic strategy will fail because Democrats can only appeal to particular identity groups one at a time and are thus missing out on an opportunity to appeal to disaffected Republicans.

That's not just wrong but actually backwards. To state the obvious, everyone--regardless of race, sex, religion, gender identity, or any other identity--needs health care. The emphasis on health care reflects Democratic efforts to broaden the party's reach by appealing to voters who may have identitarian reasons of their own (such as whiteness or Evangelical Christianity) for often favoring Republicans. It's a gamble that a meaningful fraction of voters who tolerate or even somewhat like Trump because of status anxiety care less about the psychic wage that Trump's brand of white nationalism pays them than they care about being able to see a doctor for that concerning lump. Brooks manages to miss this fact entirely.

Yet if the main point of the column as Brooks conceives it is wrong, en route to his misguided conclusion he makes an astute observation. He writes: "The Trumpian challenge is primarily a moral and cultural challenge. But the Democrats are mostly comfortable talking about how to use federal spending to extend benefits."

I think Brooks is right about both halves of that statement. The challenge is how to talk about the first half--the especially Trumpian awfulness of Trump--without sounding alarmist and thus alienating the people who are reachable on conventional Democratic grounds of using government to address social needs. Admittedly, the risk of sounding alarmist is smaller today than it was just a week ago. The Trump-inspired pipe bombs of Cesar Sayoc and the open Nazism of the murderous Robert Bowers (who apparently dislikes Trump for not going nearly far enough) have made clear that warnings of political violence are clear-eyed.

Still, as we have seen all too often in response to prior mass shootings--including other mass shootings that were also hate crimes--the relentless news cycle quickly displaces reform proposals and calls for "civility." Accordingly, although I regard the Trumpian threat to American democracy as genuinely existential, I recognize the challenge of making that point without seeming alarmist to a substantial fraction of my fellow citizens, including some who are not fully in the tank for Trump and Trumpism.

An anecdote illustrates the risk of coming across as alarmist.

I subscribe to a listserv of and for constitutional law professors. In pre-Trump-presidency days, most of the posts addressed issues of contemporary constitutional law, broadly understood. Because so much of constitutional law overlaps with politics, there was always a strong element of political content, but it was mostly political content in the form that it typically takes in constitutional law. Since Trump's election, however, more than half of the emails raise questions about just what sort of existential threat Trump poses to constitutional democracy in America. Like the law professoriate generally, the list skews liberal. Moreover, many of the conservatives on the list are never-Trumpers. Consequently, the small number of pro-Trump or pro-Trump-adjacent list members tend to be defensive, with the defensiveness sometimes turning into aggressiveness.

One list member has expressed his aggression by repeatedly doubting the sincerity of the most Trump-critical list members. The doubt takes the following form: You don't really think Trump is the threat you claim he is, because if you really thought he was a fascist you would be taking active steps to emigrate or go into hiding or self-censor; the fact that you're not doing any of that shows that your expressions of condemnation are mere self-serving virtue signaling.

This charge is unfair. One can think that Trump poses an existential threat to republican government but that the nature of the threat is of the sort that will take some time to fully materialize and metastasize, so that even if one thinks one eventually might need to emigrate, one might not want to start packing just yet. Moreover, the threat is unevenly distributed, so that one can think that one is not personally in peril, even as there is a threat to others.

Nonetheless, despite the unfairness of the (apparently) pro-Trump-adjacent listserv member's charge, I believe it reflects a quite widespread view among enough voters that Democrats need to win over in order to win elections that comparisons of Trump to Mussolini--even if accurate in the key respects in which the comparisons are made--may end up alienating the sorts of voters who don't have strong political views and thus are likely to see the comparisons as partisan name calling. People who look around and don't see that their lives have changed much at all for the worse under Trump may be turned off by what they see as overwrought comparisons.

Thus, there are tactical if not necessarily principled reasons for Democrats to run on health care and other issues--to act as though these are normal times. Is that a problem?

Maybe not. I support some form of government-guaranteed universal health insurance. Therefore, I'm not especially troubled by the idea that Democrats might win political office running on Medicare for All, even though I think there are other issues that ought to be treated as in some sense prior.

Still, I agree with Brooks when he says that Democrats are missing an opportunity. Trump really is a threat to liberal democracy, even if not the sort of threat that leads one to make immediate plans to emigrate. If (as Prof. Buchanan and I have each argued on this blog repeatedly), Trump's worst tendencies have been enabled by and are continuous with the goals of the Republican Party more broadly, then there are urgent reasons for all small-d democrats (and small-r republicans) to vote against Trump's enablers, regardless of their druthers on health care or any particular policy issue.

Nonetheless, as both a sound electoral strategy and for reasons of authenticity, Democrats would ideally find a way to talk about particular policy differences (e.g., by highlighting how Republicans are blatantly lying about pre-existing conditions) as well as the urgent threat to liberal democracy itself. Can we talk about the latter without alienating pocketbook-focused or health-care-focused voters?

In thinking about that question, I find myself intrigued by an extremely thoughtful review of various recent books on Trump, Trumpism, fascism, and authoritarianism, authored by my former colleague Michael Livingston. While acknowledging "that there are elements of Trump’s presidency that have uncomfortable echoes of fascism and that differentiate him from previous American leaders, including an intensely charismatic style of leadership, a celebration of masculine or pseudo- masculine values, and implicit identification of a racial or ethnic community rather than a community open to all American citizens," Livingston nonetheless thinks that most comparisons to the rise of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany end up distracting us from the core issues.

What are those core issues? Livingston does not provide a comprehensive answer, but he gestures away from anything very America-centric. He sees Trump and Trumpism as local manifestations "of a broader trend embracing leaders from Berlusconi to Putin to Orban and countries as diverse as Germany, Turkey, and even Sweden." (And now Brazil.) If Trump is riding a global wave of illiberal ethno-nationalism, the way to combat it, Livingston says, is to emulate those countries that have been most resistant to the wave. His chief example is Macron in France. I might have added Canada as another example of a country that has thus far proved resistant to the ethno-nationalist virus.

That said, I am skeptical of Livingston's further claim that institutional structures explain the differences. Yes, there are plenty of rotten structures in American democracy, including pretty basic ones like the Senate, the Electoral College, and state legislative responsibility for drawing district lines and determining voter qualifications. And I applaud Livingston's proposal that insofar as those rotten features are not locked in, small-d democrats (including many capital-R Republicans like Livingston himself) should try to fix them. But both the countries that are succumbing to ethno-nationalism and the countries that have thus far resisted it appear to be diverse in their institutional structures as well as along other dimensions. We had an undemocratic Senate, Electoral College, and partisan gerrymandering long before Trump, while Hungary, Poland, Sweden, and Turkey have quite different government structures. Structural reform is a good idea, but it may not be enough.

The first time around it took a world war that cost tens of millions of lives to break the hold of Nazism and fascism. I certainly would not prescribe global war as the solution today, but if Livingston is right in his diagnosis of the problem (and I think he is), then his prescription of what are worthwhile but small-bore good government reforms seems inadequate to the task. I suspect that institutional structures matter, but so does political culture and, frankly, luck.

History is a product of great impersonal forces and unpredictable but path-dependent chaos. Archduke Ferdinand had multiple chances to avoid his fate in Sarajevo and thus possibly spare Europe the misery of two world wars. More farcically, were it not for the fact that Anthony Weiner (!) shared a computer with Huma Abedin, James Comey would have had no occasion to  reopen his investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails, and Trump might well not be president.

Whether the global ethno-nationalist fever breaks before destroying liberal democracy is thus nearly impossible to predict. Under such circumstances, the best one can do is take calculated risks. Efforts to sink or at least slow Trumpism by accurately casting his adopted party as filled with heartless hypocrites and liars about health care (and other subjects) is such a calculated risk. Whether it will work is unclear, but the stakes could not be much clearer.

Postscript added 10/31/6:30: The listserv member to whom I referred above believes that I mischaracterized his emails to the list. You can read his complaint (in which he reveals his identity) here. I continue to believe that my characterization was accurate. In any event, I do not think it is worth engaging in a satellite debate over whether I accurately paraphrased what someone whom I did not even name posted on a listserv.