What Is the Opposite of a Victory Lap? What It Feels Like to Have Seen the Existential Danger of Trumpism from the Beginning
by Neil H. Buchanan
Last month, a devastating series of Supreme Court decisions competed for our attention with the hearings being held by the January 6th Select Committee. Which was worse? I have written very little about the Court's doings, mostly because my co-columnists here on Dorf on Law have used their considerable expertise to demolish those rulings. I might soon have something to say about the evisceration of the administrative state, but here I want to discuss the hearings that have laid out the shocking details of Donald Trump's insurrection.
More precisely, as the committee's evidence of Trump's lawlessness continues to roll out, I want to discuss what it feels like to have accurately predicted disaster and to have been dismissed as an alarmist every step along the way. Am I supposed to feel like I won? Hardly. Should I maybe run backward around a stadium, acknowledging that the world is as bad as I thought it was but that this is ... how do I say it ... still bad? And what does one do now? Can I make money from setting up a Consultancy of Doom, perhaps?
It is always possible for a person to make a lucky guess. There is an age-old scam in which a grifter sends a series of predictions about 50/50 events to potential marks, reducing his focus after each event only to the increasingly impressed suckers who received the now-proved-accurate prediction(s) from earlier mailings. After four or five steps, the scammer claims vindication and tries to sell predictions based on his repeatedly proven psychic powers. Similarly, but less elaborately, financial pseudo-gurus are infamous for making wild predictions until one of them inevitably comes true, at which point they claim to be a seer: "I predicted that the stock market would tank in the first half of 2022. Worship me!"
And who knows? Maybe predicting for years that Donald Trump would do absolutely anything to stay permanently in power, including subverting the Constitution and systematically inciting violence, was just a lucky guess. I did not, after all, predict the exact form that such a coup would take. Is it not true that anyone could have seen this all along?
The answer is yes, but that is exactly the point. It is not that this small group of observers -- including scholars like Brian Klaas, Timothy Snyder, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Jason Stanley, or Lawrence Douglas -- had access to inside information or even to greater insight. To a large extent, it has been a matter of other people having deliberately indulged in the self-censorship that happens when public intellectuals, very much including tenured professors, give in to groupthink.
And one should never, ever underestimate the power of groupthink. The famed economics professor Robert Shiller, several years before his work was justly lauded with a Swedish Bank prize (not a Nobel), admitted in a New York Times op-ed that, while serving on an advisory panel for the Federal Reserve prior to the financial crisis of 2009, "I felt the need to use restraint. While I warned about the bubbles I believed were developing in the stock and housing markets, I did so very gently, and felt vulnerable expressing such quirky views. Deviating too far from consensus leaves one feeling potentially ostracized from the group, with the risk that one may be terminated."
Shiller not only had tenure at Yale but was already considered one of the top experts in the world on financial contagions. Even so, he thought it best to trim his sails, lest invitations to the inner circle dry up. At least he owned up to it later, which most people never will.
It is more than a matter of becoming (or wanting to remain) an insider, however. There is a rather annoying (often spilling over the line into unpleasant) process that is inflicted on those who dare to offer seemingly implausible arguments. I have over the past few years noted in passing the colleagues who smirked their way through conversations with me, expressing their great certainty that Trump and the Republicans are merely uncouth versions of standard-issue American conservatives of the sort that we've seen at least since WWII. Nothing to see here, so don't get worked up! One philosophy professor assured me in 2019 not only that Trump would not stoke violence to stay in power after losing in 2020 but that he probably would not even run for reelection. "He's just trying to prove that he's important, but this is boring for him."
To be clear, my annoyance was never a result of people's reaction to me. I was upset because I could see the consequences of people's summary rejection of the very idea that we could be facing a norm-shattering historic cataclysm. Had the smug doubters had actual arguments to calm what I thought were more than reasonable fears, that would have been comforting and quite welcome. What we heard instead were non-arguments including head-patting reassurances that "our institutions are too strong for one man to break" and that "this has never happened before, so it won't happen now." (I am not exaggerating.)
Why do people who should be calling out bad actors instead tell the Cassandras to go away? Because to speak the truth would have been to say that people who agree with Trump are authoritarians, racists, or other bad things, and that would be impolite. People like me were not merely saying that Trump is anti-American but that an entire political party was lining up behind him to subvert core American values. Then, as the evidence mounted throughout Trump's term and after, the people who had claimed that there was nothing to worry about felt compelled to protect their reputations by continuing to deny having been proved wrong at every step of the way.
Worse, we heard plenty of rank idiocy. Soon-to-be-ex-Congressman Adam Kinzinger has since expressed regret for having opposed Trump's first impeachment, but at the time, Kinzinger joined in the wailing about Democrats wanting to impeach the president because they "couldn't accept that they lost in 2016" and wanted to "overturn election results." Well yes, that is what impeachment does, by definition. The question is not whether Democrats were unhappy with Trump's minoritarian win but whether Trump had done something impeachable after cashing in on that win. He had.
Even more than the fear of deviating from groupthink, however, this studied refusal to take serious things seriously resembles nothing so much as the jaded cool of hipsters. In a 2017 column, I quoted a self-identified hipster's description of the "laconic and dismissive attitudes" that hipsters must model. Most importantly, the automatic impulse is to be suspicious of sincerity and earnestness. When someone says that the US is on the precipice of a fascist takeover, the cool kids' response is to say, "Oh, get a grip. Everything will be fine."
Too late, we are now seeing many people wake up to this pattern in the context of abortion. The political cartoonist Jen Sorenson, for example, shows in 6 frames a time line in which every warning about the assault on abortion rights was laughed off and diminished, including this retort: "There you go with your gender-feminist identity politics!" Nothing ever matters, because it is always possible to say that people are worry-warts, or do-gooders, or simply overwrought.
By the time it is clear that the bad thing is happening, it is too late.
But maybe what I am describing here -- having seen the danger of Trump from the beginning -- was merely one of those lucky guesses. (Again, "lucky" hardly seems an apt word under the circumstances.) There are people who said the same thing about Barack Obama, after all, spending years making fantastic claims that he was abusing the presidency in myriad ways (where fantastic in this context means "based on outlandish fantasies"). They accused him of being a budding dictator, using government agencies to punish his political opponents, issuing edicts without a popular mandate, and on and on. They were wrong about Obama, but the same accusations ended up being true about Trump. Will a person who continually predicts a fascist takeover end up being right simply by the law of averages?
That, however, is in fact a different phenomenon. Those predictions about Obama did not merely turn out to be wrong but were spat out in bad faith from the beginning. Many people who later coalesced around Trump were so upset by the election of a Black man that they were willing to tell any lie they could think of to discredit the new president. That is not people making errant predictions or offering descriptions that could have ended up being true. It is merely people telling obviously insane fictions for political advantage.
Even so, it is possible to make predictions that are defensible ex ante but that do not pan out. In early 2016, for example, I predicted that Jeb Bush would use his sizable cash advantage and his considerable pull with party insiders to make a comeback and win the Republican nomination. Because I view Bush as a worse version of his brother, who was at that point the worst president in my lifetime, that was not a hopeful prediction. It simply seemed likely to be the way things would play out. I was wrong, but not for motivated reasons.
Trump, however, managed to induce people who should have been quite worried about his blatantly authoritarian attitudes to convince themselves that they were not seeing what they were seeing. I am not at all saying that he knew what he was doing, because he simply blunders through life, grabbing the world by the private parts because "when you're a celebrity, they let you do it." There is no way that he could have known that his critics would tell themselves to shut up or would tell each other that they must deny reality, that everyone should just ignore the growing evidence of the subversion of our system of government.
So here we are, with the Supreme Court soon to take up one of the final elements of the end of constitutional democracy (the so-called Independent State Legislatures theory), with civil rights under attack, and with an entire political movement set to finish their work -- with or without Trump -- of turning America into a one-party state.
Yesterday, Professor Dorf ended his afternoon column with this: "And with that--and whatever sunshine and unicorns Professor Buchanan brings tomorrow--I wish my readers a happy Independence Day weekend." Enjoy!