Becoming What We Despise

Why is Donald Trump's habitual use of projection -- accusing others of doing exactly what he does or wants to do, from saying that it is the Democrats who are rigging elections to calling his opponents racists to saying that President Biden is running a "Gestapo Administration" -- such a problem?  For those of us who fervently oppose Donald Trump and the political movement that he leads, his constant efforts to preempt or at least muddle accurate descriptions of what he is doing make it feel nearly impossible to say something clearly.  "Trump is a fascist!"  "No, you're the fascist!!"

And this carries over to Trump's supporters.  When Bill Barr recently re-flipped his way back into the Trump-supporting camp, he actually said this: "I think all this stuff about a threat to democracy – I think the real threat to democracy is the progressive movement and the Biden administration."  Why say that?  After all, Barr could have stuck with another part of his answer: "I will vote for Trump because I believe he will do less damage over the four years. ... I think when you have a Hobson’s choice, you have to pick the lesser of two evils. ...  I agreed with Trump’s policies, [which] were sound."

In other words, Barr could have (using whatever euphemisms he liked) simply admitted that he cares about what he cares about -- taking away women's freedom, redistributing income and wealth upward, punishing people for being poor, pushing LGBTQ+ people back into the closet (at best), harming immigrants, and so on -- and that he would in fact be happy not to have to worry about losing elections lest those preferred policies one day be overturned.  He could have said this: "I fervently believe that having the power to carry out Christian nationalism's substantive agenda is more important than how we take hold of that power."  Instead, he said, "I know you are, but what am I?"

Indeed, the Trumpian right's effort to project is now so meta that they will even accuse the rest of us of doing the projecting.  One columnist for The Wall Street Journal's hard-right editorial page, for example, recently decided to publish a column under this headline and sub-headline: "Trump as Dictator Is a Classic Case of Projection: Biden and his supporters try to excuse and deflect attention from their own authoritarian actions."  This is all from the same schoolyard toolbox that includes classics like: "Why are you hitting yourself?"

Why is this not a case where we must throw up our hands and say that both sides are doing the same thing, with plenty of blame to go around?  In short, content matters, even though (or especially because) it is always possible simply to accuse someone else of doing a bad thing.  When two people say that the other is trying to steal an election, it matters that one side is intimidating poll workers and threatening unfriendly voters while the other side is simply campaigning.  Trump even claimed a few months ago that MSNBC's coverage of him "is nothing but a 24 hour hit job on Donald J. Trump and the Republican Party for purposes of ELECTION INTERFERENCE" (all caps in original, of course).  So unfriendly media coverage is now election interference.  Got it.

Again, we cannot allow the substance to be lost in a "to be fair, both sides are accusing the other of X" blur.  Those who oppose Trump -- Democrats, independents, NeverTrump Republicans -- are saying things that are true, and Trump is lying.  "But Trump says you're lying" is hardly surprising, but there is no reason to take his assertions as presumptively true.

The point is that we are stuck in an environment in which Democrats are trying to maintain their commitment to playing by the rules but have every reason to worry that that will not be enough to win (or to secure that win in the face of post-election cheating and violence).  And if Trump becomes President again, there will be no opportunity for the losing side to say, "That's disappointing, but we can regroup and get 'em next time!"  There will be no next time if Trump takes power, and even though Trump claims that "there will be no more elections if the Democrats win," he is not only projecting but also has absolutely no factual basis for making such a wild assertion.

In my most recent column here on Dorf on Law, I asked whether those who oppose Trump and Trumpism might ever decide to lie, cheat, and steal in order to prevent Trump and the Republicans from imposing one-party rule.  That is, could the anti-Trump side at some point conclude that the only way to prevent the worst possible outcome is to fight fire with fire?  As I put it in that column: "[C]ould the consequences of playing by the rules be so bad that it is necessary to become what we despise?"

The short answer is that there must be some point at which a danger is so clear and so present -- and so horrible -- that a decent person would decide to "break glass in case of emergency."  Most people cannot imagine ever killing a person, and even upon witnessing something horrific, decent people would do everything possible to find alternatives to taking the law into their own hands.  But if we saw someone, say, in the act of murdering another person and no one else were around to help, we could feel morally compelled to kill.  To be clear about myself, I might in fact fail even in the most morally clear situation, because I suspect that I would falter in the moment due to the sheer enormity of what I was trying to do.  But that is a separate matter.

Knowing that there is a worst-case exception is hardly limited to my hypothetical example in the paragraph above.  Professor Dorf once argued (although I cannot find the column [Update: here it is]) that US law needs to be as clear as possible that torture is illegal, even if the possible torturer convinces himself that he faces the classic "ticking time-bomb scenario."  Why is that the best approach?  Not because it sets a good example for other nations (although it does), and not because it means that no one would ever take the fateful step into the abyss.  It is, in fact, possible that someone would transgress in a bad enough situation, but the rules and norms against torture need to seem so ironclad that we would not have to worry about "close enough" rationalizations that could put us on a slippery slope.  If anyone ever thinks that they are in the permissible zone created by extreme peril, they should act in the knowledge that they are truly out of bounds and had better be very sure about why they are doing something so unthinkable.

Part of the presumption against becoming what we despise involves worrying about what we will become after "virtuously" invoking the this-time-is-bad-enough-to-justify-it exception.  If Democrats were to hold power after 2024 by playing that ultimate kind of hardball, would there be any coming back?  Even if they believed that they could put the genie back in the bottle and go back to having competitive elections, would they first eliminate gerrymandering and voter suppression?  And if that seemed like a good idea, would they then be tempted to make other changes before reopening the possibility of needing to relinquish power after losing fair and square?

Historically, do we know whether extra-legal efforts to end or prevent autocracy ever end well?  Do, for example, "the generals" ever go back to the Officers' Club and let the new politicians rule?  Sometimes they do, but unsurprisingly, things usually get worse rather than better.  This is all the more reason to hold off unless and until one is absolutely sure that there is no other way out.

Also unsurprisingly, the Trumpists are already claiming that this is what they are in the process of doing.  "Take your country back" and such slogans are all based on the belief that "the deep state" and "the globalists" have already so completely ruined the country/world that democracy has become an unacceptably expensive indulgence.  It is true that American society has moved away from 1950's social norms, and if a person thinks that those are the markers of what made America great, they will correctly conclude that relying on the members of that society to vote to return to a repressive past is a fool's game.

Again, that is why the substance matters.  On one level, we could describe western pluralism as merely one social construct that one side imposes on an unwilling other side, just as a theocracy would do in the opposite direction.  At some point, however, that kind of content-free intellectualizing becomes dishonest.  "He wants to kill gay people, whereas I want to force him to accept gay people's right to exist," is not a situation in which one merely shrugs and says: "Oh well, reasonable minds can differ."

Worse, however, we know already that the Trumpists are going to freak out even if they lose an election in which there is no evidence of wrongdoing.  That is what happened in 2020, and they have already made clear that they will do so again.  How much more extreme will their reaction become if the anti-Trump side in fact validates the suspicion that "the left is willing to cheat"?  Even if the Democrats could demonstrate that they cheated to undo the cheating that Republicans were already doing, they would still have crossed the line from "going high when they go low" to going as low as necessary.

After what would amount to a "counter-coup to prevent Trump's coup," the freakout on the right would be a frightful thing.  Even leaving aside the frantic pearl-clutching that we would see from mainstream news organizations, going back to the before times would be nearly impossible.  Does that mean that, in the final analysis, there should be an absolute commitment by those who oppose Trumpism never to cross the line?  Even taking all of those negative consequences into account, one could still imagine that the alternative would be worse.  In the ticking time-bomb scenario, after all, the alternative is that the evildoers will blow up the world.  What should we be willing to do to stop that from happening?

Lest anyone think that I am arguing that Democrats should start cheating or should plan to do so later this year, let me be clear that I am not saying that at all.  I am instead describing the mental process that can lead people to that most momentous of decisions.  Even when one side is lying and cheating and would do horrible things if it came back into power, the other side should still be committed to do everything up to but not including becoming what we despise.  And as I noted above, I am among the faint of heart who could never even carry out a righteous wrongdoing, which means that I should be the last person to tell other people (even if I believed it) to do whatever is necessary.

The interesting question for the US in 2024 is whether the Democrats will look at the possible consequences of a Trump restoration and decide that extreme times call for extreme measures.  I strongly doubt that they will do so, for any number of reasons.  Because I am certain that Trump will stop at nothing and that the theocracy that the Trumpists will then create guarantees misery on a large scale, I shudder for what will come after the Democrats do not push back.  Would a more ruthless Democratic Party be better for the future of America?  Maybe, maybe not.  But because that is not the Democratic Party that exists in our world, we should be realistic about what comes next.