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Yearning for Trumpocalypse: what's behind a viral conservative essay

Comparing America to Flight 93, Trumpists argue that maybe we must be broken to be saved.

A passport recovered from the wreckage of Flight 93, which crashed on 9/11 after passengers stormed the cockpit to sabotage the hijacking.
A passport recovered from the wreckage of Flight 93, which crashed on 9/11 after passengers stormed the cockpit to sabotage the hijacking. It’s an example that some Trumpist conservatives are taking to heart.
RJ Sangosti/Denver Post via Getty

In the past week, thousands of conservatives have heard and heeded a warning: America has been hijacked — and electing Donald Trump is their last chance to storm the cockpit before it crashes.

The warning came from the website of the Claremont Review of Books, an anti-establishment but intellectual conservative publication. It’s called “The Flight 93 Election” — a reference to the only plane hijacked on 9/11 that didn’t make it to the hijackers’ destination.

It begins:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.

The author of the Claremont essay — who goes by the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus — is somewhat less hostile to Trump than many other conservatives, or at least he likes the message more than the messenger. Trump, he says, has “identified the right stance on today’s most salient issues.”

In particular, he’s spotted the imminent threat posed to America by mass immigration — a threat so imminent that the 2016 election may literally be America’s last chance to save itself.

“The Left, the Democrats, and the bipartisan junta,” Publius writes, “think they are on the cusp of a permanent victory that will forever obviate the need to pretend to respect democratic and constitutional niceties. Because they are.”

A mourner at the crash site of the actual Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.
Tom Mihalek/AFP via Getty

The essay isn’t popular because it’s provocative — or at least, not solely so. Among Trump supporters, the idea that this election is the “last chance” for America is more prevalent than you might think.

It’s a particular manifestation of a shift in the American mood. Americans have long had a preference for politicians who pretend they aren’t politicians — for “change” candidates and outsiders. That preference is beginning to get more insistent and urgent, turning into a demand for immediate change. At the same time, social movements are putting forward the idea that the status quo in American society isn’t what needs to be saved — that the status quo itself is the problem, and that saving America will require a decisive break with the path it’s currently on.

Inject those moods into the Trumpist outlook that mass immigration is the greatest threat to American identity, and you get Publius — and his desire to charge the cockpit.

If Hillary Clinton and her ilk have hijacked the plane of state in this metaphor, they did it a long time ago. The flight course has been set. The status quo itself is poisonous. “[I]f you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed,” Publius chides NeverTrump conservatives, “then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong.”

Publius — a contributor to the short-lived Journal of American Greatness, which was essentially an attempt to articulate a High Trumpism — paraphrases one of the journal’s key themes: “Only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump rise.”

“It is therefore puzzling,” he continues, “that those most horrified by Trump are the least willing to consider the possibility that the republic is dying.”

The republic is dying.

You may die anyway ... if you don’t try, death is certain.

Charge the cockpit, or you die.

A Navy ship spells out “Let’s Roll,” the motto of the passengers who stormed Flight 93, on the one-year anniversary of 9/11.
A Navy ship spells out “Let’s Roll,” the motto of the passengers who stormed Flight 93, on the one-year anniversary of 9/11.
Mate Steven L. Cooke/US Navy via Getty

Politics is seeping into American public life — and with it, the belief that the status quo isn’t worth saving

We’ve seen in this cycle — in the candidacy of Bernie Sanders as well as Donald Trump — the appeal of a politics that puts forward a robust alternative vision for society. A politics that doesn’t just promise improvements to the lives of individual voters but declares what America itself ought to be.

That’s not a vision that can be put into practice by tinkering at the margins. Before Silicon Valley taught us to call it “disruption,” economics professors and capitalists called it “creative destruction.” It’s a more honest name: It acknowledges that sometimes things will be not just nudged aside but broken. But it’s also a happier one. It offers the possibility of creation: a generation of something new.

If Americans are less enamored of the status quo, and more willing to destroy it, it makes some sense: It’s no longer as easy as it was 10 or 20 years ago to pretend that political change can be contained to politics and the rest of society can continue apace. It’s harder than it was a decade ago to pretend that every aspect of public life — sports, pop culture, how everyday people interact with each other — isn’t inflected by politics.

It’s extremely hard to pretend that American society is unified and dynamic when the nation’s being torn apart by a controversy over a backup San Francisco quarterback’s decision to take a knee when the national anthem is played. For either side of the new culture wars, signs of change for the worse are all around.

Both the alt-right and Black Lives Matter (to name two examples) are social movements that have a politics but are not contained to the electoral sphere. Neither began with this election, and neither will end with it.

They’re transformational movements, holding out the promise that American society can be remade into something better. But both acknowledge that the status quo needs to be cracked first — not just in politics but in society as a whole. Brunchers need to be confronted by “die-ins;” politically correct social justice warriors need to be bombarded with abuse and memes. Working within the system is anathema, because the system itself is sick.

Protesters arrested for blocking a highway in Ferguson, MO on the anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown.
Blocking highways has become an increasingly popular protest tactic — born of the idea that calling attention to social ills is more important than allowing everyone to get where they’re going on time.
Scott Olson via Getty

Ironically, of course, neither of them sees the other as something transformational or radical. Publius looks at the Black Lives Matter movement as part of the power structure that is ineradicably moving America to the left (and downward); to racial justice activists, the alt-right is just a more overt version of the structural racism that is America’s original sin.

Both believe the other is the inevitable consequence of following the status quo. Because the status quo is not just stagnant; it’s not just standing in the way of American virtue. It is dynamic. It is moving America in the wrong direction. It is evil. It is hijacking the plane.

Anticipating an apocalypse and an Armageddon

The idea that the American republic is on the verge of ruin has been around for a while. But it’s been understandably fringy. Ronald Reagan once said, “Freedom is never one more than one generation away from extinction” — while the quote doesn’t sound that dire in context, that’s the version I’ve seen on the business card of a conservative activist or two.

But for those who believe the point of no return is close, it appears to be getting even closer. There are supporters of Donald Trump convinced that if America doesn’t make the right choice in November, it won’t get another chance.

“There’s no next election. This is it,” Rudy Giuliani told America at the Republican National Convention. “There’s no time left to revive our great country.”

It’s a sentiment I’ve heard echoed by Trump supporters like the ones I talked to in Massachusetts this spring — that America has been going in the wrong direction for quite some time now, and that this might be the last chance voters like them have to destroy the cancer before it metastasizes.

The change here isn’t just in the amplitude of rhetoric — a way to rally “our team” in a polarized age. It’s the belief that the status quo must be destroyed for something better to replace it.

It’s the counterpart to the idea in some leftist circles that it’s better for the left if Trump wins the election, because a Trump administration would make the status quo more unstable and make true leftism a more appealing alternative.

That idea isn’t terribly popular (indeed, it’s easy to overstate its prevalence), but there certainly are a few leftists embracing it as an act of faith. “Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately, if he gets in,” Susan Sarandon said in March. “Then things will really, you know, explode.”

Sarandon and Publius obviously have different levels of certainty about each candidate: Sarandon’s choice only makes sense if she’s confident that things will get so much worse under Trump that revolution will be imminent, whereas Publius appears much less certain about what Trump will do than Clinton. But both understand that for the society they want, something has to break first — and there’ll need to be an open fight for the soul of America.

This sort of rhetoric is described as “apocalyptic” — the end of the world. And it is that. But more specifically, they’re gearing up for the battle at the apocalypse between good and evil. They’re suiting up for Armageddon.

Americans have long fetishized change in politics — but they had faith in individuals

Here is what is not going on, despite what the apocalyptics might like you to believe: The American public is not suddenly waking up to the idea that they don’t like the status quo in Washington.

Indeed, the status quo in presidential politics is to run against the status quo. Hillary Clinton, if she wins, would break a 30-year streak of presidents riding into office by running as Washington outsiders. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama had a combined two years of federal government experience between them, and all ran on the idea that they weren’t typical politicians — Clinton and Bush in their demeanors, Obama, even more so, in his promise of “change” and political transformation.

obama change

“Washington is broken” is a truism; it’s one of the few remaining phrases that you can imagine in a Democratic or Republican stump speech. There’s a reason that Clinton’s “America Is Already Great” is something of an off-putting slogan; it appears to be relatively cool with the status quo, and the status quo is generally assumed to be terrible.

But traditionally, even when people didn’t love American institutions, they had faith in American individuals. They didn’t like Congress, but they liked their member of Congress; they might not have approved of the track the country was on at present, but they had confidence that Americans would pick the right people given the chance.

Barack Obama made his name in politics by praising Americans for their ability to live peacefully in diversity, and suggesting that American politics could take a cue from American society. Mitt Romney ran as an apotheosis of the idea that the free market is simply more dynamic and efficient than government; that American politics could take a cue from American business.

Both, in their way, portrayed government as something ossified, stale, and stagnant that sat on top of the dynamic, creative, compassionate “real America.” It was certainly stale and maybe even oppressive, but, at worst, it was something that kept America from being as good as it could otherwise be. And with a little fresh blood — with people who brought the things that made America great into the halls of government — it could be brought back in sync.

Americans have gotten more impatient for change — and less tolerant of their own politicians to deliver it

Over the past decade or so, something strange has happened. The distrust in American politics writ large has trickled down into a distrust of most politicians — even the ones supposedly on “our side.”

When they elect politicians who promise change, and that change doesn’t materialize, they aren’t terribly patient in granting them an extension. To the contrary, an incumbent — even the most anti-establishment incumbent — is by definition more “Washington” than the next person challenging him.

“Typically,” Gallup explained in a March post, “supporters of the party holding the majority in Congress give the institution significantly more positive ratings than do supporters of the minority party.” But for the past five years, that hasn’t been true. As of March, “Americans of all political stripes give Congress similarly low approval ratings. Currently, 16% of Democrats, 13% of Republicans and 10% of independents approve.”

No one is safe. Voters are even souring on their own members of Congress. In 2014, for the first time in decades of polling, a majority of Americans said they disapproved of the job their own congressional representative was doing in office.

Members of Congress themselves — especially those elected in the past few cycles, many of whom have been Republicans running against both parties’ establishments — appear to understand that they’ve set up a paradox for themselves. They spend less time in Washington; they don’t buy housing here. Former Sen. Evan Bayh, who’s running for Senate again in Indiana, has gotten himself a heap of bad publicity because he spends no time in his Indiana “home.” For all intents and purposes, Bayh lives in Washington; that might have been an expected thing for a senator to do in past years, but it’s less usual now.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) sleeps in his office.
Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune via Getty

But it’s not clear that there’s anything politicians can do to protect themselves from creeping distrust. There’s a downward trend, in Gallup polling, in the number of Americans who believe their member of Congress is not corrupt, or that he puts his constituents ahead of special interests. Americans still have more faith in their own members of Congress than in Congress as a whole, but a growing bloc of voters have lost faith in both.

In 2014, Gallup asked an open-ended question: “What would you do to fix Congress?” The most common answer by far — given, unprompted, by 22 percent of voters — was some variation on “kick them all out and replace them.” (Electing more Democrats and electing more Republicans, by contrast, were mentioned a combined 3 percent of the time.)

Saving America from its complacent majority

It goes deeper. The despair has eroded Americans’ faith in their own ability, collectively.

Publius writes a lot about conservatism, but what he’s actually calling for in storming the cockpit is vanguardism. He believes in the ability of a few concerned citizens to save the republic from itself.

Of course, in a republic, the political status quo (not to mention the social status quo) is created by the people. So believing that the status quo is a force for evil — and that you need a vanguard to fight it — requires believing that many of your fellow Americans are complicit or, at best, complacent.

Publius, like many other Trumpist conservatives, believes that true American values are being diluted by mass “Third World immigration” of people who don’t care about liberty. But ultimately, he understands that the fault lies not outside the borders but in Americans themselves. “We Americans have chosen, in our foolishness, to disunite the country through stupid immigration, economic, and foreign policies,” he admits at one point.

At another: “This is insane. This is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die.”

It’s not that the majority of Americans are actually wrong, mind you. The Trumpian vanguard is fighting on the silent majority’s behalf. But because that majority is silent, it is weak and complacent, unwilling to speak up on its own behalf.

This isn’t a hard sell. American voters have lost faith not just in their politicians but in each other. In 1997, 64 percent of Americans said they had “trust and confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions.” In 2015, only 35 percent did.

Obviously, the remaining 65 percent don’t all believe that the political status quo is irredeemable. But some of them do. In 1997, only 3 percent of Americans had no “trust and confidence in the American people” at all; in 2015, 14 percent of Americans had lost faith.

Here’s how Publius’s essay ends:

The election of 2016 is a test—in my view, the final test—of whether there is any virtù left in what used to be the core of the American nation. If they cannot rouse themselves simply to vote for the first candidate in a generation who pledges to advance their interests […] then they are doomed. They may not deserve the fate that will befall them, but they will suffer it regardless.

The belief that your neighbors are morally weak is emboldening; it allows you to feel that they agree with you and you’re acting on their behalf, but that you need to act to protect them from themselves. It allows you to feel you might need to disrupt their lives to, ultimately, make them better.

The manic optimism of believing a better society is possible

If you think about Publius’s vanguardism as an apocalypse, it seems pessimistic: “You might die anyway.” But it’s not, really. It’s optimistic, almost to the point of mania.

”Will this work?” Publius asks rhetorically. Will Trump actually save the republic? “Ask a pessimist, get a pessimistic answer. So don’t ask. Ask instead: Is it worth trying? Is it better than the alternative?

The answer, he implies, is that it is. The status quo — allowing the terrorists to crash the plane — is certain death on a long, slow, ecological scale, the death of a society. The disruption — allowing Trump into the cockpit — offers the possibility that the status quo might be broken and something better allowed to grow.

Publius isn’t dreading the apocalypse. He’s looking forward to the Armageddon: to the climactic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

It’s not at all a foregone conclusion that this is a fight his side will win. But it’s the possibility that excites Publius. “A Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto,” he writes. “With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”

It’s not the optimism of an accomplishment. It’s the optimism of the commander in the field, on the battle’s eve.