Minority rule of the mind
Edited by Tommy Craggs
Damon Linker had an op-ed in the New York Times over the weekend that gave new meaning to the term blackpilled. Titled “There is No Happy Ending to America’s Trump Problem,” it starts with Linker dumping on Democrats for their “enthusiasm” following the FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago. It ends: “We may well have found ourselves in a situation with no unambivalently good options.”
In between, Linker makes his case for abject nihilism. Yes, he writes, Trump does deserve to be prosecuted for his “potential mishandling of classified government documents,” among his many other well-known alleged crimes. And yes, Linker acknowledges, a failure to prosecute (and, I’d add, convict) could mean “a potential second term for Mr. Trump in which he is convinced that he can do whatever he wants with complete impunity.”
But there be dragons, Linker warns. Republicans would be enraged. Trump would run again as a “folk-hero outlaw” — even if “from a jail cell” — and, Linker assumes, win. If Trump were somehow denied his party’s nomination or barred from running entirely, Linker implies that would all but guarantee the victory of another Republican, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who would immediately pardon Trump and indict Joe Biden in revenge.
Instead, he writes: “We should embrace a Plan B that defers the dream of a post-presidential perp walk in favor of allowing the political process to run its course.” This echoed the argument Linker made in the Substack that seems to have gotten the Times’ editors’ attention: that the only way to end Trumpism is to see him “defeated at the ballot box by such a convincing margin that even the most passionate of his supporters have to recognize him as a loser.” (Emphasis his.)
This is the part of the response where I fill in Linker’s backstory. He is a well-known Gen X conservative heretic: a former speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani and ex-senior editor of the reactionary Christian intellectual journal First Things, who publicly denounced his former colleagues over their support for theocracy, and later abandoned both Catholicism and the GOP. I’d point out that Linker has gone on record against every attempt to hold Trump materially accountable for anything, from the Muslim ban to his first impeachment over his Ukrainian arms-for-dirt quid pro quo. On the question of whether to indict Trump for his attempt on Jan. 6, 2021, to “overthrow our democracy” (as Linker correctly characterized Trump’s failed self-coup), he wrote: “I reluctantly, but firmly, come down on the side of No.”
In other words, I’d argue that his opinion here isn’t really worth paying attention to, because he always lands on the same answer when it comes to pursuing accountability for Republican presidents: He’s against it. And he argues in every case that trying to do so only somehow redound to the benefit of his former friends on the right. That’s because Linker believes that the only thing that can stop a right-wing leader is the voluntary defection of their base — a thing that he also seems to believe deep down will never happen. (I even could get into some amateur psychoanalysis of that position: of course, the reluctant apostate thinks mass apostasy is the only solution to a political crisis.)
But it’s also all irrelevant. We’re all entitled to whatever stories we want to tell ourselves. What I’m more interested in is why such a bleak, pointless argument — that there’s nothing any lover of democracy can do in the face of Trumpism besides sit back and hope for the best — made it from Substack to the most influential opinion page in the country.
I don’t know, but I have a guess. I think it’s because the Times, like a lot of the media establishment, shares Linker’s most basic assumption: that the reactionary minority that backs the embattled former president is more powerful, and inherently more legitimate, than the much larger public it seeks to rule. And it’s their shared terror of an ever-imminent backlash from that minority that, to them, makes that conclusion seem inevitable.
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The Times started invoking the specter of backlash in its news pages immediately after the Mar-a-Lago raid. The opinion section followed suit with a spate of columns: though Linker doesn’t explicitly use the word, it showed up in the lede of Rich Lowry’s guest essay, which made almost the exact same argument the very next day.
“Backlash” was coined in the Industrial Revolution; it used to (and in engineering still does) describe the recoil resulting from an imbalance in a mechanism. According to historian Lawrence Glickman, it entered U.S. political discourse in 1963 as a metaphor to describe the reaction to the Civil Rights movement. Though it has since become a more neutral term, it often retains its underlying sense: a populist — and in the U.S. context generally conservative — reaction to social change.
Such reactions tend to be cruel and violent affairs — awful from the perspective of human rights and democracy — whether it’s the rise of Jim Crow after Reconstruction, the clawing back of rights won by the women’s liberation movement, or the various waves of moral panic and repression in response to the advancement of trans rights and the massive Black Lives Matter protests that remapped the way many Americans understood race and racism two years ago.
You could describe these reactions other in ways: as sour grapes or a resort to a longstanding desire for authoritariaism. Framing them as a backlash is a way of normalizing them, making them seem at once inevitable — and as one-off reflexive spasms, as opposed to tendencies that have been passed down in American culture for centuries. Just as, in engineering, a carefully calibrated backlash is sometimes necessary for the proper functioning of a machine, political backlash can be conceived us as a kind of corrective necessity — the reining in the supposed excesses of progressive movements — in the eyes of those most invested in the preservation of the status quo.
And what about the far larger numbers of Americans — millions, in every state — who do want to see Trump held to account under the law? One recent poll showed a clear majority of Americans, including 61% of independents, 92% of Democrats, and one in five Republicans, think investigations into Trump’s alleged wrongdoing should continue. In another poll, 53% of respondents said that Trump he should be indicted for his self-coup specifically. Won’t they be furious if a leader who tried to overthrow the U.S. government is allowed to get away with even more crimes? And why assume that, if that process somehow cost him a place on the 2024 ballot, that the voting public would immediately turn to the next available Republican? A Republican hasn’t won the popular vote for the presidency since 2004 — which was the only time it has happened in the last 34 years. Americans, when they are allowed to vote, clearly don’t like what that party is trying to sell.
Of course, the leading opinion makers don’t care about that — for the same reason that, as Jamelle Bouie noted Tuesday, the Times of the 1870s argued that era’s neo-Confederate Democrats shouldn’t be pressured to give up their campaigns of “vigilante lawlessness, discrimination and political violence.” It’s because of the seldom-articulated assumption that certain Americans — white, Christian, aesthetically small-town ones — count more than others, and their preferences must be, if not honored, then at least excused.
Linker briefly tries to wrestle with this in his essay. He says straight out that it is not enough to defeat Trump at the ballot box (yet again!), but to so do this time by an “even larger margin.” How much bigger that margin would have to be he doesn’t say. He then immediately contradicts himself: admitting that Trump’s supporters “will be no more likely to accept that outcome than they were after the 2020 election.” Linker gestures at the fact that his former party has become an aggressively antidemocratic faction — one that is currently doing all it can to rig future elections and elevate putschists and election-deniers in half a dozen swing states. (Linker waves this away with a tepid call on Congress to reform the Electoral Count Act — a bare-minimum step that he describes as if it’s already been accomplished.)
Even after all this, Linker concludes that the risk of a Trump victory — the risk of a return to power of someone who he admits has already tried to overthrow democracy, and won’t respect the results of any election he doesn’t win — is “a risk we can’t avoid.”
In other words, Linker (and perhaps whoever commissioned both his as Lowry’s functionally identical columns on back-to-back days) is effectively calling for preemptive surrender to minority rule. Maybe he’s right about the most likely results: the authoritarian faction is better armed, wealthier on average, and seems impervious to argument and reason. They don’t care what laws Trump has broken, even his attempted overthrow of the U.S. government, because his enemies are theirs. And yes, as we have already seen, any electoral defeat or attempt to use the law against him will provoke a furious, if not violent, reaction.
But what is the point of giving into them without a fight? For the moment, allies of democracy have the law and a demonstrable majority of Americans on our side. Might as well use them while we still can.