The most intellectually important essay of the 2016 election cycle, and possibly of the whole political era that has begun, is “The Flight 93 Election.” Its previously anonymous author turns out to be former Bush administration speechwriter Michael Anton, reports Michael Warren. Anton is now working as a senior national security official in the Trump administration. Anton’s role in the administration lends his signature essay all the more importance as a statement of Trumpism. The essay has many interesting aspects, which made it the subject of fervent debate during the election. But its most notable characteristic is its almost textbook justification for authoritarianism.
The premise of democracy is that — unlike dictatorships, in which the winning side gains total and essentially permanent power — the losers can accept defeat, because they know they have a chance to win subsequent elections. Without that predicate in place, the system collapses. Anton’s essay makes the case that conservatives should support Trump because, despite his manifest flaws, they cannot survive a single election defeat.
Anton makes the case through the metaphor that carries his essay. Conservatives are like the passengers on Flight 93, an aircraft that has been hijacked by Al Qaeda terrorists and is headed for destruction. Anton presses home the motif through an evolving series of duplicative metaphors. “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die,” he begins. And then: “If you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto.” And then: “We are headed off a cliff.” Switching from metaphors to direct argument, Anton predicts in the essay that a Hillary Clinton victory would usher in “vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent.”
Anton describes the government (pre-Trump) as “the junta.” This cannot be dismissed as mere rhetorical exaggeration. To Anton, the rising share of the nonwhite population is a foreign invasion: “The ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle,” he writes. He describes the children of immigrants as “ringers to form a permanent electoral majority.” The racial and political implications of this argument are both clear and extreme: Anton believes the white Republican base is the only legitimate governing coalition. Democratic governments are inherently illegitimate by dint of their racial cast.
Race is integral to Anton’s sense of his own persecution. He sees the enthusiasm for Trump among avowed white supremacists as more reason to support Trump: “The Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes,” he argues. “And how does one deal with a Nazi — that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.” It is a fascinating line of reasoning: There are Nazis supporting his chosen candidate, therefore the left will crush conservatives like Nazis, therefore his chosen candidate’s triumph is all the more necessary.
If there is a single passage of the essay that most succinctly summarizes its case, it is this: “I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live.” Anton equates all these things — his party, his country, and his people, insisting that four more years of a Democratic presidency will extinguish all three. This is a textbook example of the kind of reasoning, the conviction that a single election defeat will usher in permanent destruction, that liberal theorists see as inimical to democratic government.
It would be a mistake to attribute too much power and influence to a single essay. “The Flight 93 Election” did not change very much. As I argued a few months ago, currents of authoritarianism have run through conservative thought for years. What Anton’s essay did was to synthesize and intellectualize the right-wing case against democracy and marshal it on behalf of the Republican party presidential nominee. And now that nominee has won, and his administration has appropriately brought onboard the author of authoritarianism.