the national interest

The Future of Conservatism Is Flight 93 Elections Forever

Photo: Leah Millis/REUTERS

Michael Anton has been confronted with a dilemma few writers have ever contemplated: how to handle catastrophic success. Anton’s 2016 essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” made a then-shocking case to the right-wing intelligentsia in favor of Donald Trump’s election. Anton chose the arresting metaphor of Flight 93, the hijacked plane from September 11, 2001, whose passengers stormed the cockpit in a desperate bid to stave off certain death. Electing Trump, he conceded, was risky (like seizing a plane from terrorists midair), but the alternative of electing Hillary Clinton posed certain political and demographic death.

Trump won, of course. Anton got a job in the administration, and his millennialist perspective grew so influential that the Trump presidency culminated in a mob of thousands following Anton’s metaphor quite literally, storming the center of government power in a desperate bid to prevent a Democratic presidency.

Either out of modesty, or perhaps the advice of a friendly lawyer, Anton does not take credit for inspiring the January 6 insurrection. Still, his new essay labors under the burden of success. He is arguing for a new strategy for the right in the wake of Trump’s presidency crashing and burning. His position is chilling: He urges Republicans to keep rushing the cabin, to make the Flight 93 “emergency” more or less a permanent condition.

Anton’s analysis of January 6 begins with the premise that Trump was indeed cheated out of the 2020 election. This is a majority belief among conservatives, though they differ on the precise details of the election-stealing theories they endorse. Anton dismisses some of the claims made by Sidney Powell, but argues that officials in five states, one of them controlled by Republicans, engaged in or permitted the mass manufacturing of fake votes in the middle of the night.

“Officials ‘found’ huge tranches of ballots that overwhelmingly—and in some cases exclusively—favored Biden,” he suggests conspiratorially.
Anton is either unaware of, or dismisses out of hand, anodyne explanations: Several states counted same-day ballots (which Trump had successfully urged his supporters to use) before mail ballots, and that precincts in large cities often report after small towns.

Anton, rendering some of Trump’s most absurd logic in plausible-sounding English sentences, identifies what he calls “historical anomalies” suggesting his failed reelection was suspicious:

Beyond the statistical, there are historical anomalies. Since the 19th century, not a single incumbent president who gained votes in his second run has lost. To the contrary, winners often shed votes. Barack Obama’s total, for instance, dropped by 3.5 million. President Trump’s rose by more than 11 million. Certain states and counties have long served as “bellwethers”: win them, and you win it all. President Trump won all the bellwether states and 18 of 19 bellwether counties. Successful incumbents tend to have “coattails”: they carry down-ballot officials from their party over the finish line. The Republicans gained 11 House seats, did not lose the Senate (at least not on election day) in a year when more than two thirds of defending incumbents were Republican, and cleaned up at the state level. Finally, primary voting has long been a leading indicator of the November outcome: dominate the primaries, win the general. No incumbent who received 75% or more of the total primary vote has ever lost re-election; President Trump got 94%.

No precedent lasts forever, and perhaps one or more of these really were broken in 2020. But all of them?

Republicans did gain House seats in 2020, but Anton’s instinct that there was a peculiar disparity between House and presidential results is the opposite of the truth: This election featured a tighter match between House votes and presidential votes than any election in decades. The House map heavily favors Republicans, so Trump could win a majority of districts while still losing the national vote by 7 million ballots. Trump and Anton have turned a fact that is evidence of Republican advantage into evidence of their party being cheated.

Only eight presidents have run for reelection since the modern primary system even existed. He is right that there is an anomaly in Trump losing despite sweeping the primaries and gaining more votes, but an anomaly produced from a minuscule sample size tells you nothing. Anton is observing the fact that Trump cranked up his base to high levels, while also cranking up opposition to even higher levels with his aberrant behavior, and interpreting it not as evidence of Trump screwing up the job, but as evidence of Trump being treated very unfairly.

Anton, however, then proceeds to thread the needle. After arguing the election was probably stolen, he scolds Trump for failing to hire lawyers who could prove it in court, and then raising the expectations of his supporters that he would prevail. “To be blunt, millions of the president’s supporters became convinced that the outcome of the election would be reversed and that he would serve a second term,” he laments. “Not merely that this was the right or correct or just outcome, but that it really would happen.” They were correct to believe the election was stolen, but naïve to think Trump actually had the capacity to do anything to stop the steal.

And so, as a result, there was a wee incident at the Capitol on January 6 that has been blown out of proportion by the corporate media. “As in any large crowd—especially one fueled by unrealistic hopes—a few showed up looking for trouble,” he writes. Long story short, dozens of police officers were hospitalized, some right-wing extremists prowled the halls of Congress looking to execute some elected officials, yadda yadda yadda.

What’s most interesting about Anton’s essay is its failure to revisit the question he originally raised four years before. If electing Trump was a gamble to save the country, did it work? Did the plane land, or did it crash?

Rather than answer the question, Anton simply advances the timetable for the apocalyptic confrontation. The forces of progressivism are renewing their totalitarian program. Trump’s “sensible program” will be branded as “indistinguishable from fascism.” (By whom? He doesn’t tell us.) Also, as a side note, “The government is gearing up to get into the act, with new legislation proposed by Senator Dick Durbin, and seemingly endorsed by President Biden in his Inaugural Address, that criminalizes speech by linking regime opposition to ‘white supremacy’ and ‘terror.’” How is a law criminalizing opposition to the government going to gain the support of at least ten Republican senators? And then, why would five Supreme Court justices ignore the obvious First Amendment challenge of such a law? Anton is too hysterical to tell us.

Instead, he looks longingly forward to a new phase of the struggle. Biden’s narrow majority will obviously, necessarily seek to bully Trump voters: “Does the Blue coalition really have the chops—that is, not merely the will but also the wherewithal—to cow and dominate at least 75 million independent-minded, self-sufficient, and (in many cases) ornery Americans?” (Note that Anton follows the Trumpist convention of describing his 74 million voters as “75 million.”) Toward this end, he sees the January 6 insurrection as a positive sign, “show[ing] that the revolutionary spirit which gave birth to this nation is not entirely dead and may in fact be stirring toward more outward expressions of discontent.”

Anton’s revolutionary dialectic does not identify any historical endpoint for the struggle. At one point, he casually suggests Republicans must prevent a national popular vote, because such an arrangement “guarantees a Democratic win in every presidential election henceforth.” I strongly disagree, but it’s notable that Anton believes Republicans will never command a national majority but are nonetheless entitled — nay, compelled — to hold power. He doesn’t lay out any mechanism for persuading a majority of the country to accept the Republican vision. Will to power is the only force his analysis can recognize.

First he told conservatives they must support Trump once, in a desperate gamble to save the country from metaphorical death. Now they must support Trumpism forever. And the original trope of ordinary citizens rising up and taking the law into their own hands is evolving from a metaphor to a very literal political program.

The Future of Conservatism Is Flight 93 Elections Forever