In my office there’s a framed poster of Godwin’s Law: as the length of a conversation increases, the probability of a Nazi reference rises to one. After that, all rational discussion comes to an end. The author of the meme, internet legend Mike Godwin, autographed it for me, and as the editor of an online debate journal, I refer to it often. Sadly.
When Donald Trump was elected president, I draped my print of Godwin’s Law in black: It was clear that we were going to need some entirely new and more flexible laws in the time to come. How else to even talk about politics, with anyone?
More to the point: in a world dominated by a quite oddly specific political disaster narrative, what happens when the genuinely disastrous occurs – or even just the inexcusably lousy – and when whatever is happening is not entirely in keeping with our script? What do we do when a disaster looms all around us, right at this moment, only it’s not in a form that we’re expecting? What if it’s one that we’re not even trying to care about yet? That’s close to where I think we are today.
Now, rational discussion had arguably ceased at some point long before the election. For this I shamelessly blame both sides. I reject the familiar response that it’s glib, and a form of blame deflection, to claim that both sides are contributing to some problem or another. Both sides most emphatically did contribute here, and they continue to contribute to the problem, and either way it’s lousy and annoying to be defenseless whenever it just so happens that, yes indeed, both sides are to blame. Both sides are.
Throughout the fall, into the winter, and now as the spring arrives, the left has been entertaining an alarming set of highly specific expectations about the Trump administration. Key here is that these are frequently point-for-point the very same expectations that the right entertained about Obama.
Consider the myths that we all cherish: the president of the wrong party is dangerously incompetent. He fawns unacceptably in front of certain foreign leaders. He shows contempt for tradition and for the unwritten rules of the office. He is himself under the sway of foreign ideas, foreign advisors, and foreign money. Long-term, he will end American democracy. He will replace it with authoritarianism, a brutal and nefarious plan that he as masterminded for years and years. He may just be our last president.
And there will be camps. Oh yes, there will be camps.
There are always camps. We do not disagree on this fact. We disagree only on just whose face will appear on the jumbotron over the sign reading Arbeit Macht Frei. Camps are a permanent fixture of the political imagination, if not of the actual landscape. One hardly dares to predict otherwise; it seems rude to deny the general opinion about what we’re in for. Which is bog standard Adolf Hitler. When both left and right agree, who am I to say otherwise?
I could pick at the narrative; I could note its inconsistencies easily enough: A president cannot both be dangerously incompetent and be a patient, omnicompetent evil genius. Something clearly must give, but somehow nothing ever does.
Is it too tendentious, meanwhile, to observe that we still have a shockingly high rate of incarceration completely without the internment camps of our political mythology? Is it too much to note that we fret about these secretly planned internment camps while ignoring the clear and overt signals from the current administration that it wants to expand the prison-industrial complex? Does calling them prisons make our enduring love affair morally okay?
How can we signal concern without falling into the same predictable tropes? Can we at least try? There are plenty of other ways for a republic to go to hell, aren’t there? And how can we separate the credible signals from the incredible? It might be good to be able to do that.
Let’s start with the obvious. “My side is freaking out” is an unreliable indicator from a Bayesian standpoint. It seems likely both to overinclude and to underinclude, to generate false positives and false negatives aplenty. Whichever side it is, let’s take a moment and recognize that “my side” freaks out in some downright predictable ways, and that just lately “my side” has been doing it all the time. I have no particular reason to think that these freakouts are especially likely to predict anything, because the other side – whichever side that is – is freaking out in some way that’s point-for-point analogous. And it’s not as though I trust them.
The left freaks out when Trump doesn’t wave to them as he steps on an airplane, or when he likes his steaks well done, or when he resorts to the expedient of scotch taping his necktie: think of the seriousness, the grandeur of the office! The bad taste of it all! And then the left forgets or downplays that it did any such thing. The right imagines that Obama wearing jeans signals a deep Hawaiian-Kenyan contempt for the High Office of the President of the Greatest Republic of Ever and Ever; it sniffs at the suspicious un-Americanness when he orders his hamburger with spicy mustard.
And we know where that leads: to camps, of course.
The specificity of the fear, the disconcertingly innocuous beginnings – a failure to wave! spicy mustard! – and the weird commonality of its structure across the entire political spectrum all render the fear itself improbable. Our love for the potted declension narrative all but certainly blinds us to disasters that we ought to spend our resources averting instead.
It also makes us look like ninnies. Even on the off chance that the declension narrative may be right in every particular, well, who wants to look like a ninny? No one really wants to sound as crazy as the Jade Helm people – particularly if the Jade Helm people happen to be right, and if something exactly like Jade Helm is about to go down for real, with Chinese communists streaming out of tunnels in your local Wal-Mart to overrun the American southwest.
Effectively countering a feared breakdown of liberal democracy may require a set of tactics that we do not yet have. It will certainly require an attitude that we lack: the attitude of levelheaded confidence in the midst of a looming disaster. Confidence not because everything is going well, but precisely because it isn’t, and because only a levelheaded response will do. Not losing our minds begins, prosaically enough, with not losing our minds: Quand on est dans la merde jusqu’au cou, il ne reste plus qu’à chanter. And let’s sing some new tunes while we’re at it.