SABOTAGE! WAR! COUP! Just Stop. Political War Isn’t Real War – And If It Is, You’re Doing It All Wrong.
On Friday, Vice President Mike Pence put a fundraising note titled “SABOTAGE” on his Facebook page. It was a direct rip from an email sent by the Trump campaign earlier this week with the same header. Meanwhile, Trump allies are touting the possibility of a “deep state coup” against Trump, and ripping into conservatives who seem critical of Trump’s behavior over the last two weeks.
Sabotage. Coup. War!
War has always been a part of political rhetoric. From the “war on drugs” to the “war on crime,” from battles against poverty to battles against racism, political commentators and politicians have generally used the language of military violence to gear up their base.
In today’s media environment, war talk is now more commonplace than ever. My mentor, Andrew Breitbart, used #war to describe his mission of taking on what he called the “Democrat-Media Complex.” The left has now labeled itself The Resistance, obviously making reference to European resistance to Nazi rule.
Purple language is par for the course when it comes to politics. The problem begins when people start believing their own hype: when they forget that war in politics is but a shadow of actual war, and instead begin utilizing wartime morality to justify peacetime politics. On the furthest extremes of the left, this has meant Antifa rioting at Berkeley or Black Lives Matter allies rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore or anti-Trump protesters beating up right-wingers at Trump rallies. In the more mainstream left, it means accusing Trump of a coup when he fires his FBI director, fully within legal bounds.
The problem isn’t quite as egregious on the right – there has yet to be any significant violence from the right toward the left. But wartime morality on the right has been used as a cramdown method to justify all the various idiocies and own-goals of President Trump. After all, if you’re in a war and Trump is your president, isn’t it treason to undercut him?
Hence the vitriol from some of Trump’s more ardent supporters against conservatives critical of Trump’s handling of the White House. If the media are trying to launch a “coup” against Trump and you do nothing, you’re obviously a collaborator. If you’re a conservative soldier and you’re not directing your fire full-time at the media – if you’re engaging in “friendly fire” at the White House – you’re a “saboteur.” If you question orders, you’re engaging in dereliction of duty. Shut up, level your guns, and fire in the right directin. Are you really willing to let Trump be wounded simply to preserve “muh principles”? Are you seriously going to call balls and strikes while the grenades are flying?
There are two major problems with this logic.
First, politics is not war. If it were, Trump would now be in a war with the people he represents. Trump represents Americans – all Americans. He answers to them, not the other way around. This means when the media criticize Trump, they aren’t launching a “coup.” They may be engaging in political malpractice with malicious intent. They may be lying. They may be exaggerating. They probably are — quite a lot. But that doesn’t mean that they’re launched a “coup,” and using language like that merely justifies Trump in treating the press as his enemy – which is an actual threat to liberty. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during wartime; FDR interned hundreds of thousands of Japanese. If Trump is in a “war” with the “deep state” and the “elites,” how much breaking of the rules does that justify? Utilizing wartime morality with regard to Trump makes him a wartime leader against his own people, against the “enemy within.” That’s dangerous stuff.
Second, even in terms of political warfare, Trump’s most sycophantic advocates get it wrong. The purpose of a political war against the left is the defeat of the left. In wartime, bad generals get replaced. Pretending they’re doing a wonderful job isn’t tenable. It’s a foolish waste of time to complain that the enemy is mean and nasty and cruel and breaks all the rules. The question is how to defeat them. It would have been idiotic to pretend that George McClellan was doing a wonderful job fighting the Confederacy, or that the original plan for battle in Iraq was working terrifically – that anybody who criticized wartime leadership was undermining the war. Right now, Trump is McClellan. He’s utilizing the Rumsfeld light footprint. Trump doesn’t know how to win the political war; winning an election is merely the beginning of winning a political war. Trump may have won the first battle. So did McClellan. So did Rumsfeld. But now he’s defeating himself.
Moreover, the purpose of fighting a political war against the left is the defeat of untruth. Conservatism is a philosophy of small government and individual liberty predicated on the notion that truth is absolute and objective, and that we are all owed it. The battle against leftism does not require the abandonment of truth – that’s letting the enemy inside the gates. This means that when Trump lies, we should note it. That’s part of winning the battle. Upholding lies and covering for foolishness isn’t a winning strategy. The logic of “side with Stalin to defeat Hitler,” constantly used as an argument for siding with Trump to defeat the left, is fine just so long as you don’t pretend Stalin is a nice guy or that he’s not engaging in human rights atrocities. If you pretend, you’re likely to cede Eastern Europe to him at Yalta.
So, let’s cool it with the war talk, for just a little while at least – or at least recognize that war may be a metaphor for politics, but it is not an analog.