It seems like only yesterday that America’s leading organs of elite consensus were engulfed by a full-fledged panic that the country was on the cusp of all-out Civil War. The means by which this prophesied conflict would be instigated — much less fought — were never made exactly clear, but that wasn’t the point. After all, logistical or operational specifics are immaterial when it’s already been ordained that something unimaginably, harrowingly catastrophic is just around the corner.
“This is not a drill. The Reichstag is burning,” blared a five-alarm-fire warning in the Washington Post by Dana Milbank, who may want to consider a title change from “columnist” to “in-house hysteric”. Not to be outdone, establishment weather-vane Thomas Friedman joined the fray in the New York Times with an equally shocking exhortation: “I can’t say this any more clearly,” he hyperventilated. “Our democracy is in terrible danger — more danger than it has been since the Civil War, more danger than after Pearl Harbor, more danger than during the Cuban missile crisis […]”.
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If these fevered prognostications even bore the faintest resemblance to political conditions in the United States, it might seem a bit odd that the pundits in question have since moved on to other subjects. Or to put it this way: if they really believed their own fantastical rhetoric, shouldn’t they have spent the past few weeks taking action more tangible than rattling off a few throwaway columns and browsing Twitter? Not that any “resistance” brigade composed of pallid middle-aged journalists would be especially formidable on the battlefield, but the point is that their conduct doesn’t come anywhere close to matching the incredible alarmism of their words.
More destruction could be in store next month than was wrought in World War II, the most devastating global military conflict in human history? All of civilisation was nearly wiped out in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but we’re supposed to believe that whatever harm is brought about by the election aftermath will exceed that? If so, why aren’t these people stockpiling canned food and training for hand-to-hand combat?
They’re not doing anything of the sort because this latest round of histrionics is just a continuation of a theme that has characterised the Trump era: political and cultural elites, whose psyches have been profoundly damaged, will churn out nonstop waves of hysteria rarely noting afterwards if their frenzied forecasts ever panned out. As a largely accountability-free profession, there is no penalty in the opinion-making world if the catastrophising ultimately proves to be just a bizarre projection of their own angst.
The logic of these latest prophecies, to the extent that any can be discerned amid the haze of paranoia, is that Trump will refuse to abide a “peaceful transition of power” after the election. Instead, he’ll throw the country into some sort of protracted armed insurgency by calling upon white supremacist militias to do his genocidal bidding in the streets. Hugely viral tweets, including one by a credentialed member of the White House press corps, helped foster this belief by alleging (without caveat) that Trump had explicitly incited a Civil War.
This is the most frightening answer I have ever received to any question I have ever asked. I’ve interviewed convicted killers with more empathy. @realDonaldTrump is advocating Civil War. https://t.co/8eMY9Csuhp
— Brian J. Karem (@BrianKarem) September 23, 2020
Of course, the basis for the allegation was a typically garbled comment by Trump at a press conference. But there had already been an atmosphere of unfounded dread in the air, thanks in part to long disquisitions in The Atlantic — the leading clearinghouse for the neurotic elite speculation — playing out with utmost seriousness various as-yet-fictitious scenarios whereby Trump refuses to concede the election and the American constitutional order summarily crumbles.
Once you accept that this doomsaying is less about Trump himself, and more about an elite media class that has overdosed on five years of Trump-related dopamine rush, a darkly comical aspect emerges. The foot soldiers of Trump’s supposed post-election coup were declared to be the “Proud Boys,” a group of glorified performance artists and trolls who’d barely even register as a political force were it not for all the manufactured coverage intended to elevate them as frightening foils. If it truly falls on them to wage Trump’s Civil War, then this will be the goofiest and least daunting Civil War on record.
And as for the “peaceful transition of power”, it’s possible that Trump will dispute the election results in some fashion. The lawyers are gearing up in both parties, given the country’s wide-scale transition to mail-in-voting.
Irony must be lost on these prophesiers, however, because while Trump did not encounter any overtly violent coup upon assuming office in January 2017, his own transition to power was anything but ordinary. The country’s security state apparatus had launched an unprecedented brazen intervention into electoral politics, and hobbled his administration in a morass of investigation and quasi-scandal before it even began. Trump’s erratic communications style might in some sense violate customary “norms” of American political comity, but the behaviour of the FBI and CIA in 2016-2017 will have a far more long-lasting impact on what’s regarded as “normal” power-transfers.
One wonders how these media organs could ever hope to adapt to post-Trump life, with all the painful withdrawals and lingering psychological damage that will undoubtedly entail. One option is to simply keep going back over and over again for a fix, even with Trump out of office. Chris Hayes of MSNBC recently suggested one potential option: “Some kind of truth and reconciliation commission.” Interesting thought, because if this theoretical “commission” is tasked with uncovering the reasons for Trump’s rise to power, it will find that perhaps the chief culprit is NBC Universal, which provided Trump with a 14-year perch as one of the country’s most well-known network TV personalities.
Either way, the elite-peddled angst about some forthcoming Civil War is made all the more absurd because it almost gives Trump more credit than it deserves. His re-election campaign is flailing, and it has nothing to do with white supremacist militias readying for armed conflict. Compared to his successful 2016 campaign messaging, the current iteration is a hopeless wreck. Much of Trump’s time is spent impotently fuming about the “radical Left”, and he repeatedly brought up the phrase during the depressing first “debate” with Joe Biden.
Review the transcripts from his debate encounters with Hillary Clinton four years ago, however, and you’ll see not one instance of Trump making reference to anything like the “radical Left,” or any of the other heavily-ideologised attack lines that his advisors and handlers this time around have so relentlessly imparted on him to emphasise. Trump’s downfall, should it arrive next month, will be explicable by a variety of factors, ineffectual and incoherent pandemic response paramount among them. But they’ll all be far more banal, and therefore less emotionally satisfying, than those currently engrossing the elite commentariat.
Of course, one can always easily find examples of comparably grandiose doomsaying among pro-Trump partisans scattered throughout the Right-wing media ecosystem. But when the “youth activist” Charlie Kirk pronounced in an address at the Republican convention that Trump is nothing less than the “the bodyguard of Western Civilisation,” this was understood to represent a foolish, deluded Right-wing sensibility. Yet when similarly ridiculous claims are made by respectable elite outlets, the expectation is that all right-minded, well-educated citizens will nod in solemn, knowing agreement.
All of these insane proclamations have to be understood as fulfilling some depraved psychological purpose. This purpose is to elevate combatants in America’s pantomimed Culture War to the status of world-historic combatants, on whose shoulders the fate of the country rests. Many of the purveyors are pure cynical charlatans, but others probably have come to believe their own preposterous rhetoric, which is an indication of how deep the delusion runs.
Among the prophesiers, there is clearly a kind of perverse psychic need for the Trump saga to end with a salaciously climatic conclusion. If you are so inclined — that is, if you are so blinkered by four years of mostly self-inflicted psychological turmoil — then Trump is always going to provide a daily deluge of material that could justify your angst. But a tempered and public-spirited media would have developed strategies by now, five years into the theatrical trolling, to avoid withering into a shrieking stupor every time Trump makes a purposefully-provocative offhand remark. If anything, this emotional fragility has only burnished Trump with an unearned mystique. Because by now, what he’s working with is mostly just schtick.
If Trump goes down to the defeat, it will be largely because of his own incompetence, and one manifestation of that incompetence is that his (admittedly unorthodox) communications style has been only that: a communications style. PR. And for the US intelligentsia to have been so addled and demented by a PR shtick couldn’t be a better demonstration of how vapid and untrustworthy they are.