Fighting Trump’s fire with fire dan­ger­ous

San Antonio Express-News - - OTHER VIEWS - MICHAEL GERSON michael­ger­son@wash­

One mea­sure of the ef­fec­tive­ness of a po­lit­i­cal move­ment is how it changes its op­po­si­tion. And Don­ald Trump is in the process of driv­ing por­tions of his Demo­cratic op­po­si­tion in­sane.

Hil­lary Clin­ton — whose warmth, in­tegrity and down-toearth style were the largest rea­sons for Trump’s elec­tion — has now pub­licly turned against ci­vil­ity. “You can­not be civil,” she ex­plains, “with a po­lit­i­cal party that wants to de­stroy what you stand for, what you care about.”

The prob­lem, of course, is that this de­scribes pol­i­tics in pretty much every time. What Clin­ton was strug­gling to ad­dress is a deeper ques­tion: How should lib­er­als re­act to pop­ulism? And she is speak­ing for a cer­tain tem­per within her ide­o­log­i­cal tra­di­tion — the one that pro­poses to fight fire with fire.

What does this look like in prac­tice? So far, it means U.S. sen­a­tors pulling child­ish stunts like com­mit­tee walk­outs. It means call­ing your op­po­nents “evil.” It means pro­test­ers scream­ing to dis­rupt the Se­nate from the gal­leries. It means ha­rass­ing op­po­si­tion politi­cians at restau­rants. It means charg­ing and pound­ing the doors of the Supreme Court to chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho! Ka­vanaugh has got to go!”

But is eth­nona­tion­al­ist pop­ulism ef­fec­tively fought with in­tem­per­ate lan­guage, lame sym­bol­ism and pa­thetic nos­tal­gia for the sum­mer of ’68? Do Democrats re­ally want to run Eu­gene McCarthy against Don­ald Trump?

The pres­i­dent is more than ready for that fight. “You don’t hand matches to an ar­son­ist,” he re­cently said, “and you don’t give power to an an­gry, left-wing mob. And that’s what the Democrats have be­come. They would turn our coun­try so fast into Venezuela.”

Every sin­gle word of this ar­gu­ment in­volves crass de­cep­tion and ab­surd irony. Trump is the ver­bal ar­son­ist par ex­cel­lence. The pur­pose of his po­lit­i­cal ral­lies is to whip up a right-wing mob into froth­ing anger. He rou­tinely calls for the jail­ing of po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents. In crit­i­ciz­ing the slow­ness of po­lice ef­forts to si­lence pro­test­ers, he once com­plained: “Part of the prob­lem … is no­body wants to hurt each other any­more.”

Trump once in­cited vi­o­lence against a pro­tester with the words: “Knock the crap out of him, would you? I prom­ise you, I will pay your le­gal fees.”

Trump was pre­par­ing the ground to dis­pute the le­git­i­macy of an elec­tion out­come in 2016 that did not fa­vor him. In his swag­ger and threats, in his con­tempt for an in­de­pen­dent me­dia and dis­dain for demo­cratic pro­cesses, Trump is the clos­est Amer­ica has ever come to the vi­cious, op­pres­sive pop­ulism of Hugo Chavez.

Yet Demo­cratic tac­tics in­volv­ing equal and op­po­site anger are al­low­ing Trump to au­di­tion for the role of Richard Nixon in the 1968 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The pres­i­dent of chaos, de­hu­man­iza­tion and vi­o­lent threats in­tends to run as a sym­bol of so­cial sta­bil­ity and order.

How can this pos­si­bly work? It may not. But Trump’s hand is strength­ened when thinkers on the left at­tempt to ar­gue that the anti-ma­jori­tar­ian el­e­ments of Amer­i­can democ­racy are un­der­cut­ting the le­git­i­macy of Repub­li­can gov­ern­ment. Since Trump did not win the pop­u­lar vote, the ar­gu­ment goes, and since the elec­toral rules are rigged in fa­vor of Repub­li­cans to con­trol the House and Se­nate, and since much of the Supreme Court has been cho­sen and ap­proved by pres­i­dents and leg­is­la­tors with­out ma­jor­ity sup­port, then Repub­li­can rule is an at­tack on democ­racy.

This may be fighting fire with fire, but it is also play­ing with fire. Never mind that ev­ery­one knows the rules of the Elec­toral Col­lege be­fore­hand, and never mind that the dis­pro­por­tion­ate in­flu­ence of some vot­ers is part of the Se­nate’s con­sti­tu­tional de­sign, and never mind that ad­verse re­dis­trict­ing has of­ten re­sulted from the col­lapse of the Demo­cratic Party in state gov­ern­ments. When both par­ties re­gard elec­toral losses as in­di­ca­tions of elec­toral fraud and theft, our na­tion will en­ter a new stage of fragility. It will be­come eas­ier to sur­ren­der to the ir­ra­tional, to prac­tice ha­rass­ment and hu­mil­i­a­tion, and to turn to ver­bal and phys­i­cal vi­o­lence.

There are re­sources within po­lit­i­cal lib­er­al­ism that would al­low it to pro­vide a com­pelling con­trast to ethno-pop­ulism — a be­lief in uni­ver­sal hu­man rights and dig­nity, an ideal of cit­i­zen­ship based on a shared creed, a vi­sion of jus­tice that in­cludes the out­sider and the strug­gling, a con­cep­tion of pol­i­tics that ap­peals to our bet­ter an­gels and com­mon as­pi­ra­tions.

Some ris­ing Demo­crat needs to study up on Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt, and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and Gov. Bob Casey Sr., and Prime Min­is­ter Tony Blair. To even­tu­ally beat Don­ald Trump, lib­er­als must re­mas­ter the lan­guage of unity and hope.

Alex Bran­don / As­so­ci­ated Press

Hil­lary Clin­ton is ques­tion­ing ci­vil­ity. But to pre­vail, lib­er­als must re­mas­ter the lan­guage of unity and hope.

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