Donald Trump finally did exactly what the foremost metaphor associated with his political rise would have suggested — he plowed his plane straight into the ground.
That metaphor, of course, is Flight 93, courtesy of Michael Anton, the right-wing author who wrote a famous essay before the 2016 election about how Republicans had no option but to get on board with Trump. “Charge the cockpit or you die,” Anton wrote, invoking the plane headed for the U.S. Capitol on 9/11 that heroic passengers seized control of and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
“The Flight 93 Election” became a signature statement of Trumpism, and remains incredibly relevant today. It’s mood captures perfectly what has happened over the past couple of months since the election and especially last week at the U.S. Capitol—fevered, dark and apocalyptic.
Anton wrote as if the end of the republic were upon us, and there’s nothing like a rabble storming a citadel of American democracy—assaulting police officers, ransacking the place and disrupting a constitutional procedure—to shake confidence in the stability of our system.
Of course, it was the man Anton believed could be our savior who whipped up and urged on this crowd. The mob didn’t charge the cockpit metaphorically, but charged the Capitol literally, in the grip of a more extreme, rough-hewn version of Anton’s logic and narrative.
Anton, who briefly served as a Trump official, is obsessed with a coming Democratic tyranny or coup. So, too, are President Donald Trump and his most fanatical supporters, who weren’t content simply to write highfalutin essays about how to resist the coup, or “Stop the Steal.”
No. If the pen is mighty, only baseball bats and projectiles can really make Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi afraid.
Make no mistake: A Flight 93 mentality led to the January 6 presidency, now defined not by any of the good it accomplished over the past four years but by a hideous act of extremism in its desperate, spittle-flecked final days.
In Anton’s defense, he never said he believed that Trump knew how to fly a plane. In the future, when hiring someone to pilot the most advanced jetliner on the planet, he might want to add that to the job description, and check a couple of references.
Anton wrote in the Flight 93 essay that “only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt time, could a Trump rise.”
Rather than concluding that this spoke poorly of Trump, he made it into a kind of virtue. Anton poured scorn on anyone who fixated on Trump’s character flaws. “Yes, Trump is worse than imperfect,” he wrote. “So what?”
So what, indeed.
Trump’s most stalwart defenders have spent years justify everything Trump does because he supposedly wins when other Republicans are hopeless losers. Anton mocked conservative writers and politicians opposed to Trump in 2016 as the Washington Generals, on the court simply to provide a hapless opposition.
In the fullness of time, it’s clear how misguided this Trumpist triumphalism was.
Trump won a fluky victory in 2016, with just 46.1 percent of the vote. Predictably, he lost the House in a drubbing in the 2018 midterms. He failed in his reelection bid, this time with a slightly increased 46.9 percent of the vote (although still less than Mitt Romney in 2012). He then proceeded to concoct conspiracy theories for why he lost and lash out at Republican officeholders in Georgia, contributing to unnecessary Republican losses in two Senate runoff races and ending the GOP Senate majority. Trump thus completed a trifecta of defeat, wiping out any Republican control in Washington.
Meanwhile, almost every cultural institution has lurched further left, partly in reaction to Trump.
He proved himself a politician of considerable power, no doubt, but his support was too narrow to achieve all the winning his boosters expected from him.
He also indisputably did worthy things in office. Yet these weren’t saving-America-from-the-apocalypse-type victories, as one would have expected from Anton’s hysterical advocacy. Instead, they were the sort of solid achievements one would expect of a standard Republican with a populist bent—in other words, tax cuts with some tariffs and new immigration restrictions.
In the end, though, Trump threw away his presidency, in large part because of the character flaws that Anton dismissed or valorized.
It is darkly amusing that in his Flight 93 essay, Anton gleefully attacked his conservative enemies as caring only about their careers and money, while throwing in with a rank egoist who fetishizes his wealth and status, who didn’t care enough about his supporters or his own political cause to work a little harder in office or moderate his behavior slightly, who led his most committed supporters into a box canyon of lies and conspiracy theories after the election because he couldn’t stand to admit that he lost.
Tens of millions of good people made the simple calculation in 2016 that Trump, despite his failings, would be better than Hillary Clinton, and thought the same about Trump and Joe Biden in 2020.
If this was all that Anton had argued in his essay, it wouldn’t have been particularly notable. What made his essay so bracing was an undercurrent of nihilism, a sense that character and norms don’t matter, not when all is nearly lost and we are engaged an existential struggle for power.
Trump has acted in keeping with an exaggerated version of this ethic in the postelection period, throwing aside truth and the law in pursuit of a second term to which he is not entitled.
We have seen that this path isn’t suited to saving the republic, but to tearing it apart and embarrassing it before the world. It can’t and shouldn’t work, and produced an immediate backlash and second impeachment.
It’s not really fighting. It’s giving up.
The Crash of the Flight 93 Presidency The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Politico.