Resolute Square

The Bothsides Argument Will Kill Us All

From Rick Wilson: "We aren’t in a nation where the sensible center will survive if Donald Trump wins. Only one side of the political argument wants their president to govern like a dictator. Only one side believes that the President is above the law — if his name is Donald Trump."
Published:April 9, 2024

By Rick Wilson

I’m seeing a lot of traditional, DC “bothsides” reporting lately, arguing that this is at some level a “normal” election between a center-left Democratic party and a center-right Republican party.

This morning, Axios published a piece by Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei titled “Behind the Curtain: America's reality distortion machine,” which caused a stir in political media circles.

It leads out with a question: “Here's a wild thought experiment: What if we've been deceived into thinking we're more divided, more dysfunctional, and more defeated than we actually are?” and proceeds to make some pretty good arguments about why we’re not a dystopian hellscape. I think they missed the big point, and this piece will stand out as a Washington Normalcy Bias exemplar for a long time.

My friend Molly Jong-Fast lit them up on Morning Joe,

She had precisely the right response: “But you understand that the conventional framing elevates the autocrat.”

No, not every American — in fact, not even a majority — is locked in the day to day of political struggle. Yes, there are silos. Yes, the algorithmic hypnosis of social media is real.

I cede all those points. America is a nation filled with hundreds of millions of people who aren’t partisan jihadis, left or right. There really is a desire for basic decency, decoupled from political rage, induced or not.

They’re not wrong to make these points, and the America they describe is one we should crave—not being involved in politics every moment of the day is a luxury only present in stable democracies.

But they ignore the existential issue underpinning this all.

We aren’t in a nation where the sensible center will survive if Donald Trump wins.

Only one side of the political argument wants their president to govern like a dictator. Only one side believes that the President is above the law — if his name is Donald Trump. Only one side of the political equation mounted an armed attack on the United States Capitol.

Only one side has welcomed the “no enemies to our right” philosophy, which means their party winks and nods at the alt-reich, the white nationalists, and the rest of the Daily Stormer crowd. Only one side is banning books, diving deeply into the seas of culture war cruelty and persecution.

Only one side backs America’s enemies abroad and promises to hand Europe over to Vladimir Putin on a plate. I could recite the Bill of Condemnation all day, but you understand the point.

The political movement that embraces the aforementioned horrors is MAGA, and its sole leader is Donald Trump.

Once again, the world is playing chess, and Donald Trump is eating the pieces and crapping on the board, and instead of horror, the reaction is a shrug.

This isn’t a regular election with typical outcomes.

Ordinary people living ordinary lives who think politics doesn’t matter and that the world will go on as it has can’t grapple with what happens in a post-American Presidency. It seems a lot of Washington reporters can’t either.

Normalcy bias is the best friend of authoritarians. If you think the algo-driven bubble on social media is robust, nothing tops normalcy bias. This cognitive bias can play into the hands of authoritarian regimes or leaders in a few ways:

It plays to the natural tendency for people to underestimate the possibility of a disaster, dictator, or disruptive event coming to the fore. It lets people assume that things will continue as normal because they’ve always been that way. (Berlin, 1936, anyone?)

It lulls people into complacency: they assume things will continue as they always have, and like frogs boiling in a slow pot, they may fail to recognize creeping authoritarianism and the erosion of democratic norms and civil liberties until it’s too late.

It makes people—even people reporting on it professionally—miss clear signals that a movement or regime is becoming more authoritarian, even when its leaders lay out their plans in broad daylight.

Once you say, “It can't happen here,” there’s a high likelihood it’s already happening.

The normalcy bias makes people slow to react and resist authoritarian encroachments because they don't perceive the seriousness of the threat until it's too late.

Normalcy bias also rears its ugly head after the damage is done. Authoritarian actions are emergencies, you see. “The Caravan! Antifa! Transing the kids!” demand temporary measures lulling citizens into acceptance of the worst…and the temporary measures seem to last forever.

People convinced that the current system is immutable are less likely to make contingency plans or organize resistance against potential authoritarianism taking root. Trust me, the Never Trump folks screaming into the void for the last decade can tell you all about this one.

It’s tempting to hope that societal inertia in the center will overcome the energy and danger on the MAGA flank.

It hasn’t, and it won’t.

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