In September 2016, a pseudonymous writer attempted to offer an intellectual justification for the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. He titled his article “The Flight 93 Election,” and argued that the consequences of a Hillary Clinton presidency were guaranteed to be so dire, it was reasonable for America to take its chances with Trump. Just as it made sense for the passengers of the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 to risk their lives charging the cockpit rather than face certain death by doing nothing, the author suggested that it made sense for America to gamble on Trump rather than face certain annihilation by electing Hillary Clinton.
The author of the piece, Michael Anton, is now a national security staffer in the Trump administration. I won’t bother engaging here with the substance of the article, including its fascistic sympathies, anti-Islamic bigotry and failure to take seriously the risks to America and the world of electing a mentally and emotionally unwell, demonstrably incompetent, unapologetically corrupt, serial sexually abusing, racist and nativist demagogue with a loyalty to Vladimir Putin and no respect for the U.S. Constitution or the rule of law.
My purpose here is, instead, to suggest an alternative metaphor for the 2016 presidential election, and for the decision of most conservative Republicans, with a few brave and principled exceptions, ultimately to support Trump.
One year after November 8, 2016, it is clearer than ever that the Trump-Clinton contest was not the Flight 93 Election. It was the Arlington Road Election.
In the 1999 film Arlington Road, Jeff Bridges plays a widower and college professor who suspects that his neighbors, played by Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack, are secretly plotting an act of terrorism against the United States. Bridges’ wife died in the line of duty while working for the FBI, and he brings his concerns about his neighbors to the Bureau. But the FBI dismisses him as paranoid. Meanwhile, Bridges continues to accumulate evidence of his neighbors’ sinister plot to attack the federal government.
In the movie’s climactic sequence — SPOILER ALERT! — Bridges follows a delivery van that he believes contains his neighbors’ bomb. The van enters the basement of FBI headquarters. In an attempt to prevent what he believes to be an imminent attack, Bridges forces his vehicle past a security checkpoint and alerts the authorities. Too late, he discovers that the delivery van is empty. He returns to his own vehicle and finds that the terrorists have placed the bomb in his trunk. It detonates.
It was only because of his desperate attempt to prevent the attack that the attack took place.
Although Anton’s Schmittian musings in the “Flight 93” article are hardly representative of the views of all the Americans who voted for Trump, they reflect a core truth about the election. Trump’s victory would not have been possible without widespread, deeply rooted fear and hatred of Hillary Clinton. Without this visceral repulsion, carefully cultivated by Fox News and other right-wing propaganda over many years, and helped along by poor choices in the mainstream media throughout the campaign, including in the final days, the threat that the Trump presidency poses to the United States, and the world, would never have materialized.
In that sense, Arlington Road resembles an allegory of the 2016 presidential election. Those who voted for Trump based on paranoid, misplaced fears that a Clinton presidency would somehow destroy America are like Jeff Bridges, racing into the basement of the FBI headquarters to protect it from attack. They believed the threat to their country was so imminent and so grave that it made sense to violate the ordinary norms of presidential politics, and even to set aside their own values. They believed it made sense to race past the security checkpoint in order to protect America from its enemies.
They did not consider that they might themselves be aiding America’s enemies. They did not consider that their own vehicle might contain the bomb whose detonation they were trying to prevent.
If the 2016 election was like an airline flight, it was like one in which half of the passengers allow themselves to be persuaded that the pilots are terrorists bent on crashing the plane. The other passengers laugh at first, because there is no reason to believe that the pilots are terrorists. But the frightened passengers insist that they must charge the cockpit and murder the pilots: “At least we’ll have a chance then!” The other passengers try to reason with the frightened mob. They point out that the pilots are the only ones on board at this point who know how to land the plane. They may not be anyone’s favorite pilots, but they’re better than not having any qualified pilots at all. If the frightened passengers murder the pilots, then the plane will probably crash — and isn’t that what the frightened passengers are trying to avoid? But the frightened passengers are tired of being treated like children and talked down to. They rise up, force their way into the cockpit, and get to work.
Today, a year after the election, the plane is drifting down. It has not yet crashed. It is not too late to call air traffic control and ask for help. But the mob still controls the cockpit, and will not allow anyone to use the radio. Will something happen to change their minds before it is too late?