A Tale of Two Worlds

I love the New York Times. I hate the New York Times. It has the best stories.  It has the worst stories….

What?

Maybe that reminds you of the remarkable opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities that didn’t occur to me until I had penned the opening lines of this post:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Dickens, writing in 1859, two years before the start of the American Civil War, was on to something fundamental. He could have been writing today.

I pretend no such comparison, of course. It’s just that as I read the New York Times Sunday Review “Guest Essay” by Christopher Caldwell, entitled, What if There Wasn’t a Coup Plot, General Milley? [https://nyti.ms/3fsvPPC], I experienced the cognitive dissonance that I wrote about in a prior post: Media Bias—Who Are the Victims? [https://bit.ly/2Vf7PIH] Caldwell is the author of a book, published in January 2020, that Amazon describes as explaining how the social justice “reforms of the past fifty years gave the country two incompatible political systems—and drove it toward conflict.” I haven’t read the book, but the description suggests, not surprisingly, that the liberal movement toward equality, educational opportunity and the rest are the root cause of Donald Trump’s appeals to racism and xenophobia. That’s an argument for another day, perhaps.

Here we are in August 2021, more than six months past the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol that killed police officers among many other outrages and Mr. Caldwell suggests that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, was hallucinating when he viewed Trump’s post-election assault on the Constitution as “some kind of coup.”  Caldwell is offended by Milley’s suggestion, reported in a new book, that a coup would fail because the military would step up to prevent it.

While some might greet such comments with relief, General Milley’s musings should give us pause. Americans have not usually looked to the military for help in regulating their civilian politics. And there is something grandiose about General Milley’s conception of his place in government. He told aides that a “retired military buddy” had called him on election night to say, “You represent the stability of this republic.” If there was not a coup underway, then General Milley’s comments may be cause more for worry than for relief.

Caldwell claims that Milley’s only evidence of a coup was the January 6 attack, and this is where the idea of Two Worlds comes in. Caldwell says, “that day’s events are ambiguous.”

Seriously? Ambiguous? This is better, I suppose, than the argument I encountered on LinkedIn recently in which a large number of Trumpers stated, I kid you not, that the January 6 attack did not happen and that the videos are “all lies.”

To be more than fair, Caldwell accepts the reality that,

On the one hand, it is hard to think of a more serious assault on democracy than a violent entry into a nation’s capitol to reverse the election of its chief executive. Five people died. Chanting protesters urged the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence, who had refused Mr. Trump’s call that he reject certain electoral votes cast for Joe Biden.

But then Caldwell dismisses the entire event as “something familiar: a political protest that got out of control.” Caldwell says that what he describes as merely “contesting the fairness of an election” and calling the election a “steal,” while “irresponsible” coming out of the mouth of a president, are mere hyperbole equal to “calling suboptimal employment and health laws a “war on women.”

Nor did the eventual violence necessarily discredit the demonstrators’ cause, any more than the July 2016 killing of five police officers at a rally in Dallas against police violence, for instance, invalidated the concerns of those marchers.

There are so many problems with this exercise in deflection and what-about-ism, it’s hard to know where to begin. Suffice to say, Mr. Caldwell has chosen to ignore the planning that we now are beginning to understand went into the January 6 attack. The “protest that just got out of hand” is a convenient intellectual ruse to plaster over the realities revealed by, for example, the New York Times’ video, “Day of Rage”. See https://nyti.ms/2VLfDSI

Caldwell is quite comfortable observing that Trump “ended his presidency as unfamiliar with its powers as with its responsibilities. That is, in a way, reassuring.” In effect, Caldwell seems to argue that Trump was too ignorant and incompetent to bring off a real coup. So, no need to worry.

Then, after noting that the few rational people in Trump’s administration left or were ousted, his claims of a stolen election inspired his followers. And, Caldwell hastens to declare,

Republicans had — and still have — legitimate grievances about how the last election was run. Pandemic conditions produced an electoral system more favorable to Democrats. Without the Covid-era advantage of expanded mail-in voting, Democrats might well have lost more elections at every level, including the presidential.

If you’re going to claim legitimacy for arguments of electoral unfairness arising from a public health crisis, then you must also address how that public health crisis unfolded. And there, my friends, is where we find Mr. Caldwell’s hero stuck in the sucking muck of his incompetence and indifference. Trump’s legendary and thoroughly documented mishandling of the pandemic is likely at the heart of his defeat, and he cannot have it both ways. If the pandemic was another “Democrat hoax,” it cannot be blamed for his defeat.

Mr. Caldwell continues his monologue lost in the illogic of his argument that what began as a perfectly rational, if not necessarily correct, dispute about election procedures spun out of control in the hands of an “infuriated and highly unrepresentative hard core.” That “hard core” was precisely the group of politicians and supporters that Trump turned to in his desperation. His one true skill, inspiring hatred and irrational behavior, rose to the occasion just when he needed it most. Trump urged the mob to go to the Capitol, told them he would be there with them – and they believed him. Many of them have argued in court that they could not have committed crimes because they were “invited” into the building by Trump himself.

Undeterred by reality, Caldwell says.

The result was not a coup. It was, instead, mayhem on behalf of what had started as a legitimate political position. Such mixtures of the defensible and indefensible occur in democracies more often than we care to admit. The question is whom we trust to untangle such ambiguities when they arise.

Caldwell assumes away the central issue by simply declaring the situation was ambiguous and that the debate about the election just got out of hand when the mob listened to Trump claiming that the nation would be destroyed if the election were allowed to stand.

Under the rules of logical reasoning, defects in the premise remain in the outcome of a logical progression from that premise. By January 6 there was no even superficial plausibility to the argument that the election was flawed by fraud and “stolen,” notwithstanding the absurd claims of Republican politicians that the mob was just a bunch of friendly tourists. It is therefore impossible to logically argue that a rational dispute about the validity of the election simply got out of hand and led to the vicious beating of police trying to protect Members of Congress carrying out explicit Constitutional responsibilities.

In the end, Caldwell’s argument is that January   6 was not a coup attempt because he says so. And, therefore, he concludes that military leaders should not have “any kind of role in judging civilian ones.”

Most thoughtful people who respect the Constitutional scheme, despite its flaws, would agree that in normal circumstances the military should stay out of politics. Trump’s aspiration to turn the US into a “banana republic” notwithstanding, we remain a democratic republic and our military is subordinate to civilian authority. However, the Trump crowd should not get the wrong idea about that. Recall that it was Trump who called out military forces against civilian demonstrators in Washington. Gen. Milley had every reason to be concerned that Trump’s disrespect for, and fundamental ignorance about, the Constitution and his oath of office might lead to an attempt to use the military to overturn the election. I, for one, am happy to hear the General say “hell, no, not now, not ever.”

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