The Flight 93 Post-Election
President Donald Trump finally did what the foremost metaphor associated with his political rise would have suggested — he plowed his plane into the ground. That metaphor is Flight 93, courtesy of Michael Anton, author of 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. “The Flight 93 Election” became a signature statement of Trumpism and remains incredibly relevant today. Its mood perfectly captures the post-election period and especially what happened 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 to buttress this view.
Of course, it was the man Anton believed could be our savior who whipped up 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 is obsessed with a coming Democratic tyranny or coup. So, too, are 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.” 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 Jan. 6 presidency, now defined not by any of the good it accomplished 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 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. “Yes, Trump is worse than imperfect,” he wrote. “So what?”
So what, indeed.
Trump was supposed to be a winner when other Republicans, Anton argued, were hopeless losers.
In reality, Trump won a fluky victory in 2016, with just 46.1% of the vote. Predictably,
he lost the House in 2018. He then lost his re-election bid and contributed to the loss of the GOP Senate majority with his outlandish claims of election fraud.
In office, Trump didn’t win saving-America-from-theapocalypse- type victories, as one would have expected from Anton’s hysterical advocacy. Instead, they were the achievements of a standard Republican with a populist bent — tax cuts with tariffs on top.
Trump threw away his presidency in the end, though, largely because of the character flaws that Anton dismissed or valorized.
In his essay, Anton 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 harder in office or moderate his behavior, who led his most committed supporters into a box canyon of lies and conspiracy theories after the election because he couldn’t admit that he lost.
What made Anton’s essay so bracing was its undercurrent of nihilism, a sense that character and norms no longer matter, not when we are engaged in an existential struggle for power.
Trump has acted in keeping with an exaggerated version of this ethic, 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.
This is not really fighting. It is giving up.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.