The Cascading Stupidity of Binary Politics
“Make America Great Again”
“A Future to Believe In”
“I’m With Her”
“Keep America Great”
“Not me. Us”
Those are some of the more prominent campaigns slogans from the past two presidential election cycles. But while some of them have proven more effective than others, they all pale in comparison to perhaps the most compelling (and often discussed) election mantra in today’s era of persistently unappealing top-tier contenders: “It’s a Binary Choice.”
We heard about the “binary choice” ad nauseum back in 2016, especially once the primaries had left us with two of the most disliked major-party nominees in American history. Much of the country viewed the viable alternatives as a choice between a punch to the face and a punch to the gut, but a choice we nonetheless had to make.
Technically, of course, the choice was far from binary. Eligible voters could choose whomever they wanted, or to not vote at all. As Americans, we have that freedom. So it was the outcome that was binary, not the choice.
Anyway, either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would become our next president. This was an inarguable fact, regardless of their glaring unfitness for the office.
Michael Anton (who would later join the Trump administration) made this point under a pseudonym in an editorial in September 2016, titled “The Flight 93 Election.” In the piece (which received a lot of attention), Anton compared conservatives who would not vote for Trump (to help defeat Clinton) to the premise of United 93 passengers (whose plane was hijacked on 9/11 by Al-Qaeda terrorists) not storming the cockpit.
“2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die,” Anton wrote. “You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.”
Of course, most voters probably didn’t buy the notion that the election was a matter of life or death, even in a metaphorical sense. Life, after all, is the antithesis of death, while Trump and Clinton actually had quite a bit in common, from their longtime political leanings and positions, to their moral and ethical defects. But the broader point being made was that it was incumbent on each disaffected voter to decide which of the two was potentially (if even marginally) worse, and then vote for the other...even if the process required voters to fork over at least part of their soul.
This was all contingent, however, on the winning candidate then being “held accountable,” once in office, by those who voted for him or her. That was the deal anyway, as exhaustively expressed by the party faithful on both sides (including in the media), in their sales pitch to the remaining holdout voters.
As we all know, Trump ended up winning. And I suppose none of us should have been all that surprised that the GOP and its base didn’t hold up their end of the bargain — not when it has come to personal and professional conduct, not when it has come to protecting our norms and institutions, and not even when it has come to defending long-held party tenets and platforms.
What has surprised me is the astonishing persistence of the aforementioned campaign theme that should have effectively died on election night of 2016: the binary choice.
Yes, we were narrowly spared from a Clinton presidency, and that was understandably a huge and consequential victory in the eyes of many people — a victory certainly worthy of celebration. But after all this time, Hillary has somehow remained one of the most popular arguments in defense of Trump...and not just in the context of the election. We’re talking about a defense of just about every bad decision, egregious action, and mind-numbing display of ignorance that has come out of the Trump White House.
I mean, how often do we still hear the question, “Would you rather have Hillary?” posed in reflexive defense of Trump? It’s thrown at me all the time, pretty much whenever I write a column that is in any way critical of the president. Clinton’s been out of politics (other than the occasional provocative soundbite to sell books) for three years now, but that old election-era choice, amazingly, is still being put forth.
It's interesting that we never heard that sort of thing during the last Republican presidency. No one on the right ever ran to George W. Bush’s defense, spouting, “Would you rather have Gore?” or “Would you rather have Kerry?” even as Bush’s popularity hit rock-bottom in his second term. That’s because the argument wouldn’t have made any sense. Bush won…twice. His past opponents were inconsequential to his leadership as president.
But somehow, that isn’t the case with Trump. Quite the opposite, in fact. Trump is, more often than not, propped up and rationalized by his supporters on the basis of his past and present political adversaries (or even just perceived adversaries).
The “binary choice” in 2016 has morphed into its own subculture of never-ending binary ultimatums. Powered by the fertilizer of tribalism, they have infected and drastically dumbed down just about every political debate we’ve had over the past three years. And though it stemmed from the awfulness of Clinton vs. Trump, it has taken on other forms:
There are few certainties in life, but here’s one of them… For every Trump enormity, there was an at least somewhat similar enormity committed by someone on the left, of some notoriety, at some point in time. And that past example will reliably and repeatedly be evoked by Trump’s loyal followers, and presented as a defense of whatever Trump did, while they completely ignore the significance and consequences of the actual action.
If you need an example of what I’m talking about, Fox News's Jesse Watters proudly spits out at least a half-dozen of these whenever he's on the air — again, while failing to address the enormity itself.
The most desirable playing field for pro-Trump whataboutists is when they can point out that it was President Obama himself that had performed the controversial deed similar to Trump's. This almost always leads to an exhausting exchange in which the pro-Trumpers are fervently defending Trump’s commission of an act they found unacceptable when Obama did it, while the anti-Trumpers are attacking Trump’s commission of the act they were perfectly fine with Obama committing.
This buffoonery is a perfect storm of useless, hypocritical nonsense that advances nothing on the given issue, other than partisan drool. But it’s a perfect illustration of what binary politics does to the human brain.
A Twitter friend of mine, Angela, came up with an amusing solution to this problem a while back:
In today’s politics, when someone makes a reasoned, independent argument against President Trump, you can rest assured that the criticism will be twisted into some bizarre, far more arguable, alternate-universe premise by members of the Trump faithful.
Of course, the Left has been guilty of this for a very long time, perhaps most notably in the assignment of evil intentions to Republicans and conservatives over their resistance to the expansion of government entitlements and dependence. But the Right has been playing catch-up over the past few years. And if you’ve ever watched Mollie Hemingway on Special Report, you know what I’m talking about.
Hemingway is a staunch proponent of the political strawman, and this video from last month is just one of many examples.
To add some context, this panel discussion took place right after news broke that President Trump had invited Taliban leaders to meet with him at Camp David (on U.S. soil) just days before this year's 9/11 anniversary. The thunderous criticism Trump was receiving was in regard to the logistics of the scheduled meeting: the who, when, and where. But Hemingway took a hatchet to that premise, instead framing detractors of Trump’s plan as feeling “scandalized” by his intention of ending U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan after 18 years.
Of course, no one had been making that argument in regard to the meeting. Hemingway was very obviously obfuscating the issue (as she often does), because Trump's decision was indefensible. And when fellow panelist A.B. Stoddard criticized Trump very specifically for the reckless and dysfunctional "process" he had followed, Hemingway nonsensically (but very confidently) asserted that Stoddard’s critique was a “good example” of "people seeming more upset about ending [the war] than the fact that we are in year 18."
Thankfully, Stoddard wasn’t about to let Hemingway pervert what she’d just said, and she called Hemingway out on it. Amazingly, this prompted Hemingway to once again misrepresent Stoddard's position, and in the very same way. Hemingway’s impression of deranged parrot seemed to even take back host Bret Baier, who stepped in to shut down the nonsense.
This is how binary politics operate. Issues are broken down into exactly two opposing arguments (even if one of them isn’t even real).
I saw this same type of thing in response to my column from last week on President Trump’s phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. I argued that Trump’s solicitation of a foreign government for dirt on a domestic political opponent was improper and an abuse of the power of his office. Yet, the comment section filled up with reactions from pro-Trumpers who couldn’t believe I had signed on to the Democrats’ efforts to impeach Trump.
Of course, I did no such thing. I didn’t endorse (nor even imply support for) impeachment. I don’t support it, and never have. Maybe I'll change my mind down the road, if the conditions change, but I kind of doubt it.
But again, in the world of binary politics, there are exactly two opposing arguments. No room for a third or fourth. No room for any kind of nuance.
You're Either With Us...Or You're Against Us
"Never in my whole life did I swear allegiance to him," says William Wallace, as portrayed by Mel Gibson in the film, Braveheart. "
It matters not," responds the royal magistrate, who is trying Wallace for the crime of high treason. "He is your king."
Americans, but especially conservatives, used to mock the notion of American royalty. We embraced individualism and self-governance and understood that we elected leaders to serve us, not the other way around. But that's not how things largely operate today, at least within the Republican party. Binary politics have ushered in a culture of unquestioning loyalty to the party's leader. It's that loyalty, not policies or platforms, that holds the base together.
As for those Republicans, conservatives, and other center-right individuals who won't pledge allegiance to their royal leader? Well they're guilty of "betrayal," of course! And even worse: they're aiding the enemy.
If you think I'm exaggerating, take a close look at the campaign literature you'll be receiving shortly for the upcoming Republican primaries in senate and congressional races. If it's anything like it was last year, and it assuredly will be (even in purple states), the number one issue among GOP hopefuls will not be experience or policy positions. It will be who among them has been the most loyal to, or appreciative of, Trump. And each of them will trip all over the others, trying to prove that he or she is that person.
In fact, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has stated repeatedly that Republican candidates must unequivocally embrace the Trump agenda if they know what's good for them. She's even taken swipes at her own uncle, Mitt Romney, for having the gall to criticize our president.
If you need more evidence (and you probably don't), take a few seconds sometime to look at Megyn Kelly's Twitter feed. She's not terribly active on the platform these days, but whenever she does tweet something — anything, she is immediately inundated with scores of angry responses from Trump fans who are still upset at her for asking Trump a legitimate debate question, four years ago, that he didn't like. They tell her she betrayed him. They tell her she betrayed Fox News and the conservative movement. They even claim she was a Hillary Clinton plant.
I sometimes see these responses firsthand, because Kelly was gracious enough to provide a blurb for my new book, and occasionally retweets my book-related posts. Yes, these people actually respond to my book tweets (and even a picture of my dogs on one occasion) to tell Megyn Kelly she's a backstabber.
As someone heavily involved with this website, I've often seen the same sentiment directed at Bernie Goldberg (as well as myself).
This type of derangement is brought on by the insistence of loyalty in our culture of binary politics. You're either all-in, or you're not in at all.
The Binary Choice in 2020
And now we've come full circle.
As we head into next year, cringing at the latest Trump rhetoric and miscellaneous blunders, and slapping our foreheads at the daily insanity we hear from his Democratic opponents, there’s a pretty decent chance that we’ll be left with an even worse binary choice than we had last time.
But the arguments haven’t and will not change, as displayed by an exchange I had just the other day. Vote for my side, even if it’s really hard, and we’ll deal with that whole “accountability” thing later:
Sorry, but at some point, the Flight 93 Election has to land. Or better yet, it should be recognized as an insulting use of a true act of American heroism for a tacky and bogus political metaphor. As Americans, we're not meant to be governed by an adherence to binary themes and narratives that only make us dumber. Life has more colors than red and blue.
I would never tell anyone who to vote for, where to get their news, or how to use social media... but I will suggest that the only way to weaken this self-defeating death-grip of binary politics is not to participate in it.
If candidates can't earn you support on their own merits, maybe they don't deserve your vote. If pundits can't argue a point without illustrating blatant hypocrisy or putting forth bogus counterpoints, maybe they don't deserve your time and ear. And if remaining in your team's good standing requires you to forfeit your individuality and self-respect, maybe you'd be better off dropping that team.