Suppose a Republican presidential candidate spent the entire campaign promising to blow up the moon if elected. “America can, should, must, and will blow up the moon,” this candidate boomed over and over on the trail, aping the characters in a Mr. Show sketch.
Suppose this rhetoric angered all the right people and energized the hell out of the long-dormant working-class anti-lunar vote, and pundits flooded the cable news networks with cheers and condemnations of the candidate’s implausible promise to annihilate Earth’s only permanent natural satellite.
Suppose scandalized establishment figures and institutions, including some prominent Republicans, publicly admonished the candidate for the uncouthness and unwisdom of the proposal (that is, until public polling showed surprisingly broad support for the selective extirpation of neighboring celestial bodies).
Suppose this candidate then won a narrow contest on Election Day — in part, it was hypothesized, owing to the awakening of Rust Belt voters who, in progressive circles, were now commonly referred to as Earth supremacists — and in the first week issued a hastily composed and sloppily executed order requiring NASA to . . .
. . . effect a small number of largely symbolic controlled lunar demolitions, to occur over a period of three or four months, and likely to make no ultimate difference, either to the structural integrity of the moon or the long-term trajectory of American policy.
Now suppose the New York Times, in response to this development, went with a big, pearl-clutching A1 spread — “President Orders NASA to Blow Up Freaking Moon!” — with the professional Left, slacktivists, and Hollywood award-show attendees predictably forming a chorus of outrage around the new narrative.
Suppose this left it to an increasingly wearied and punch-drunk band of sober-minded observers to point out that, while one could say whatever one wanted about the merits of the order, it was dishonest and alarmist to characterize it as calling for “the complete vaporization of the moon,” in the words of Senate minority leader Charles Schumer.
Lastly, suppose that instead of pushing back in similar fashion, the White House chose to enthusiastically co-opt its opponents’ #MoonBlam Twitter hashtag and send its key surrogates to the Sunday shows to argue that leaving even one, Nebraska-sized chunk of the moon intact would make America less safe.
Yes, I’ve tortured this ridiculous hypothetical into an unrecognizable pulp, but you will, I hope, still recognize that it’s exactly how things played out with the #MuslimBan that wasn’t.
There’s nothing novel about partisans on both sides concocting diametrically opposed caricatures of a policy or proposal the reality of which lies somewhere between. The people and institutions that conduct our political discourse can identify this dynamic and compensate for it. But it’s bizarre when partisans on one side of the issue embrace the caricature of partisans on the other. That turns a rhetorical tug of war over a well-defined central line into a tug of war floating in outer space, with neither side tethered to anything firm.
Combine this with the new administration’s Baghdad Bob, Sean Spicer, and the confusion becomes positively brain-liquefying. To wit, Spicer, admonishing the media for reporting the EO as a Muslim ban, was asked why POTUS (and POTUS Jr.) had referred to it that way in Tweets — and replied that the president was merely “using the words the media is using.”
We might just be able to enjoy the commedia dell’arte of it all if there weren’t so much at stake, or if we could count on a credible and sober opposition.
But there are no adults left. Nobody is coming to save us. The muscle memory of partisanship is too strong, and rather than grapple with the unique — and thus far devastatingly effective — ways the new regime renders information amorphous and contingent, the Greater Left has contented itself with the usual hysterics and hyperbole. A gambit that feeds, rather than checks, the late occupants of the White House.
Take the response of the all-too-briefly “acting” attorney general of the United States, Sally Yates, who, in a move of pure self-indulgence, instructed the Justice Department to ignore the immigration order for just long enough to get herself righteously fired.
The writer Michael Brendan Dougherty was the first, but by no means the last, among the crusty remnant of sane people to put the scalpel to this lunacy.
Yates could have made a point by resigning. Or she could have argued that the EO was unconstitutional, illegal. But she didn’t. Like so much of the opposition that will come, she couldn’t recognize or articulate the principles at stake. The whole damn system has been running on the fumes of norms of partisanship. Trump just shattered them, and there’s nothing underneath.
Republican and Democratic apparatchiks in this country have spent the last several years imagining that the hubris and folly of their adversaries would lead to the permanent ruination of the opposing party. At various moments over this interval, it verged on conventional wisdom that one side or the other was right.
Now it seems increasingly obvious that both were.