“What if” Rabbit Holes

5 mins read

Someone posted this as a comment on one of my Twitter threads:

Let’s take stock of where we are, and why we need to stay out of what-if rabbit holes.

From Levitsky and Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die, 20th century dictators often came to power through military overthrows. Twenty first century autocrats use less dramatic but equally destructive methods:

The easiest way for Trump to win the election is to:

  • Get the fighters fighting, and keep them fighting
  • Wear out the opposition out by blitzing them with lies and keeping them spinning with outrage

Getting the fighters fighting is easy for someone like Trump, who knows how to exploit the weaknesses on the other side and create chaos and discord. This means keep the Democrats and Republicans fighting and try to keep anti-Trump people fighting among themselves.

Keeping people fighting also increases the polarization, which also destroys democracy. The more polarized the society, the more willing people are to tolerate “hardball tactics” from their own side. Hardball tactics destroy democracy. (Click here for more)

One way to wear out the opposition is to keep them spinning with outrage. Think of Trump as intentionally unleashing a firehose of outrageousness intended to keep everyone spinning. When you’re spinning, it’s harder to plan or mount an effective opposition.

Each time Trump does something cruel, horrifying, or outrageous, he accomplishes 4 things:

  • He keeps his base excited
  • He enrages his critics
  • He batters democratic institutions, and
  • He fulfills a campaign promise to protect his followers from their “enemies.”

Their “enemies” are the Democrats, loosely defined to mean anyone who doesn’t support Trump. See this Trump-Pence email:

So how do we respond? We can’t normalize outrageousness, so we have to respond, but too much outrage—constant 5-star alarms—feeds the beast.

I think we point out the behavior as democracy-destroying, and then take steps to mitigate the damage by doing what we can to strengthen and rebuild the democracy. If you need ideas, see my to do list here.

There is no reason, if the anti-Trump turnout is high enough in, November that Trump cannot be beaten at the ballot box. Trump supporters are outnumbered.

An interesting theory by political scientist Rachel Bitecofer is that people overestimate the importance and “swinginess” of “swing” voters. More important is who turns out to vote. Trump critics are motivated to get rid of him. So Trump needs to fire up his base with rage to motivate them.

This brings me to “what if” rabbit holes. They’re draining. They’re exhausting. If you’re in a “what if” rabbit hole, you can’t pay attention to what is actually happening. It’s harder to think rationally and plan.

If I were a would-be dictator trying to secure my power by winning the next election, I’d do my best to send all my opponents into “what-if” rabbit holes. Trump can do it with a tweet. I’ve seen Twitter go into countless spins of outrage and “what if.”

I think we can divide people asking “what if” questions into two groups:

  • Good people who are genuinely worried
  • Chaos agents trying to sow discord and panic, and undermine democratic institutions by causing people to lose confidence.

We are about to face some real challenges as Trump and his minions engage in an all out war on truth, factuality, rule of law, and democracy itself.

Going into “what if” rabbit holes does not help.

We need to take each situation as it arises.

[Read as a Twitter thread]

Originally posted on Musing about Law, Books, and Politics.
Re-posted with permission.


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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and CNN.com. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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