The Flight 93 Convention

The GOP’s apocalyptic rhetoric echoes a conservative call to arms during the 2016 election.

Brendan Smialowski / AFP

In 2016, an anonymous author described the battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the “Flight 93 election.” In dark, urgent terms, the article argued that a Hillary Clinton victory would change America so irrevocably that conservatives needed to think of themselves as the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11—the passengers who chose to bring down the plane to save the U.S. Capitol from al-Qaeda hijackers.

Electing Trump represented the last chance for conservatives to prevent America’s transformation into an oppressive leftist state that “few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments,” the author wrote, explicitly connecting that specter to the prospect of racial change. “The ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty” creates an electorate “less traditionally American with every cycle.”

With those stakes, the author insisted, conservatives must mobilize to prevent Clinton’s victory with the same commitment demonstrated by the plane passengers who had sacrificed themselves. “Charge the cockpit or you die,” the article reads. “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.”

That doomsaying author, Michael Anton, ultimately joined Trump’s White House in a senior post on the National Security Council. And four years later, the president has convened what can only be described as the Flight 93 convention.

Though multiple segments during this week’s GOP gathering have tried to soften the president’s image, the convention’s apocalyptic rhetoric and repeated warnings about Democrats have loudly echoed Anton’s conservative call to arms. Last night, the culminating argument in Vice President Mike Pence’s speech seemed lifted directly from the article: “The choice in this election,” Pence insisted flatly, “is whether America remains America.” Once the proceedings are over, it’s far more likely that Trump’s campaign through Election Day will be defined by lacerating Flight 93–style alarms than fuzzy feel-good moments from this week, such as his pardon of an ex-felon and his presiding over a naturalization ceremony.

The convention’s opening moments set that ominous tone. The very first speaker, Charlie Kirk, the founder of the young-conservative organization Turning Point USA, anointed Trump as “the bodyguard of Western civilization.” Not long after, the leather-lunged Kimberly Guilfoyle, a Trump campaign official and the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., yelled that “Biden, Harris, and the rest of the socialists will fundamentally change this nation.” Not to be outdone, Trump Jr. himself declared that “the other party is attacking the very principles on which our nation was founded,” framing the election as a choice between “church, work, and school versus rioting, looting, and vandalism.” Patricia McCloskey, who this summer brandished arms at a group of Black Lives Matter protesters in St. Louis, Missouri, chimed in that Democrats “are not satisfied with spreading the chaos and violence into our communities, they want to abolish the suburbs altogether.”

In the final hour on Monday and for most of Tuesday’s program, the convention executed a whiplash-inducing turn—presenting Trump as friendly to immigrants, women, and African Americans, groups that throughout his presidency have been a frequent target not only of openly racist and sexist rhetoric, but harsh policies too.

This thorough and implausible rewrite of his history is something of a milestone: It may represent the first time in Trump’s political career that he’s acknowledged he may not be able to build a winning coalition solely by stoking his base’s racial and cultural fears and antagonism toward so-called elites. The airbrushing was an implicit concession that the perception of Trump as racist, sexist, and xenophobic constitutes a barrier between him and the swing voters he likely needs.

But last night, apart from a few passing testimonials to Trump’s personal empathy and character, the convention came down firmly on the side of alarm. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem warned a Democratic victory would quickly unravel centuries of American history. (“It took 244 years to build this great nation—flaws and all—but we stand to lose it in a tiny fraction of that time if we continue down the path taken by the Democrats and their radical supporters.”) A police-union official described Biden and the vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris as “the most radical anti-police ticket in history.” Pence, the evening’s final speaker, centered his address directly on the Flight 93 argument. If Trump loses, he said, “we will leave to our children and grandchildren a country that is fundamentally transformed into something else.”

If the Republican convention has seemed contradictory as it’s careened between messages, one thing has been consistent: the organizers’ almost complete refusal to acknowledge the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps the most telling moment came Tuesday when Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top White House economic adviser, repeatedly referred to the outbreak in the past tense, even though it is still responsible for about 1,000 new deaths on most days, and renewed outbreaks are forcing new college and university closures.

Democrats I’ve spoken with view that omission as key to understanding why so many speakers have portrayed the consequences of a Biden victory in such sinister terms. “What people are experiencing now, with a global pandemic and economic crisis, a crisis of racial injustice, is not all that great under him,” says Lily Adams, a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee and a former top aide to Harris. “If you can’t talk about what’s good going on right now, all you can do is paint a distorted, disingenuous vision of the future.”

Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster who has extensively studied female voters, also believes Trump’s image of intolerance and bigotry has settled too much for him to reshape it now. The convention’s goal is “to convince white voters rightly concerned about Trump’s blatant racism that his record is not quite so bad,” she wrote to me in an email. “But Trump has spent a lot of time and effort worsening our country’s racial divisions; it’ll take more than a few parts out of a convention to turn that around.” Likewise, she adds, “No convention, and no surrogate can fix the gap he has with college educated women, or Black women, or the suburban women of all backgrounds who voted Democratic in 2018.”

Other Trump critics, while echoing that assessment, warn that the Biden campaign can’t ignore the GOP’s efforts to shift voters’ focus. “The question is: What are [voters] more scared of going into the election?” says Sarah Longwell, a founder of the group Republican Voters Against Trump. “Trump wants people to be scared of looters, rioters, violence, the mob, cancel culture … and of ‘losing the country.’” Democrats, by contrast, “are making it a referendum on Trump,” she continued: “Just look at this guy, we’re trapped in our houses, and everybody has to wear masks, and we have an economic collapse, and there’s racial discord.”

Whatever the immediate electoral implications, it’s clear that Trump’s warnings about the effects of a Democratic victory tap deep anxieties among the non-college-educated and Christian white voters central to the GOP coalition—fears about being eclipsed by the growing racial and cultural diversity the Democratic convention highlighted last week.

In 2018 polling by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, nearly two-thirds of Republicans agreed that “the American way of life” has changed mostly for the worse since the 1950s, a much higher percentage than among independents or Democrats. Nearly three-fifths of Republicans also agreed that “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country”—again, a much higher percentage than among independents or Democrats. The latter sentiment was more powerful among the white evangelical Christians at the core of the GOP coalition than among any other religious group.

Alvin Tillery Jr., the director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University, says such anxieties are likely to only intensify through the 2020s as white Americans continue to decline as a share of the overall population. “They are a minority party whose base is shrinking considerably when you project forward in the generations,” he told me. “If you dig deeper and look at the political psychology of their base, it’s driven to a large extent by this narrative of loss. It means that they are going to have a playbook that is cast narrower and narrower toward that white male base.”

Geoffrey Kabaservice, the director of political studies at the libertarian Niskanen Center, told me that such fears of eclipse have a long history in conservative thinking. “There’s a very pessimistic strain about having lost the country that runs through all of conservative thought through the 20th century,” said Kabaservice, the author of Rule and Ruin, a history of moderate Republicans. During the 1980s, he noted, Ronald Reagan largely replaced that negativity with an optimistic vision of America as a “shining city on a hill.” George W. Bush, hoping to entice more Latino and Black voters into the GOP, initially echoed those themes while promising to govern as a “compassionate conservative” (though those sunny chords were steadily overshadowed by the war on terrorism, the war in Iraq, and increasing partisan polarization in Washington).

But with the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the first African American president, there was resurgence in conservative circles of what Kabaservice calls “cultural/racial pessimism.” In 2012, on the morning after Obama’s convincing reelection victory, the talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh viscerally expressed the widespread conservative fear that the country had reached a demographic tipping point. “I went to bed last night thinking, We are outnumbered,” he lamented to his audience. “I went to bed last night thinking, We’ve lost the country. I don’t know how else you look at this.”

That panic helped fuel Trump’s unexpected triumph over a crowded field of competitors in the 2016 Republican primary. “Trump tapped into that,” says Pete Wehner, a former top adviser to Bush and now a vice president and senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. Many GOP voters picked Trump over more conventional choices because they believed “he was going to bring a pistol to a cultural knife fight and the others were not, that he’s a protector against this impending darkness, that he’s willing to use even unethical means to protect us,” Wehner told me.

In office, Trump has reinforced that message again and again, especially since his presidency was disrupted by the outbreak of the coronavirus. In a speech at Mount Rushmore on July 3, he portrayed himself as a warrior against “a new far-left fascism” whose “goal is not a better America,” but “the end of America.” In a Pennsylvania campaign stop last week, he likened himself to his most famous political project: “We’re the wall between the American Dream and total insanity and destruction of the greatest country in the history of the world. We’re all that stands.” All of that language draws directly from the imagery of the Flight 93 essay (though its author, Anton, left the White House in 2018).

For months, a chorus of leading conservative commentators has relentlessly amplified Trump’s alarms, according to transcripts of recent TV programs provided to me by the left-leaning media-watchdog group Media Matters for America. “If Joe Biden wins … America as you know it—we know it—will be destroyed. Our entire way of life will be flushed down the drain,” the Fox News host Sean Hannity declared in July. ​“If Democrats take both the Senate and the White House—and they could—you will not recognize America a year from now,” Tucker Carlson echoed on his Fox show the same month. Democrats “mean to fundamentally transform America and the president is the only person who stands between us and them,” agreed Mark Levin, another Fox host.

All of this may seem more than a little overheated directed at a Democratic ticket headed by Biden, a 77-year-old career politician whose nearly five decades in the Senate were marked by a reluctance to move much outside his party’s safe center-left midpoint. For that reason, Democrats I’ve spoken with believe that the warnings of revolutionary upheaval won’t be credible for voters beyond Trump’s base. “One of the reasons Trump and company sound over-the-top to a majority of Americans watching or aware of their convention is this is Joe Biden we’re talking about,” says Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a longtime Democratic strategist.

Longwell, whose group is conducting focus groups with center-right voters disillusioned with Trump, largely agrees. But as protests over policing continue to descend into violence in several cities, she believes that the biggest potential opening for Trump in the campaign is his racist warnings that Democrats will empower “the mob” to threaten suburban neighborhoods. “Maybe two or three weeks ago, I did a series of focus groups and the violence was incredibly top of mind,” she told me. With Trump spending so heavily on television and digital advertising to portray Democrats as a threat to law and order, “I do think if there’s not pushback on that, those narratives can work,” she added.

Trump’s effort this week to whitewash his long history of derogatory language toward racial minorities, women, and immigrants suggests that his campaign recognizes he faces a big obstacle in advancing that argument: a widespread sense among many suburban voters, especially college-educated white women, that his belligerent approach to race relations makes violence and disorder more likely, not less.

America this year, in fact, appears trapped in an escalating cycle of confrontation. The shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police inspired protests, some of which led to violence, drawing a young white man to travel to the city, where he shot multiple protesters. That, in turn, prompted sports teams across the country to take the unprecedented step of boycotting last night’s games to focus attention back on the original shooting of Jacob Blake.

As all of this occurred, the GOP held Patricia McCloskey and her husband up as heroes for pointing guns at protesters outside their house in June, and speakers repeatedly tried to convince white voters that the country will descend into anarchy if Democrats win. Analysts like Longwell and Tillery say Democrats cannot allow that argument to take root unchallenged. But for many voters, the president’s warnings about possible chaos if Biden wins may be less compelling than the daily evidence of the chaos that is already enveloping the nation with Trump in the Oval Office.