Great stories have great villains. The only fictional characters with multiple Oscar wins are bad guys: Vito Corleone and the Joker. Good politics generally need good villains, too. Every political candidate probably starts out hoping to inspire supporters, but getting them to fear the opponent is often easier and more effective. In close, consequential electoral races, boring, run-of-the-mill adversaries will not do. You need a dastardly foe, who belongs to a wicked group (the other political party works great as a stand-in), and is bent on destruction.
Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your take), the vast majority of candidates, like the vast majority of people in general, are not the types of scoundrels who make for good copy or campaigns. To turn your political opponent into someone unworthy of a vote often takes creative work, embellishment, and distortion. You bend the image in such a way that voters see your opponent through fun-house mirrors. Like it or not, these tactics work. The more extreme the better. We are willing to trust the adversarial process (protected by the First Amendment) to shake out the truth. The voters decide.
For all its utility, though, we do pay a price for the freedom to politic without limits. In addition to hating and distrusting each other more and more each election cycle, we also risk creating space in which real enemies can thrive. Like the village boy crying wolf too many times, hyping fictional political enemies and emergencies may leave us unprepared to face a bona fide bad guy or gal.
For example, Republicans have in some way campaigned for more than 100 years against the alleged socialism at the heart of the Democratic Party. And President Trump and his supporters have often argued that his re-election was the only thing that stood between free America as we know it and the tyrannical forces of godless socialism. How the armies of Marx managed to advance to the edge of victory on his watch, or how a second-term Trump was going to reverse the tide was left unsaid.
Of course, like every Democratic president before him, President-elect Joe Biden is no socialist. Far from it. But President Trump is right about one thing: socialism is more popular in America now than ever before. And among younger voters (depending on the poll), socialism and capitalism effectively have equal appeal.
The reasons for socialism’s rise are varied and in need of deeper exploration than a single column. But socialism’s fiercest Republican foes have certainly played a part. Almost a century's worth of fake political scaremongering over fake claims of socialism have taken their toll. When everything is socialism, nothing is. How do Republicans effectively argue against real socialism (at least as it might exist in America) if every policy and political opponent is socialist? What’s more, by calling almost every expansion of government (except public safety, police, and military) some form of socialism, Republicans have allowed popular non-socialist government policies and programs (like public works, parks, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, unemployment, education, and more) to do the heavy work of selling socialism…
Democrats have backed themselves into similar corners. In all of the presidential elections in my voting life, the Republican candidate has faced claims that he is some type of racist, sexist, fascist, heartless, Nazi theocrat. I understand the desire to take no prisoners and win at all costs. But when you empty the barrel broadsiding relatively mainstream opponents, what do you have left for foes like Trump? If you falsely paint all Republicans as truly horrible human beings, your legitimate concerns about any particular Republican may fall on deaf ears.
In the end, if we are in a mess, it is one of our own making, regardless of what political heroes we champion or which villains we fear. We have sowed the fields with the seeds of our own worst horrors, and created the conditions to waken and sustain our own worst monsters. And lest you think I oversell my claims, ask yourselves this: if an actual Nazi and an actual Communist squared off in an election in the near future, how much different would the opposing campaigns sound from what we get today? How would we differentiate the figurative Hitlers and Stalins from the real thing? Sure, you could add “this time we mean it” to each claim. But then you have admitted to some prior fibbing. Why should voters trust you, now?
Moreover, mealy-mouthed verbal qualifiers don’t really stand out when talking about the end of the world. “This time we mean it” could end up having as much real-world appeal as Jaw’s IV’s, tagline “This time it's personal.” To state the should-have-been-obvious, casting a Great White Shark and a human family in a blood-feud was an unintentionally hilarious and nonsensical mistake. A shark with a vendetta just made shark attacks in general (and Jaws 1-3D in particular) seem less scary. Similarly, electoral foot-stomping about “this time” and “this election” don’t sound the sirens when voters remember that “last time” supposedly mattered, too. And if we really are on the edge of apocalypse every two years, maybe we have bigger things to worry about than election returns.
It is bad enough that politics leaves us fractured and angry. But today’s campaigning also leaves us exposed and defenseless. Overuse of antibiotics gave birth to superbugs, impervious to modern medicine. Overuse of constant, full-throated, campaign alarmism makes real political enemies and real political emergencies impervious to the arguments we may need most. Political detente is a difficult dance, because political opponents must act in concert. And worrying about tomorrow in the heat of today is not something we seem wired to do. But if the Age of Trump has taught friend and foe anything at all, it is that the once unthinkable may become possible sooner than anyone expects.
Daniel H. Stewart is a fifth-generation Nevadan and a partner with Hutchison & Steffen. He was Gov. Brian Sandoval’s general counsel and has represented various GOP elected officials and groups. He recently switched his registration to nonpartisan.