The perpetual emergency: Regular talk of crisis can degrade liberty

This tension between crisis and the order of liberty supplies important context for the turn to emergency politics in contemporary American life. As with many other topics, Donald Trump and his opponents have functioned as distorted mirrors of each other on this issue. On the campaign trail last year, the former president warned his voters that “I am the only thing standing between you and chaos.” If Trump allies often cast him as an essential vehicle for preserving the country, many of his critics portrayed him and his so-called enablers as an existential threat to American democracy. In a recent viral Twitter thread, Johns Hopkins political scientist Lilliana Mason argued that many Trump voters fit a quasi-pathological type that has threatened American democracy for nearly two centuries: a “particular faction of Americans who have been uniquely visible and anti-democratic since before the Civil War. . . . We need to worry about the very real threat posed by an anti-democratic group that has always existed in the electorate.”

This sense of politics as existential conflict inevitably corrodes republican institutions. Now in power, Democrats have mounted a renewed push to use the “nuclear option” to undo the institutional character of the Senate and eliminate the filibuster. Leading Democrats unveiled a proposal to pack the Supreme Court earlier this year. Before 2019, such acts were generally viewed as crossing a constitutional Rubicon. Now they represent, in the words of political scientist David Faris, the “constitutional hardball” purportedly necessary to save democracy. But playing constitutional hardball was precisely Trump’s approach to the 2020 election: filing countless lawsuits, calling on state legislatures to override the popular vote, asking the vice president to overstep his authority by rejecting the electoral votes of certain states. Hence excess provokes excess, in a spiral of destructive angst.