Benjamin Wittes is one of those names you may have gotten to know in the Trump era. Not that you shouldn’t have known him before, but in the past 11 months, the Brookings scholar has produced more than his share of posts that have gone viral on the Lawfare blog, especially the ones he wrote about his friendship with James Comey just after President Trump fired him.
That friendship and his frank posts have helped him carve out a unique space for himself in the Age of Trump. And he seems to know it and is prepared to use it. Over the weekend, in a move that ignited animated discussions in my circles, Wittes took to Twitter and produced 18 tweets dedicated to the proposition that all decent people of left and right must set aside their differences and unite to defeat Trump and Trumpism.
Under the hashtags #CoalitionofAllDemocraticForces and #IBelieve, Wittes argued that he wants to see “a temporary truce on all [questions of disagreement], an agreement to maintain the status quo on major areas of policy dispute while Americans of good faith collectively band together to face a national emergency. #IBelieve that facing that national emergency requires unity.” He wants Americans “across the political spectrum [to] unite around a political program based on the protection of American democracy and American institutions.”
It’s a new and bold idea in the current context. In larger historical terms, of course, nothing is new. It’s reminiscent of the old Popular Front idea on the left. The PF was the project of the communists of the 1930s who thought it would be of greatest strategic value to band together with socialists and even liberals—who communists in normal times reviled as servants of capitalism—to defeat Hitlerian fascism. The project was launched in Moscow and thus took many different forms in England, France, and other countries. Here in the United States, the CPUSA under Earl Browder decided to support the New Deal. And when the USSR became our ally during World War II, Roosevelt and Stalin, two men with very different and indeed irreconcilable world views, were both Popular Frontists.
Wittes’ own politics are hard to distinguish. He’s not a liberal, though not exactly a conservative. On some matters, he has that I-don’t-like-either-side posture that many liberals find infuriating. Here he is in The Atlantic in 2005, for example, saying that while he personally favors permissive abortion laws, he’d much prefer to see Roe v. Wade die. A lot of liberals would say, and not without some justification, that centrists of this general type are partly responsible for Trump because their commitment to non-commitment, so to speak, prevented them from seeing the right for what it was these past 10 or so years and warning their publics about it. (I hasten to note here I’m describing a type, not Wittes personally.)
But I say now, none of that matters. I’m with him.
He’s correct about two basic things. One, that this is a national emergency. If I have to spell out why for you, you’re reading the wrong column and should stick to the gossip pages. Trump is a clear and present danger the likes of which we’ve never seen. Two, that the top priority far and away of decent people of all ideologies has to be to confront Trumpism and to stop it.
The natural response of some partisans on both sides would be to refuse to commit to a project like this because of the past positions of some who might join it. “I’ll never work with Bill Kristol!”, that kind of thing. Well, Bill Kristol’s done a lot of things I don’t like. And I’ve probably done a lot of things he didn’t like, though I have only a fraction of his influence, so I’ve never helped kill a major piece of legislation (Hillary’s health care bill) or push the country toward war. But I’m ready even to forget Iraq. That’s the very essence of Popular Frontism. If Kristol wants to stop Trump and is willing to commit to Wittes’ principles, then we should be too.
Those principles, by the way, are bipartisan and unobjectionable. Commitments to the First Amendment; to transparent government; to getting to the bottom of Russia; to science and evidence; to no Muslim-bashing, “full stop”; to fighting presidential abuse of power; and more along those lines. I think it could be a powerful and influential thing if Wittes can get 20 or 30 or 50 prominent people on both sides to sign a statement of principles, and thousands or maybe tens of thousands of regular citizens to co-sign on Facebook.
Of course one foresees problems. How exactly would this coalition make all politics stop and “maintain the status quo” on all our disagreements? What happens if Anthony Kennedy retires or dies? Would maintaining the status quo require conservative coalition members to oppose any Trump nominee, who would be by definition tainted by his or her association with Trump?
Such a coalition, too, would be propagandistic manna from heaven for the Our Revolution left, as it would affirm their view that sell-outs like yours truly always were destined to sacrifice their principles. Whatever. I look over the past 11 months, and I don’t see that I’ve changed a whit. Instead I see Kristol and George Will popping up on MSNBC, I see Max Boot emerge as one of the most powerful critics of Trumpism around, and I peruse Jennifer Rubin’s columns that with each passing week are reading more and more like Molly Ivins’. Irving Kristol, Bill’s father, famously said that a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality. Today, a liberal is a conservative who’s been trumped by it.
They’ve changed. Not me. I’m happy to make common cause with them. I don’t know that I’m important enough that history will judge me, but if I am, I will not have that judgment be that Tomasky abetted Trumpism by continuing to fight 15-year-old battles over Iraq. Ben, where do I sign?