Donald Trump’s ‘Civil War’ bombast is bad enough. Democrats shouldn’t help make it worse

Mocking someone for not being as tough as their rhetoric is not helpful if you want a public discourse that doesn’t reward aggression

<p>Donald Trump </p>

Donald Trump

Donald Trump treats politics like a WWE event—all boasts, bombast, and threats of violence. It’s tempting for his political opponents to respond in kind, matching bluster with bluster and chest-thumping with chest-thumping. Unfortunately, the nonsense testosterone posturing is part of a toxic masculine spectacle of violence and hate that ultimately benefits Trump himself. You can’t beat Trump at being Trump. If everybody tries, everybody loses.

Rep Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California, was the latest to fall into the ugly mire of anti-Trump Trumping. This weekend, Trump irresponsibly shared a call for “Civil War” on the social media network Truth Social. Swalwell, who often (and rightfully) denounces Republicans on Twitter, was quick to respond. “Donald Trump is calling for Civil War. Of course, like Vietnam and the walk to the Insurrection, he won’t be man enough to fight it,” he declared.

Trump has been credibly accused of making up health problems to avoid the Vietnam draft. Swalwell is trying to highlight the contrast between Trump’s militant rhetoric and the former president’s determination to avoid military service.

But would Trump’s call for Civil War be somehow acceptable, reasonable, or admirable if he had fought in Vietnam or in some other war? If Trump had marched on the Capitol with the insurrectionists himself, that wouldn’t validate the insurrection.

Republicans in general, and Trump in particular, revel in hollow displays of toughness and crass masculinity. Trump loves to present himself as a mean-spirited patriarch, violently suppressing lesser, weaker opponents.

In a rally in 2016 he complained that people like himself were no longer allowed to punch protesters in the face and suggested that those disrupting his speech should be “carried off in a stretcher”. In 2017, as president, he boasted about dropping the Mother of All Bombs on Afghanistan. He reportedly wanted missile strikes against drug cartels in Mexico. During the George Floyd protests in 2020, Trump suggested that police should shoot protesters in the leg en masse to subdue them.

Threats of hyperbolic and irresponsible violence are central to Trump’s political persona, and to his appeal. Whether Trump would actually pick up a gun and go off to war is irrelevant to his followers; it’s like telling a Marvel fan that Kevin Feige doesn’t really have super powers. The audience isn’t asking for that kind of authenticy. They want someone who can give them a fantasy of violence. Trump delivers.

The MCU is clearly labeled as fantasy, of course. Trump’s vindictive dreams are headier, in that they are meant to affect and be instrumentalized through politics. Trump is the great man, the Chosen One, who will direct the forces of purity and hate and exterminate the protestors and vermin who resist.

Swalwell is trying to undercut this by pointing out that Trump—draft-dodging real estate heir—isn’t actually the manly man he claims to be. And it’s true that Trump’s image as a mighty warrior and Trump’s reality as a whiny toddler are wildly out of sync.

But Trump’s fans, who mostly aren’t courageous warriors either, like the fact that Trump gives them leave to pretend to great virtue while sitting behind their keyboards and shaking their fists at clouds. Moreover, once you’ve agreed that our leaders should be violent manly men who smite their enemies, you’ve mostly lost the argument.

If the ideal leader is a violent man, the party of violent masculinity—and the party which tends to be dominatedby men in leadership roles—is going to come out ahead. Swalwell’s tweet suggests you need to be “man enough” to be a good leader. But where does that leave women, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people, all of whom should be welcomes as leaders by the Democratic party? Mocking someone for not being as tough as their rhetoric is not helpful if you want a public discourse that doesn’t reward aggression, hollow or otherwise.

Yes, Trump is not, personally, going to take up arms. But that’s not the main problem with his call for “Civil War”. The main problem is that he has followers who may, like the case of the Buffalo shooter, decide to kill those they perceive as political enemies. When Trump frames opponents as traitors worthy of brutality and extermination, he’s encouraging political divison and political violence. He does that in part by equating leadership and manly brutality. Democrats like Swalwell shouldn’t help him do that.

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