If you are like me, you have probably been spending a lot of your time wondering if everything is really as bad as it looks.

To test it, I came up with this question for my friends. You can play along at home, it goes like this:

Imagine that you turn on the TV tomorrow and instead of Al Roker or whoever you were expecting, it’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis. He’s looking into the camera and calmly explaining that the president and vice president are not well, and they won’t be coming back from their weekend retreat in New Jersey. In their absence, the government will be run by an emergency committee made up of senior military and intelligence officials who will keep things operating until the country is back on track.

It slowly dawns on you. It’s a coup.

What would you do? Would you be out in the street, facing down tanks, demanding a restoration of our democratically elected leaders even if we’re talking about Donald Trump?

The answer I get almost all the time from my liberal friends – people who have gone to marches protesting administration policy – is probably not. The generals seem a lot smarter than the president, and more rational. The coup plotters might have prevented Trump from doing something terrible, like a unilateral nuclear attack. Any system that produced this president is broken.

That was my reaction, too, at first. But the more I think about it, the more this response scares me to death. If democracy and rule of law become less important than the identity of the current occupant of the White House, then the system is too fragile to withstand a serious shock, and serious shocks are always just around the corner. We know they’re coming, but how will we respond? (Gold star for my wife who immediately recognized that protesting a coup is always the right thing to do.)

Before we go any further, this game is not my prediction of the future. When Mattis was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Marine Corps at the age of 19, he took his first oath to support and defend the Constitution, and it contains much more effective remedies for a bad president than a coup – first among them an election every four years.

A military take-over is not part of my experiment because I think it’s what’s going to happen, but because most people would consider that it on its face to be a terrible thing, no matter their politics. It would probably be the end of American self-government, the end of civil liberties, the end of freedom. Standing by and doing nothing about a coup is the kind of thing most people, liberal or conservative, would consider to be shameful, even immoral. But somehow adding the name of a president – maybe the worst president ever – makes it more complicated. It turns it into a choice between two bad options, which is the frame that lets people rationalize doing what they know is wrong.

If any conservatives are still reading, you are probably clucking your tongue and shaking your head about how this exposes liberal hypocrisy. You’re right, most of my friends are liberals and we are biased. It’s human nature to be biased. People will usually forgive their friends for doing the same things that would outrage them if they were done by a stranger. If any Republicans want to understand how that works, just look at who used to think that marital infidelity was a disqualification for high office but now think it’s no big deal.

People on the far left would probably say that this experiment shows that liberals don’t really believe in anything, which hurts, but is partly true. American liberalism, as it comes to us from the New Deal is not an ideology but a series of compromises, sometimes involving values like equality and justice that are always in conflict. (If something is fair but unequal, should you make it equal but unfair? What about a little less fair but more equal? How much is too much?)

To me, the coup question is a reminder that you never know when you are going to be tested and you don’t get to choose the question when it comes.

We live in a time where it feels that society could easily slip into chaos. When that happens conventional morality does not apply, or it least it’s not enforced. During a war, even killing can be acceptable, but after the war is over, there are always people who have trouble answering for what they did or didn’t do.

There is an old labor movement song called “Which Side Are You On?” It’s a good question for a confusing time, and one we will all probably have to answer some day.

 

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