A Mystery

From The New Criterion

At the end of the summer and what is conventionally considered the beginning of the election campaign, it seemed to me that there was one great mystery about the state of the country. Of course, it doesn’t exist, or exist as mystery, for the “woke” left or the infallible moralists of the Cancel Culture. There can be no mystery for them while their ideology assures them that there cannot be anything they don’t already know — up to and including what’s going to happen next week, next month or next year in the “history” they claim to be on the right side of. The “progressive” ideology has all the answers. No, the great mystery is why so many of us in the rest of the country — in particular liberal-minded non-ideologues and otherwise non- or barely-political people who have spent the last four years complaining about the putative illiberalism of Donald Trump — why these people are now so utterly supine in the face of left-wing illiberalism that dwarfs anything Mr Trump could plausibly be charged with.

No need, I suppose, to rehearse the details of this illiberalism. In recent months in this space I have written of the so-called “Cancel Culture,” and the illiberal (not to mention economically ruinous) measures that have been taken and are still being taken in a mostly useless attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus — the pandemic emergency, like war, proving itself to be the health of the state. Last month I wrote of the submission of numerous local authorities across the land to violent mobs of “protesters” burning and looting and assaulting police officers and anyone else who stands in their way with almost complete impunity (see “Mostly peaceful” in The New Criterion of September, 2020). If your cause is opposition to “racism” — especially to something that is now being called “systemic racism” — liberal-minded authorities may frown, but they will do little or nothing to stop you, even from committing violent crime.

Republicans, on the other hand, or anyone supposed to be pro-Trump may expect to be harassed with the full rigor of the law if there is any political profit in it to these authorities. Examples extend from ordinary citizens defying orders not to meet for worship or trying to defend their property, and perhaps their lives, from a rampaging mob to the so-called “Resistance” (including supposedly non-partisan judges) to President Trump himself. Up until the late summer, this legal double standard was silently applied with little or no attempt to justify it publicly. Churches were forbidden to hold ordinary worship services while protesters were given free rein to congregate as they wished. The media could assume, I guess, that the axiomatic awfulness of President Trump would keep objections from being raised by anyone but Trump-supporters — and who, as a correspondent of The New York Times once asked, cares what they think?

But the capstone on the new illiberal hegemony came when Resistance charter member Hillary Clinton gave an interview on Showtime to her own director of communications in 2016, Jennifer Palmieri — no tough questions to worry about there! — and kind of let the cat out of the bag. “The only way [the Republicans] can win,” she said, “is by either suppressing or stopping voting, or outright intimidating people into feeling that they have to go with the strong guy to stand up against all these threats that Trump is going to gin up to scare people.” Though confusingly phrased, her meaning was clear enough. And the impossibility of a legitimate Republican victory was presumably the reason why, as she told her friend, “Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances” — because Democrats should be able to out-lawyer the Republicans to win in court what they will have lost at the (presumptively crooked) ballot box.

Nor is this just the opinion of the embittered loser of the last presidential contest. Nancy Pelosi, in explaining why she wants there to be no debates in this election season, said that she wouldn’t want Mr Biden to “legitimize a conversation with [Mr Trump], nor a debate in terms of the presidency of the United States.” You don’t have to believe that this is the actual reason she doesn’t want any debates to recognize that her logic is impeccable. If the Trump presidency is ipso facto illegitimate, so must be the Trump candidacy. So, indeed, must be the vote of anyone still deluded enough to want to vote for him. And so much for the most basic principle at the foundation of two-party, representative democracy, which is the recognition by each party of the legitimacy of the other. That’s now gone, so far as the Trump-haters are concerned, along with the blindfold on the image of justice.

Hillary said it herself four years ago: “To say you won’t respect the results of the election, that is a direct threat to our democracy.” Now its she, as well as other Democrats, who are saying just that. As Byron York wrote for the Washington Examiner, “If there can be no legitimate Trump victory, then Democrats are justified in doing whatever it takes to stop the president from claiming an illegitimate win” — up to and including, presumably, the same illegal or unethical methods she accuses the Republicans of. No one can say we haven’t been put on notice that democracy, so far as Democrats are concerned, is dead. And yet there has been not a peep, or not one that I have heard, from any of those high-minded virtue-signalers who have spent the last four years writing about Mr Trump’s “authoritarianism” and the “twilight of democracy” which it is said to portend.

Actually, it’s even worse than that, as some of them are attempting to blame the illiberalism of the Trump-haters on Mr Trump himself. Boy, has that guy got a lot to answer for! It was inevitable, I suppose, that Mr Biden would blame the riots on his opponent — because they’re happening “on his watch” — even though the one thing all the rioters have in common (and have in common with Joe himself) is Trump-hatred. Even though, too, at their just concluded virtual convention, both Joe and his fellow Democrats thought it politic to say nothing at all about the riots. But Judith Miller, writing in the (London) Sunday Telegraph, really outdid herself by blaming the President for the Cancel Culture as well:

His relentless campaign against the “fake news” media is aimed at undermining the public’s already fragile faith in the press, which not only monitors his almost pathological lying but acts as a constitutionally mandated check on his imperial executive aspirations. According to The Washington Post, Trump has made over 20,000 false or misleading claims in office. But his incessant Twitter attacks on journalists as “liars”, “human scum”, and the “worst people in the world”, and his hypocritical denunciation of cancel culture in the name of free speech, have further divided and polarised Americans. Because Trump has ignored activists’ positive calls for racial justice and police reform, and has tried to turn to his political advantage the movement’s reprehensible insistence on ideological purity and the loathsome heretic-hunting that have long characterised Left-wing (and Right- wing) movements, liberals hesitate to criticise their illiberal fellow travellers.

Well, that’s one explanation of the mystery with which I began this column, but not one that will recommend itself to most sane people, or those who have watched, as I have, four years of strenuous attempts by journalists to prove— as the undoubted purveyors of fake news about the President’s “collusion” with Russia, not to mention their constant repetition of the myth of those “20,000 false or misleading claims” (formerly known as “lies”) — that they are the worst people in the world.

You’d think that at least she could see the irony of blaming the President for calling the media liars while she (and they) are calling him a liar, but irony failure is one of the more familiar side-effects of the “woke” political certainty which is the foundation of the Cancel Culture. Somehow, the most vehement protestors against illiberalism turn out to be blind to their own illiberalism; who’d have thought it? The great Victor Davis Hanson had an amusing piece on American Greatness about the irony-blindness of various Democrats, including the speakers at the Democrats’ virtual “convention” in August, each of whom seems to have pointed to the mote in his brother’s eye while ignoring the beam in his own. If there’s anybody, for instance, who shouldn’t be talking about the return of small-r republican virtue and decorum to the Oval Office, it’s Bill Clinton. Likewise, if there’s anybody who shouldn’t be talking about Constitutionalism and the rule of law it’s Barack Obama. But such things may not just betoken a lack of self-awareness, since they also seem to flaunt the double standard which the frequently-proclaimed superior virtue of the “woke” supposedly entitles them to. You can’t accuse someone of hypocrisy if he doesn’t recognize that he is bound by the same rules as you are in the first place.

Professor Hanson’s explanation of the mystery of this new and unashamed double standard is that it is a strategem or makeshift for those who have come to think that nothing is out-of-bounds if it tends to the destruction of Mr Trump or his presidency. “The venom is justified in their minds,” he writes, “as pursuant to eliminating a supposedly existential threat to the establishment.” I’ve no doubt that’s true of many of the Trump-haters, but if it were only such cynicism you’d expect at least a touch of shame about the violation of established norms it entails. Instead, the likes of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi appear to have been reinvigorated in their sense of self-righteousness. These are revolutionary true believers who, I’m afraid, really do think that what is good for them is also good for the country and the world — which, like them, can never be at peace so long as the body politic is infected with the Trump virus.

The best explanation of the mystery that I have seen was offered by Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism, in the very wonderful on-line magazine Quillette, who argues that “liberalism creates Marxists” (italics in original):

The key to understanding this dynamic is this: Although liberals believe their views are “self-evident” or the “product of reason,” most of the time they are actually relying on inherited conceptions of what freedom and equality are, and inherited norms of how to apply these concepts to real-world cases. In other words, the conflict between liberalism and its Marxist critics is one between a dominant class or group wishing to conserve its traditions (liberals), and a revolutionary group (Marxists) combining criticial reasoning with a willingness to jettison all inherited constraints to overthrow these traditions. . .The result is a radical imbalance between Marxists, who consciously work to bring about a conceptual revolution, and liberals whose insistence on “freedom from inherited tradition” provides little or no defense — and indeed, opens the door for precisely the kinds of arguments and tactics that Marxists use against them. This imbalance means that the dance moves only in one direction, and that liberal ideas tend to collapse before Marxist criticism in a matter of decades.

His conclusion seems to me entirely persuasive — that “Liberals will have to choose between two alternatives: either they will submit to the Marxists, and help them bring democracy in America to an end. Or they will assemble a pro-democracy alliance with conservatives. There aren’t any other choices.”

And yet the mystery remains as to the aversion that so many liberals (and even many who describe themselves as conservatives) feel toward any such alliance, which is the only explanation for their indifference to — or even approval of — the Marxist-inspired Progressive impulse to de-legitimize any political views but their own. As Yoram Hazony writes,

The Marxists who have seized control of the means of producing and disseminating ideas in America cannot, without betraying their cause, confer legitimacy on any conservative government. And they cannot grant legitimacy to any form of liberalism that is not supine before them. This means that whatever President Trump’s electoral fortunes, the “resistance” is not going to end. It is just beginning.

That liberals (and conservatives!) can’t see this shows that some part of the mystery, at least, still remains. Such blindness must be owing in part to virtue-signaling and a class-based hangover from the 1950s which scorns as self-evidently false any identification of Marxist and totalitarian behavior, no matter how obvious, that doesn’t explicitly identify itself as such. For such people, all you have to say is “red scare” or “reds under the beds” and any cry of alarm like Mr Hazony’s is automatically discredited.

But even the explanation offered by this class-based scorn for the natural conservatism of the lower orders leaves a balance or residue of mystery in the sheer unreasoning hatred felt for Donald Trump — which parallels but is even more intense than that felt by our ruling class for Senator Joe McCarthy back in the 1950s or Richard Nixon in the 1970s, any demurral from which can mark you out as both immoral and (perhaps worse) uncouth. It must be an interesting experience, to be so hated. Few of us can have had the experience as these men have had. It must make you feel helpless, knowing there is nothing you can say or do that will turn away the wrath of the hater or even make him tolerate your existence. You feel that he will know no peace while you are living — and probably none even after you are dead. The left’s hatred of McCarthy and Nixon still burns brightly decades after their deaths.

There may be a kind of odium theologicum in such hatred, something that afflicts those whose neatly packaged explanations of (and utopian prescriptions for the reform of) life, the universe and everything leave no room for mystery. For them, any falling away or doubt about their sacred Truth, especially on the part of those in power, is the mystery — or it would be if they hadn’t the comfort of knowing that it could only be the product of sheer wickedness on a Trumpian scale. The inability to live with such a mystery may partly explain the intensity of their hatred, but ultimately it remains a mystery before which we must bow our heads in reverent silence.

It remains to be seen whether this hatred — and/or this horror of being thought socially backward and out of the fashion — is stronger even than Americans’ attachment to their 230 year old democracy. If it looks right now as if it is, it can only be because people are wilfully deceiving themselves into thinking that good liberals like Joe Biden are actually in charge and not in the pocket of Marxists like Bernie Sanders — who, as it happens, wrote this year’s Democratic platform. We’ll see if that belief can survive another month or so of Joe and friends telling us about what a great guy he is, as they spent nearly all their time doing at the convention, while ignoring, or blaming Mr Trump for the continuing insurrection in the streets of America — which makes no bones about its Marxist and revolutionary inspiration.

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