Later ages are always surprised by the casual brutality of totalitarian regimes. What they neglect is the unshakeable (though misguided) conviction of virtue that animates the totalitarians.
By Roger Kimball
What was the most disturbing thing to happen in the last few days?
Some say it was the horrifying spectacle of the mob besieging and breaking into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday
That was indeed disturbing, especially the pageant of wanton assaults on property in the seat of our government and, most of all, the images of Ashli Babbitt, the young woman who was shot and killed, apparently by law enforcement.
There is much we do not know about what happened that afternoon. But I think Tucker Carlson was right about two essential things.
One, that President Trump bears some responsibility for what happened. He “recklessly encouraged,” as Carlson put it, his distraught supporters. I should note, by the way, that I believe that the president’s supporters are right to be distraught—and not just because their guy lost. That’s the nature of elections. One candidate wins, the other loses. So long as the election is fair, and is seen to be fair, all is well. The loser, and the loser’s supporters, may mutter, but they accept the result and go home.
But in the 2020 election there were huge and, in my view, determinative irregularities. Had the votes been fairly counted, I believe, Trump would have won. But they weren’t.
Hence the anger among his supporters. The president should have appreciated their anger and acted accordingly. He ought also to have appreciated that by January 6, the game was over. There was nothing Vice President Mike Pence could have done that would have changed the outcome of the election. When Trump concluded his remarks to the crowd by encouraging them to “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue” and go “to the Capitol,” he was playing with fire. He ought to have discerned as much.
But I believe Carlson is also correct that the president did not intend or foresee the mayhem that followed. As the transcript of his remarks shows, he encouraged the crowd “to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” He ought to have known that more could transpire. A huge, fired-up crowd is a mob just waiting to happen. But Carlson was right: this was a “political protest” that “got out of hand,” not an “insurrection” or an act of “domestic terrorism,” as Joe Biden and others we quick to claim.
The double standard of outrage has been detailed by many commentators. It takes nothing away from the horror of the mob descending on the Capitol this week to point out that Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and their media mouthpieces were outrage deficient when another mob assaulted the Supreme Court during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, when Antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters torched cities across the country this summer, or, indeed, when there were riots in Washington following Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017.
As the commentator Howie Carr put it, “some riots are more equal than others.” Like Carr, I condemn what happened at the Capitol last week. But I also “wonder where all this outrage was among the chattering classes when the orgy of rioting, looting, arson and murder was gripping the nation last summer.” (As usual, The Babylon Bee deployed some illuminating satire, writing “Antifa accuses Trump supporters of cultural appropriation.”)
When BLM rioters were burning cities and attacking the police, Colin Kaepernick publicly called for more violence. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, responded by making a $3 million contribution to one of Kaepernick’s charities.
Which brings me to my own candidate for the most disturbing thing to happen in the last several days: the apparently coordinated attack by Big Tech to destroy free speech.
On Friday, we learned that Twitter had banned the president of the United States from its platform. Facebook and other media quickly followed suit. General Mike Flynn and the lawyer Sidney Powell were also “de-platformed” as were several other prominent conservatives.
But we know now that such actions are but the tip of the Big Tech iceberg.
Again, Tucker Carlson zeroed in on the terrifying reality of our situation. It wasn’t just that President Trump and some of his supporters were silenced. The entire media ecosphere went into overdrive to muzzle opinions with which they disagree. On Friday, Google announced that it was excluding the app for the Twitter alternative Parler from its platform. Saturday night, Apple removed Parler from its app store. And as I write, Amazon announced that as of midnight Sunday, Parler’s data would be removed from its servers. Why?
Two reasons. First, because conservatives are flocking to Parler in their disgust with Twitter, so there is a commercial reason. But the second reason is pure politics. As Parler’s CEO John Matze noted, “Amazon, Google and Apple purposefully did this as a coordinated effort knowing our options would be limited and knowing this would inflict the most damage right as President Trump was banned from the tech companies.”
What we are seeing, as Carlson pointed out in his conversation with the journalist Glenn Greenwald, is the elevation of a “tiny handful of tech oligarchs” to a position of essentially untrammeled power to determine what we see, what we hear, and with whom we may communicate. No one elected them, but they are in many respects “more powerful than any nation state,” unaccountable and overwhelmingly representing a far-Left point of view.
Where does it stop? Not with the book publishing industry. Simon & Schuster just announced that they have canceled Senator Josh Hawley’s (R-Mo.) new book The Tyranny of Big Tech, allegedly because he supported President Trump and exercised his legal right to debate allegations of voter fraud on the Senate floor. Hawley was quite right that Simon & Schuster’s action was positively “Orwellian.”
Simon & Schuster, he tweeted, “is canceling my contract because I was representing my constituents, leading a debate on the Senate floor on voter integrity, which they have now decided to re-define as sedition. Let me be clear, this is not just a contract dispute. It’s a direct assault on the first amendment. Only approved speech can now be published. This is the left looking to cancel everyone they don’t approve of.”
I admire Hawley’s spirit: “I will fight this cancel culture culture with everything I have. We’ll see you in court.”
Roger L. Simon was not being hyperbolic when he suggested that what we are seeing is the devolution of the United States into a one-party totalitarian state akin to Communist China. It’s not, Simon notes, “communism in the traditional sense. Karl Marx wouldn’t recognize it, not that what he had on offer was any better.” Instead, what we are witnessing is Communism as a sort of “paleo-virtue signaling.”
What China actually is (and where the United States is headed or has already arrived) is a form of oligarchic fascism. The capitalist market’s fine as long as it’s my capitalist market and you’re a member of my party.
I see I have used variations of the word “oligarchy” a couple of times. Let me end by using it once more, with an assist from Thucydides. In his account of the end of Athenian democracy, the great historian recounts the conspiracy to assassinate Androcles, a leader of the democratic faction, in 411 B.C. “Fear, and the sight of the numbers of the conspirators, closed the mouths of the rest. . . . Indeed all the popular party approached each other with suspicion, each thinking his neighbor involved in what was going on, the conspirators having in their ranks persons whom no one could ever have believed capable of joining an oligarchy.”
But there they were—and here we are. It didn’t work out so well for Athenian democracy. Will it be any better for us? No one’s crystal ball is farsighted enough to say. The conflict is between what Samuel Huntington called the American Creed—fired by a belief in the sanctity of individual liberty, private property, and limited government—and the assault on that creed by the forces of “progressive” political correctness and identity politics.
Later ages are always surprised by the casual brutality of totalitarian regimes. What those innocent ages neglect is the unshakeable (though misguided) conviction of virtue that animates the totalitarians. The historian John Kekes, writing about Robespierre in City Journal some years ago, touched on the essential point. If we understand Robespierre, “we understand that it is utterly useless to appeal to reason and morality in dealing with ideologues. For they are convinced that reason and morality are on their side and that their enemies are irrational and immoral simply because they are enemies.” That is the position of conservatives in American culture today.