The Trap The Democrats Walked Right Into

If law and order are what this election is about, they will lose it.

(Protesters set fire to an American flag outside the Hennepin County Government Plaza during a demonstration against police brutality and racism on August 24, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Kerem Yucel /AFP via Getty Images)


It finally happened. We have lethal battles in the streets between the two tribes of our polarized politics. This week, a 17-year-old man, Kyle Rittenhouse, brought a rifle to Kenosha, Wisconsin, in order, it appears, to protect the businesses that were being burned down or ransacked by rioters after the police shooting of alleged rapist, Jacob Blake. In a series of skirmishes between Rittenhouse and BLM and Antifa activists on the streets of Kenosha, three men pursuing Rittenhouse were shot and two killed by the vigilante in what appears to be some kind of self-defense.

I’m doing my best to convey the gist of what happened — and there’s an excellent, detailed report of the incident from the NYT — without justifying any of it. No excuse for vigilantism; no excuse for looting, rioting and arson. The truth is: even a few minutes of chaos and violence can contain a universe of confusing events, motives and dynamics that are extremely hard to parse immediately. And yet it is the imperative of our current culture that we defend one side as blameless and the other as the source of all evil.

In the current chaos, I’ve come to appreciate Marcus Aurelius’s maxim that “The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” And I have to say I’m horribly conflicted on some issues. I’m supportive of attempts to interrogate the sins of the past, in particular the gruesome legacy of slavery and segregation, and their persistent impact on the present. And in that sense, I’m a supporter of the motives of the good folks involved with the Black Lives Matter movement. But I’m equally repelled by the insistent attempt by BLM and its ideological founders to malign and dismiss the huge progress we’ve made, to re-describe the American experiment in freedom as one utterly defined by racism, and to call the most tolerant country on the planet, with unprecedented demographic diversity, a form of “white supremacy”. I’m tired of hearing Kamala Harris say, as she did yesterday: “The reality is that the life of a black person in America has never been treated as fully human.” This is what Trump has long defended as “truthful hyperbole” — which is a euphemism for a lie.  

But here’s one thing I have absolutely no conflict about. Rioting and lawlessness is evil. And any civil authority that permits, condones or dismisses violence, looting and mayhem in the streets disqualifies itself from any legitimacy. This comes first. If one party supports everything I believe in but doesn’t believe in maintaining law and order all the time and everywhere, I’ll back a party that does. In that sense, I’m a one-issue voter, because without order, there is no room for any other issue. Disorder always and everywhere begets more disorder; the minute the authorities appear to permit such violence, it is destined to grow. And if liberals do not defend order, fascists will.

Here is a quote from Yoom Nguyen, owner of the Lotus Restaurant in Minneapolis, who just witnessed a second assault on his business: “Watching looters bust down our family restaurant is so heartbreaking. Senseless, they’re doing it while laughing and smirking. Not gonna lie, I damn near shot a man tonight. He threw that fucking rock at my family photo and looked right at me. I said ‘you motherfucker …’ tears immediately rolled down my face. I just can’t no more. I’m thankful I walked away but Fuck y’all.” This is how violence metastasizes. And as I’ve watched protests devolve over the summer into a series of riots, arson expeditions, and lawless occupations of city blocks, along with disgusting and often racist profanity, I’ve begun to feel similarly. And when I watched the Democratic Convention and heard close to nothing about ending this lawlessness, I noted the silence. 

I don’t think I’m the only one, as even the Democrats seem now to realize. And this massive blindspot is not hard to understand. When a political party finds itself so wedded to a new and potent ideology it cannot call out violence when it sees it, then it is walking straight into a trap. When the discourse on the left has become one in which scholars and editors and Tweeters vie with one another to up the ante on how inherently evil America has always been, redescribe it as a slaveocracy, and endorse racist books that foment the most egregious stereotypes about “whiteness”, most ordinary people, who love their country and are mostly proud of its past, will rightly balk. One of the most devastating lines in president Trump’s convention speech last night was this: “Tonight, I ask you a very simple question: How can the Democrat Party ask to lead our country when it spends so much time tearing down our country?” A cheap shot, yes. But in the current context, a political bullseye.

The key theme of the RNC was reminding people of the American narrative that once was. Yes, it was unbelievably vulgar. Yes, it looked like a cross between a sophisticated CGI video-game and a crude car dealer ad with a dollop of Leni Riefenstahl. But it was extremely effective. To see that, you have to remove your frontal cortex and put it in a jar, accept that it’s all going to be a series of lies so massive they stupefy us into stutters, and then cop the feels. Pence gave us a vision of America that was a souped up Disney special from the early 1960s — from Fort McHenry no less. And look at the icons Trump invoked: Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, Davy Crockett, and Buffalo Bill. You can mock. But in the midst of a culture being redescribed by the left as a form of foul and relentless “white supremacy”, and in a moment of arson and rioting, it felt like a kind of balm. 

All this reassurance played out against a backdrop of Kenosha, which was burning, and Minneapolis, where a suicide led to a bout of opportunistic looting, and Washington DC, where mobs of wokesters went through the city chanting obscenities, invading others’ spaces, demanding bystanders raise fists in solidarity, with occasional spasms of violence. These despicable fanatics, like it or not, are now in part the face of the Democrats: a snarling bunch of self-righteous, entitled bigots, chanting slogans rooted in pseudo-Marxist claptrap, erecting guillotines — guillotines! — in the streets as emblems of their agenda. They are not arguing; they are attempting to coerce. And liberals, from the Biden campaign to the New York Times, are too cowardly and intimidated to call out these bullies and expel them from the ranks. 

Remember the pivotal moment earlier this summer when the New York Times caved to its activist staff and fired James Bennet? It’s no accident this was over an op-ed that argued that if New York City would not stop the rioting in the streets, the feds should step in to restore order. For the far left activists who now control that paper, the imposition of order was seen not as an indispensable baseline for restoring democratic debate, but as a potential physical attack on black staffers. They saw restoring order within the prism of their own critical race ideology, which stipulates that the police are enforcers of white supremacy, and not enforcers of the rule of law in a liberal society. It was a sign that the establishment left were willing to tolerate disorder and chaos if they were directed toward the ideologically correct ends — which is how Democratic establishments in Minneapolis and Seattle and Portland responded. The NYT, CNN and the rest tried to ignore the inexcusable, and find increasingly pathetic ways to dismiss it. This week, their staggering bias was exposed as absurd.

It is just as true, of course, that the president has shown a similarly cavalier and even more cynical attitude to urban unrest. In the case of the protests outside the White House earlier this summer, he deployed law enforcement so crudely and counter-productively that he seemed to want to inflame it still further for political reasons. He’s more than usually aware that chaos is always good for authoritarians, and has delighted in excoriating Democratic mayors and governors for tolerating it. He has also sent signals to law enforcement that he supports abuse of suspects, and ignored the real threat of white nationalism in police and military ranks, and of terroristic white nationalist movements in general.

I find the interaction between some cops and vigilantes in Kenosha deeply, deeply disturbing. Non-college-educated white men make up a lot of the police forces and military in the US — and Trump has big margins of support among them, counts them as his own cops and soldiers, and signals that he will always have their back. As the far left has indiscriminately smeared the police, and promised to abolish or defund them, they have helped Trump co-opt them in a terrifying dynamic. As Trump was eulogizing a murdered policeman, the leftist mob outside was in the midst of a “Fuck The Police” demonstration. If the Dems want to fight an election on that choice — and some do — they’re engaged on a suicide mission.

And let’s be frank about this and call this by its name: this is very Weimar. The center has collapsed. Armed street gangs of far right and far left are at war on the streets. Tribalism is intensifying in every nook and cranny of the culture. The establishment right and mainstream left tolerate their respective extremes because they hate each other so much.

The pattern is textbook, if you learn anything from history: an economic crisis resulting in mass unemployment; the pent-up psychological disorders a long period of lockdown can and will unleash; a failure of nerve on the part of liberals to defend the values and institutions of liberal democracy, and of conservatives to keep their own ranks free of raw demagogues and bigots. But critically: a growing sense of disorder and violence and rioting as simply the background noise; and a sense that authorities do not have the strength or the stomach to restore order. What most people want in that kind of nerve-wracking instability is a figure who will come in and stamp it out. In Trump, we have someone who would happily trample any liberal democratic norm to do it. And the left seems to be all but begging him to do it — if only to prove them right. 

A long time ago, I was mocked for saying that I believed that the election of Donald Trump was an extinction-level event for liberal democracy. But this is where we are. There is no place for liberal debate or dissent, just competing mobs deploying propaganda, intimidation and mutual racial hatred. Norms are trashed, from the shameful cooptation of national monuments for partisan purposes, to violating the privacy and peace of ordinary citizens because they are not in the ranks of agitators. Liberals are now illiberal; conservatives are revolutionaries. The Republican convention we are witnessing makes no pretense of even publishing a platform — all to demonstrate total and unfailing fealty to the leader whose own family is now assumed to succeed him. What about this pattern of events do we not already understand? 

Yes, we still have an election. But barring a landslide victory for either party, it will be the beginning and not the end of the raw struggle for power in a fast-collapsing republic. In a close race, Trump will never concede, and if he is somehow forced to, he will mount a campaign from the outside to delegitimize the incoming president, backed by street-gangs and propaganda outfits. If Biden wins, we may have one last chance for the center to hold — and what few hopes I have rest on this.

But Biden, let’s face it, is weak and a party man to his core, and has surrendered to the far left at almost every single turn — from abortion to immigration to race. You’d be a fool I think, to believe he could resist their fanaticism in office, or that if he does, he won’t be toast in a struggle to succeed him. He remains the only choice in this election. But on the central question of civil order, he blew it last week and so did the Dems. Biden needs a gesture of real Sister Souljah clarity to put daylight between him and the violent left. He has indeed condemned the riots, with caveats. But at some point, the caveats have to go. And the sooner the better.


Harpswell, Maine, 1.13 pm


Dissent Of The Week

A reader thinks The Weekly Dish has been too rarefied so far:

I’m perplexed by a lot of your current writings regarding race and critical theory. Generally speaking, I agree with a lot of your points. It’s not realistic that every company and institution are going to mirror the demographics of the country. However, that’s my counter-argument as well; it’s so silly and implausible that I don’t understand why this seems to be a bigger threat — based on how much you write about it — compared to what Trump and the Right are doing. When you try to add credence to it, you cite people I’ve never heard of (and I read/listen to more politics than most people). If Biden, Pelosi, or some other powerful Democrat held these views, I’d agree with you, but these are fringe players who aren’t setting the agenda. 

You’ve talked before about people needing to get out of their bubble, to see other parts of the country like the Midwest — well, I bet if you walked up to 10 people in Indiana or Missouri and asked what “white silence = violence” means, nobody would mention atheism or critical theory. Maybe individuals who thought that way had a part in the movement/slogans, but to assume it’s cascaded to everyone who supports BLM is making a connection that simply does not exist.

You do point to some prominent people and organizations, like Kendi and the NY Times. However, while Kendi is gaining some attention, his ideas — like having some Commission on Equality — are so absurdly improbable that I have a hard time believing you think this could ever happen. We live in a society that can’t even get people to wear masks during a global pandemic, but we’re going to get a majority to agree to give overwhelming power to some equality commission? Please. And when it comes to the Times, I think you’re overestimating its influence. Sure, they may be stepping on themselves trying to prove how woke they are, but the newspaper has about 5 million subscribers, whereas Facebook has 2.6 billion active users and the right wing is using it to spread lies and discourse.

On one hand, we have a party whose leader — not some fringe player — is openly racist, grifting the American people, actively sowing discourse, breaking the law, and doing things that undermine the country for his own gain. On the other hand, we have a fringe group on the left that may have some ideas that, at best, need to be fleshed out and, at worse, would do some harm — they but have no real power or authority to institute any of these changes. For a logical person, I just can’t see why you choose to focus on the latter.

No real power to institute these changes? The 1619 Project is being taught to high school kids as objective truth. Almost every single corporation has adopted critical race theory in its employment practices, and Americans are being forced to read neo-Marxist texts as a condition of employment; all traditional academic disciplines — even math — are now in the process of being “de-colonized”; every Facebook page has a BLM poster on it, along with slogans rooted in critical theory. Every major cultural institution is being re-made along these “social justice” principles, including vast swathes of philanthropy; the best-selling books in the country argue that all inequality between groups is entirely a function of “systemic oppression”; this fall, California voters will decide whether to allow open discrimination on the basis of race.

I could go on. But ideas matter. If I had ignored or downplayed Trump’s malign illiberalism, I could see the nugget of truth in this critique. But I have been relentless in exposing his unique threat to liberalism as well. If I have to choose, I choose the Democrats. But I’m not going to ignore the poison that is on the left as well. And I think the press does the left no service when it minimizes these trends or lionizes them. Pointing out the illiberalism on both sides is partly why I am no longer ensconced in the MSM. But I think the job of a writer is not to back one side or the other reflexively, but to analyze the dangers to liberal democracy wherever they come from.


New Orleans, Louisiana, 2.49 pm


Postmodernism On The Right

A reader sets up an essential conversation about the pomo tendencies of the Trump cult:

I enjoyed your piece on critical theory. It would be fascinating for someone to examine the parallel ideology of the right, especially among less-educated whites. If you’re looking for neo-Marxists and nihilists in my home state of Mississippi, you’ll find them more easily in the poor white communities than the black ones. Their beliefs aren’t as well articulated as the left’s (or actually, maybe they’re easy to understand, unlike the left’s academic jargon), but their utter lack of faith in truth and institutions, and their even stronger belief that they are powerless versus elites, forms a remarkably similar ideology to the critical theory gang. Whenever my friends back home defend Trump’s latest attack on truth or the rule of law with the usual “what about Clinton,” and when they refuse to acknowledge that wrongs on both “sides” are worthy of scorn, I always congratulate them for having, unwittingly, joined the far left in its assault on truth and morality. 

This reader illuminates some history:

As far as I can tell, Critical Theory entered American public discourse in the late 1960s with the journal Telos. Telos was the brainchild of a group of young Hegelian/Marxist disciples of Herbert Marcuse, such as Russell Jacoby, Paul Piccone, and Paul Gottfried. It positioned itself on the New Left, and it had some tenuous respect for reason and truth.

Oddly enough, Telos moved to the Far Right, and by the early 2000s it was adulating the New Right in Europe, exploring the Dutch politician Geert Wilders and the French National Front as examples of a new right-wing populism. When Mr. Trump emerged as a candidate in 2016, I thought he embodied that trend. I say that not to be critical because, as a matter of full disclosure, I am sympathetic to that position. It was a manifestation of a type of conservatism not rooted in laissez-faire and not rooted in the old elites.

It is significant that Paul Gottfried — one of Marcuse’s disciples and one of the founding fathers of Critical Theory — is an ardent paleo-conservative and was an early and vocal supporter of Donald Trump. If the “woke” exponents of Critical Theory knew their own history, they would just shit.

Another reader turns to contemporary pomocons:

I wonder what you might think about the idea that the advocates of the “New Nationalism” on the right (such as Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule, and R.R. Reno) have tacitly accepted many of the premises of Critical Theory and are merely advocating for the imposition of their preferred power structure among the many on offer. Blood-and-soil, crown-and-cross nationalism also rejects reason and persuasion in favor of coercion, and perhaps it should be understood as the totalitarian flip side of the Critical Theory coin. The New Nationalists view Christianity, at least in part, as a utilitarian societal structure under which the right kind of authority can be legitimated and enforced. To me, this is indistinguishable from the manner in which the Critical Theorists leverage their various categories of identity. Despite the fact the New Nationalists appeal to a deity as opposed to explicitly human authority, both sides are playing the same game by the same rules.

I agree that the atheism of Critical Theory is an essential aspect — perhaps THE essential aspect. Where I believe an important distinction is being missed in the broader discourse, however, is in what type of theism is the true liberal antidote to the totalitarians on the Right and the Left. A Christianity that posits universal norms based in a transcendent God who ultimately delivers justice (whether in this life or the next) betrays itself when it co-opts the levers of state power to coerce rather than persuade, even when it does so in response to threats to its legitimacy (real or perceived). It will be difficult if not impossible to see off Critical Theory if the only alternative on offer is a return to 17th century Europe.

Parting question for you: Do you think a resurgence of small “L” liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic West? If so, by what mechanism would it be brought about?

I’m glad you’re making this essential point about right-wing postmodernism as well. I agree largely, and should devote more attention to it — as I have done in the past. But the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.



Face of the Week

Well it could be either of these faces, really:

“Slapped me across the face and then denied doing it” — a Trumpian sentence if there ever was one.


Yglesias Award Nominee

“A former listener told me last week that I’ve changed and he can no longer listen to me. It took him a day to explain what he meant. In short, he said I don’t fight the way I used to and don’t seem to recognize the country could very well come crashing down if Joe Biden gets elected. You know, he’s right. I have changed because he is and I was and many of you are wrong. … I used to really believe the nation would collapse if Obama or Clinton or Biden got elected. But we are still chugging along and both parties are complicit in the problems. But eternity matters more to me after nearly dying a few years ago. Enrolling in seminary made me realize how I was twisting my faith to conform to my politics and not the other way around,” - Erick Erickson, on how he refused to join the Trump cult. The Christian conservative and old-school blogger at RedState is now on Substack.


Mental Health Break

This is not a fork:


From The Annals of Dishness

Back in March 2017, when the Daily Dish was still dark after its 2015 retirement, a reader sent this email:

I am just writing a quick note to tell you how grateful I am that you published a series of women’s stories on late-term abortions in 2009. Today, my wife terminated a pregnancy at 14 weeks because our child was found to have profound genetic birth defects and would have likely been stillborn. Our decision was much earlier, and much more black and white, than most of the stories you published, but your former blog helped me understand that we were not alone and that our story was not uncommon. We have always been sympathetic to the pro-choice stance, but this experience made us realize just how isolating and stigmatizing abortion is, even when the alternative — forcing a child to be born only to die — feels like the cruelest torture. It took real courage for you and your staff to amplify the stories of women who make that decision. So even years later, thank you. I loved The Dish for so many things, but my favorite was the way you openly and bravely fought the forces of shame and isolation.

If you are new to the Dish, or want to re-read those stories, the collection titled “It’s So Personal” is here. One of the most compelling stories is from a couple in Korea whose unborn baby had an extreme case of cystic hygroma. Their heart-rending choice — informed by their faith as Jehovah’s Witnesses, who opt for abortion only when the mother’s life is threatened — was not to abort, and their child died in utero. Yet they still reserved judgment for others, ending their story with the following words:

I’m not saying anything about anyone else here or what they’ve done — I learned firsthand the indescribable sadness and torment of being told your child in the womb has a life-threatening condition, and my heart goes out to any and all parents who’ve had to deal with such a situation. But the decision we made to keep our baby alive was the very best thing we could have ever done. My wife and I got to know the greatest love of our life, and it changed us forever in ways I can’t even begin to express.


In The ‘Stacks

Some recommended reading from other writers on Substack:


The View From Your Window Contest

So, where do you think it’s located? (A clue: The photo was taken on Saturday, August 22.) Email your entry to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject heading, along with any details about the location within the body of the email. If no one guesses the exact location, proximity counts. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two gift subscriptions for TWD. Happy sleuthing! (The results for the previous contest are in an email coming to subscribers shortly, and you can find the results for all the contests here.)

And as always, keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the conversation: dish@andrewsullivan.com. But please try to be concise: the new format of The Weekly Dish is much more constrained than The Daily Dish, so it’s more difficult to include your smart dissents when they stretch into many paragraphs.

See you next Friday.