Could This Be an Antebellum Age?

Published June 23, 2022

Wall Street Journal

In John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Lucifer—who only yesterday had been God’s favorite—consoles himself with this thought: “The mind is its own place and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” The United States of America, another of God’s erstwhile favorites, now and then performs the same trick of the mind. At the moment, the country seems committed to the second option, as if united in a natural preference for hell. Opinion: Free Expression

It’s happened before. The American theme now is violence and the promise of violence (a mirror of the pandemic, perhaps). Homicide rates are dramatically up, not merely because of the mass shootings but in the routine, even ritualized weekend carnage in Chicago and other cities.

A young man from California, heavily armed, allegedly turned up at Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s house in Maryland with a plan to assassinate him over the issues of abortion and guns. Authorities say the would-be killer thought that such a political and, as it were, moral murder would give meaning to his life. Now police stand 24-hour guard at the homes of all Supreme Court justices.

Jane’s Revenge, a sort of pro-choice Ku Klux Klan, is calling for a “Night of Rage” if the court overturns Roe v. Wade. Elderly baby boomers will catch the reference to the Weather Underground’s “Days of Rage” in 1969. Across the country, so many pro-life centers have been firebombed that it’s becoming a trend. A craze, you might say.

A candidate for U.S. Senate from Missouri has run a campaign video that shows him carrying a long gun and a sidearm, leading a mock commando raid, on the hunt for “RINOS”—Republicans in name only, i.e., anti-Trump Republicans. Nearby in the American jungle, Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger reports mail threatening to execute him, his wife and newborn child. Mr. Kinzinger is an anti-Trump member of the Jan. 6 committee.

Sometime in 2020 or 2021, Americans seem to have crossed a psychic barrier and plunged into new territory, a place where things aren’t quite as forbidden as they used to be. Citizens fell into dubious battle with one another, to use Milton’s phrase. People taught themselves to think outside the box. Crowds learned that they could, for example, burn down a police precinct and the police would flee. You could try to set fire to a federal courthouse; you could try to torch the Church of the Presidents in Lafayette Square, across from the White House. You could loot stores and walk away with stuff and the law wouldn’t follow.

The pandemic churned up tremendous new parables: the scene in which Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck and Floyd died; the scene in which Americans—some in a kind of tourist’s trance, some in a fanatic’s rage—poured or pounded their way into the U.S. Capitol. It was something between a pep rally and a lynch mob.

The routine at the southern border reminds me of the scene in “Casablanca” in which Captain Renault orders “a bottle of your best champagne” for Victor Laszlo. When Laszlo protests that the gesture is too extravagant, Renault smiles and explains: “Oh, please, monsieur. It is a little game we play. They put it on the bill, I tear up the bill. It is very convenient.” Security at the border has become such a game. There are laws against illegal entry; the Biden Democrats tear them up. It is very convenient.

In all of this, the relationship between fantasy and actuality—and, more deeply, between self and country, between Americans and other Americans—has changed, has darkened. The rules (written or unwritten) are different now.

The country’s political manners are not what they were. To this the progressives’ cult of change replies: So what? And Donald Trump agrees. You cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs. There is truth in the thought; on the other hand, it is a favorite metaphor of monsters. The law itself—the principle of law, the authority of law—is sorely tested and feels as if it is being broken. When prosecutors refuse to prosecute real crimes, society is morally under water.

There’s a queasy sense of crisis. Are things all that bad? What does it add up to? Is the country merely traveling over a bad stretch of road? It has happened before, in the second half of the 1960s, for example. Is it too much to say that this moment feels like the 1850s? It was in 1856 that Rep. Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery South Carolina Democrat, caned the abolitionist Republican Sen. Charles Sumner almost to death on the floor of the Senate. It took Sumner three years to recover.

In its violent certainty, in its blind self-righteousness, the deed has a savor of 2022 about it. Eighteen fifty-six was a presidential election year in which three mediocre candidates contended: Democrat James Buchanan, Republican John C. Frémont and Know Nothing former President Millard Fillmore. Buchanan won. He turned out to be one of the worst American presidents, in the dismal company of Andrew Johnson and Warren Harding. As it happened, that worst president, Buchanan, preceded the best president, Abraham Lincoln—to whom he bequeathed a divided country and a civil war.

Mr. Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book is “God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money.”

Lance Morrow is the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His work focuses on the moral and ethical dimensions of public events, including developments in regard to freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and political correctness on American campuses, with a view to the future consequences of such suppressions.

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