Published October 30, 2019
The New Criterion - September 2019 issue
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
So wrote William Blake during the revolutionary age that began with the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century, thus identifying the revolutionary mind with which we have since become so much more familiar. It is a mind that not only focuses on random and arbitrary instances of what it sees as being wrong with the world but which also presumes to speak in lieu of “Heaven” to anathematize such wrong. Blake’s revolutionist — it’s never clear how far he may be identified with the poet himself — is incapable of the thought that the Robin Red breast might not mind life in the cage quite so much as he imagines and might actually prefer it to uncaged life. Nor does the revolutionary zealot care that there may be many worse injustices in the world in need of his attention and possible amelioration. He isn’t really interested in amelioration but in the destruction or elimination of those he regards as oppressors, the worthy objects of his, and Heaven’s, “rage.”
Admittedly, children in cages are potentially more rage-worthy than a robin redbreast but the promiscuity of the left’s outrage under President Trump long antedates the children-in-cages topos, just as the cages themselves antedate this president, and it encompasses so many lesser offenses against Heaven and nature that it appears to have become self-generating. Anything can be grist to the outrage mills. Mr Trump’s insulting tweets against those who have insulted him are every bit as rage-inducing as the caged children. Indeed, as my friend Byron York has pointed out, it was the tweets and not the caged Robins of the southern border which inspired Democratic Representative Al Green of Texas to bring articles of impeachment against the president to the House floor — on the alleged grounds that such scurrilous tweeting has
brought the high office of the President of the United States in contempt, ridicule, disgrace, and disrepute, has sown seeds of discord among the people of the United States, has demonstrated that he is unfit to be President, and has betrayed his trust as President of the United States to the manifest injury of the people of the United States, and has committed a high misdemeanor in office.
Since when is it a “high misdemeanor” (whatever that may be) to suggest to someone that if she doesn’t like this country she should try living in another one? That’s an easy one. Since Mr Trump was elected it has been considered axiomatic among increasing numbers of Democrats and even many Republicans that “he is unfit to be President,” so that anything he says or does that they find offensive or simply disagree with can be taken as a confirmation of that bedrock truth.
I think it not too much to describe such a mind-set as a kind of infectious insanity — perhaps a “holy madness,” to appropriate the title of Adam Zamoyski’s great book on the phenomenon as it emerged in Blake’s revolutionary era. Now as then it is spreading through the Western world, and it is not limited to the progressive reaction to Mr Trump. In Britain, the advent of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister in July produced an outburst of what is being called there “Boris Derangement Syndrome” — a reminder that a similar mental disorder was diagnosed by the late Charles Krauthammer during the George W. Bush administration. All the same symptoms are now in evidence in Britain. As Allister Heath wrote in the (London) Daily Telegraph:
[As] in America, our discourse has mutated into a holy war, with two rival theologies pitted against one another, convinced that the other side is not just wrong but also self- evidently morally inferior. It’s a horrendous, civilisation-imperilling regression. We no longer debate: we try to annihilate the other side, destroy our opponents, get them fired from their jobs. We don’t really attempt to convince, either. Our gang can do no harm; theirs can do no right. We are moral; they are immoral. It’s barbaric and it is profoundly illiberal. . . The extreme reaction triggered by the possibility that Boris Johnson could become our next prime minister [as indeed he did on July 24th] provides a perfect illustration of our descent into post-democratic nihilism.
At least in Britain you could read those words in a major metropolitan daily newspaper. In America, if you read them at all, it would have to be in a niche and politically déclassé publication like the one you hold in your hands or in some obscure corner of the internet. What’s left of our national media continues to march in lockstep with the anti-Trump narrative of the past three years, forever uncorrected, apparently, by the Mueller report’s failure to find any inculpatory evidence. Like Representative Green or his House Democratic colleagues Messrs Nadler and Neal who continue to ransack the public record and any private records they can lay their hands on for any plausible evidence of wrong-doing, they stand with the Queen of Hearts in demanding “Sentence first — verdict afterwards.” Indeed, they go Alice’s Queen one better by deferring the evidence to afterwards as well.
Perhaps it is just so much of a taste as this of what, in certain well-known times and places, has been called “revolutionary justice” which has bred in the 20-odd would-be Democratic challengers to Mr Trump a quasi-revolutionary fervor that has rarely been seen before in the hundred and fifty years of relative domestic tranquility since the Civil War. President Obama’s promise that he would “fundamentally transform” the country that elected him seemed at the time like just another escalation of the rhetorical arms race that had grown out of Bush Derangement Syndrome, even to most of his supporters. But the even more virulent reaction against Mr Trump appears to have produced a demand, at least in the media and to an unknown degree beyond, for fundamental transformation in deed as well as words.
In the so-called “debates” of the Democrats which took place in June and July and which otherwise produced almost nothing newsworthy, it was for the most part only the lowest-polling candidates who ventured to raise the question of whether or not the radicalism of their more popular rivals might be a little bit impractical, fiscally calamitous or just out of touch with the electorate in the country at large — towards which the most passionately intense of the radicals seemed to adopt Hillary Clinton’s attitude of contempt. That no one with a chance of stepping into her shoes at next-year’s convention appears to have learned anything from her disdain of the Trump-supporting masses and classes may be good news for the president but it is a bit of a head-scratcher for those who assume that even revolutionists are likely to behave rationally (and therefore, usually, surreptitiously) in the pursuit of their political goals.
One interesting explanation for the revolutionary fever on the left was proposed by Barton Swaim in The Wall Street Journal:
That [Mr Trump] wasn’t Republicans’ ideal candidate in 2016 is apparent by the large numbers of conservatives who couldn’t support him even after his nomination. Some still don’t. In the progressive imagination, though, Mr. Trump is conservatism: heartless, lacking all conviction, dismissive of nuance, interested only in self-advancement, arrogant. Progressives’ emotional reasoning appears to be thus: Republicans got everything they wanted in 2016. We have a right to do the same. Whereas they achieved pure evil, we will achieve pure good. No more compromising with the other side. No more concessions to reality. Republicans hit their jackpot in 2016. We will hit ours in 2020. Something similar happened in 1972. Richard Nixon was never the embodiment of conservatism liberals thought he was. . . Nonetheless for liberals, Nixon was the embodiment of the Republican ideal: ruthless, shifty, retrogressive, boorish, populist in the worst sense. There was some truth in that view of Nixon, just as there is some truth in the view of Mr. Trump held by progressives today. But Nixon was far more than the sum of his vices, and so is Mr. Trump. The Democrats’ simpleminded view of Nixon, though, pushed them over the edge in 1972. The leftward lurch made no sense except as a psychological response to a nonexistent monster.
Mr Swaim acknowledges that Mr Trump is highly unlikely to duplicate the Nixon landslide against George McGovern, even if he’s facing an avowed socialist like Bernie Sanders, but I wonder if he can be right in supposing that the Democratic caricature of Nixon as an evil monster was merely “simpleminded” and not a calculated product of media propaganda built on the assumption, which at least in 1972 proved not to be the case, that it was the electorate which was simpleminded.
Understand. I would not repeat the media’s own mistake by assuming that those I disagree with are “simpleminded”; I would give them all the credit I can for intelligence, though it might in this case be more appropriately described as “cunning.” And yet I have my doubts. For reasons first set out in my book, Media Madness (Encounter, 2008 ), I think Watergate was as great a disaster for the media as it was for Nixon. It infected them with such a degree of self-importance and self-righteousness that this has come in time to amount almost to a collective madness — not madness in the clinical sense, perhaps, but a kind of folie de grandeur and pride of intellect which has permanently warped and distorted their outlook on life and politics.
In short, whatever may have been the case in 1972, in 2019 the media have come to believe their own propaganda — as how could they not when they had come also to believe that they have a monopoly on truth and reality? Decades of promoting a simpleminded view of the world has made them simpleminded too. And a great many people who would have known better in 1972 have by now adopted as their own the media’s self-conceit as heroic and infallible discoverers of truths which all must acknowledge or else be branded as fools and bigots, perhaps even criminals, along with the hated president.
We see the same simple-mindedness, as it might otherwise appear, elsewhere in cases where the media, together with the academic and political progressives whose leadership they have taken on, have felt it to be their duty to become passionately engaged rather than dispassionately analytical. “Climate change,” formerly known as “global warming,” is nowhere nearly so well-understood by “science” as the media routinely pretend it is in making their apodictically apocalyptic predictions of the environmental disasters it is all but inevitably to produce. And even if the phenomenon were so understood, humanity’s options for dealing with it are not limited to the drastic and economically ruinous proposals of the Left.
And yet those who point these things out are labeled “climate deniers” whose offense against media decorum some propose should also be an offense against the law. If you look up “Climate change denial” in Wikipedia you will find the term applied pejoratively to the expression of any slightest doubt about the academic and media consensus regarding climate change or the political and economic expedients that the “experts” routinely recommend to counter it. Whatever else it may be, such a dogmatic credo, attached to powers of official enforcement, even if only by social and professional sanction, is not “science” as the term has been traditionally understood.
In the last couple of years a similar credo has been advanced in the media about what they call “transgenderism” — something whose existence is somewhat less well-established than that of global-warming. That existence depends on the prior existence of what has come to be called, even by skeptics and reactionaries, “gender” (a word borrowed from philology, which uses it to refer to certain languages’ arbitrary identification of nouns and pronouns as “masculine”, “feminine” or “neuter”) as something distinct from but related to sex and usually describing an entirely subjective feeling had by members of one sex that they are or ought to be, wholly or in part, members of the other.
“Science” has once again obligingly stepped in to provide a pathological definition of such feelings as “gender dysphoria” which has, in turn, provided a new political advocacy with an excuse to transform the supposed syndrome from an illness to an aspiration — an aspiration to resign, as it were, from one’s genetically determined sex to join the other — which only oppressive theocrats and science-deniers would contradict or refuse, even to quite small children. One might be tempted to say that such an idea is not just simpleminded but preposterous if one did not fear being thereby classed by decent folks among the cruel oppressors of these poor victims of nature and society in denying them their hearts’ desire.
We may begin to see that there is nothing so simpleminded that the power of propaganda in the hands and the pens of a cultural elite cannot transform it into undeniable fact — as undeniable as the widely believed facts (by a majority in one recent poll) that Mr Trump is a racist and at least some kind of criminal — one who, perhaps, has only escaped indictment because of a kind of superstition, supposedly deferred to by Mr Mueller even though he denies it, that sitting presidents may not be indicted. And even if all those do not vote who believe such things, I would not at this point undertake to say that a plurality of voters, perhaps even a majority, cannot be persuaded of them, exactly as if they were true, by this time next year. I hope I am wrong, but in the last 48 years Media Madness has so far penetrated the general population, happy to imagine themselves as possessing thereby a golden ticket of admittance to the cognitive elite, that they may very well do the media’s bidding in the sure and certain conviction that they are thus demonstrating their intellectual superiority to the lumpen-mass of simpleminded Trump voters.
There are signs that the latter, or at least a rag-tag collection of academics and journalists who don’t hate them, are beginning to develop a revolutionary ideology of their own. In July I attended a conference in Washington convened to discuss something called National Conservatism, which appears to be by way of being a euphemism for what both Mr Trump and his detractors call “nationalism,” though they mean quite different things by the term. The National Conservatives barely mentioned the president, either to praise or to condemn, but if you had to sum up their deliberations in two words you could do worse than “America First.”
Mr Zamoyski’s book, mentioned earlier, reminds us that the revolutionary creed which preceded socialism was nationalism — not the nationalism of the left’s fever dreams (that he sees as having been confined to Germany) but the large-minded, humanistic nationalism associated with the names of Michelet in France, Mazzini in Italy and numerous lesser lights in the small and often only ideal nations of the Habsburg and Romanov empires. If it takes one kind of Holy Madness to drive out another, dissenters from the identity politics of the newly socialist and liberationist left may be driven to join the Trumpites under the banner of nationalism.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.