Race riots are underway again; beginning in Minneapolis but now spread to many major cities. These things always follow the same trajectory. First, there is a questionable incident involving law enforcement and a black man. Next, the ugly images, questions, protests, and agitators.
Then the protests turn violent. The logic of collective punishment is afoot.
Pretty soon every opportunistic criminal joins in: TVs walk out of stores, and buildings burn down. Soon, other crimes like rapes and murders happen. A diffident police response further encourages the rioters. Eventually, things either peter out or the National Guard is called in.
It’s been this way since the Watts riots in the 1960s. Almost every major urban area has experienced race riots. After a hiatus, they returned with gusto as with the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. Then a string of them happened during the Obama Administration: Ferguson, Baltimore, and Milwaukee.
If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
Is America Worthy of Conserving?
In their account of these riots, the Right and Left typically part ways, as they do on crime more generally. The Left likes to talk about justified anger, institutional racism, and poverty—the “root causes.” This has the effect of justifying the violence.
People on the Right, by contrast, consider themselves to be part of the party of law and order. They think laws against theft and arson are good laws, without exceptions for “rage.” As individuals, they tend to have good relations with police, whom they see as protectors of themselves and their communities. While they may agree that a particular incident shows misbehavior, they tend to consider such incidents examples of “bad apples” rather than something systemic.
While the Left likes to look at broad patterns involving the whole society—so-called institutionalized racism—people on the Right see a different and more salient pattern: criminals resisting arrest leading to predictable consequences.
Tapping into anxiety about crime and disorder has long been good right-wing politics. Nixon famously invoked the need to restore law and order and won in both 1968 and 1972, after years of disorder, riots, and rising crime.
This was not exclusively a Republican strategy. Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, to the horror of the media, called for his police to “shoot to maim” during riots at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. He won re-election six times.
Is the Nation Legitimate?
Anxiety about crime does have a relation to race. While today the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movements are cast as gauzy moments of national unity, they were controversial at the time, not least because they were coincident with a massive, sustained rise in riots and other violent crime. Why exactly this was so is mostly a matter of speculation, but consider that both the civil rights and anti-war movements were critical of our society at its core.
These were not just criticisms of particular laws or a misguided foreign policy, but a reimagination of America as an illegitimate regime, whose popular myths perpetuated that illegitimacy. As the civil rights movement and anti-war movements became intertwined, the dominant theme became that America itself was evil because of its foundational racism.
That view is now so common as to be unremarkable. CNN’s Van Jones recently said Hillary Clinton-supporting, white liberals were racist. The New York Times has given top billing to the revisionist view that America’s real founding happened not in 1776 but in 1619, when American slavery began.
If a society and its people are painted as fundamentally evil, it’s pretty hard for people to go on respecting their laws. “Collective guilt is one of the legacies of the 1960s that is still with us,” Thomas Sowell observed. “We are still seeing a guilt trip for slavery being laid on people who never owned a slave in their lives, and who would be repelled by the very idea of owning a slave.”
After the loss in Vietnam and the sustained critique of racism that began in the 1960s, American elites lost their nerve. They looked at the self-confident America of their youth with a jaundiced eye and no longer felt comfortable telling minorities that they needed to follow the same laws and conform to the same expectations as everyone else. They certainly didn’t want to be labeled racists, as they themselves had spent a lot of energy condemning what they deemed déclassé Southern whites, as well as working-class whites in urban areas. Softness on crime and hostility to law enforcement thus became a central defining principle of the liberal elite.
This toxic viewpoint bled into other issues, keeping the nation divided in what should have been a time of national reconciliation. Republican leaders favored the death penalty and long sentences, while the Left wanted a greater focus on rehabilitation. The Right supported long criminal sentences, and the Left said this was “mass incarceration.”
The running debate on whether America was basically good or basically evil became an enduring feature of the Right/Left political divide. The loss of confidence arising from the civil rights movement led to a full-blown crisis of legitimacy in other areas. American economic dominance became neo-colonialism. Foreign policy primacy was neo-imperialism. The Left said America was bad and deserved to be weaker, while the Right wanted the nation and its institutions to be strong and self-confident. The Right saw themselves as the stewards of the nation, whose institutions their ancestors built.
Conservatism Inc. Concedes the Left’s Core Premise
For many years, conservative intellectuals tended to match the tone of their core constituency in this debate. National Review had a lot of articles on the topic of crime in the 1970s and 1980s, when Ernest van den Haag used to wax poetic on the necessity of the death penalty.
Then the “movement” started to change. Many of those deemed too far to the Right were purged. To the extent National Review was the center of an intellectual movement, it became less intellectual. Mediocrities like Jonah Goldberg and David French rose to prominence, replacing men like Russell Kirk and James Burnham.
The lion’s share of official conservatism’s efforts was spent defending policies that helped big businesses, even as these businesses off-shored jobs or supported policies that should have been deemed hostile to the free-market ethos of Conservatism, Inc..
The movement also began to run away from issues like immigration and affirmative action, even though both tend to be hot buttons for the average right-leaning voter. Through the prism of Conservatism, Inc., and its well-funded magazines and think tanks, the passions of their core constituencies were refracted into a slightly more pro-business, jingoistic version of mainstream liberalism.
The one thing these self-appointed gatekeepers didn’t spend a lot of time or energy on was crime, particularly black crime, even though this is a latent anxiety behind ongoing “white flight” and the hunt for “safe communities” with “good schools.” Instead, anxieties about “urban problems” became a topic discussed in whispers among close friends and family.
These concerns do not reveal some deep reservoir of irrational hate, but rather a rational response by ordinary people to verifiable reality. Instead of sympathizing with these legitimate worries, the official Right either ignored them or condemned them using the same shaming language as the leftist mainstream media.
Now, they trip over themselves to condemn a Minneapolis cop, even before all the facts are known, including important ones, like the fact that the victim didn’t suffocate. Even if the knee-on-the-neck was bad tactics, it kind of matters whether it caused a death to classify this as a murder or merely a firing offense.
Obviously, people aren’t angels. Cops make mistakes. Sometimes bad people have power and there is corruption. But this is different from saying the police generally are a problem, that police shootings of black men are a national epidemic, or that disproportionate black crime is not a larger issue for black and white communities alike.
America and Its People Are Worthy of Defense
The obsession with racism misunderstands the country and its contemporary problems. It defines any friction between a black and white person as proof of racism, as if whites are not also sometimes victims. Neither does this obsession give any consideration to the fact that sometimes people have violent encounters for reasons having nothing to do with race. The racism critique lately has evolved into quasi-genocidal ideas like “white privilege” and “abolishing whiteness.”
Race obsession also forces conservatives into silly roundabout arguments, such as the popular trope that Democrats are the Real Racists, as if this alone could render the Democrats unfit for leadership. So much for the Democrats’ hostility to the Constitution and the pro-life cause, or their support for affirmative action and gun control. The Right will always lose when the Left is permitted to define respectability.
An authentic right-wing politics can succeed only when it appeals to reasonable middle-class anxieties on immigration, political correctness, jobs moving overseas, a general coarseness of life, and, of course, crime and disorder.
This is how Nixon won.
This is how Reagan won.
And this probably had something to do with how Trump won. Trump’s tough talk and throwback mantra of “making America great again” came during Obama’s second term, after the country endured half a dozen high-profile race riots reminiscent of the 1960s. Sadly, the president has been muted and mealy-mouthed in the face of these recent riots in Minneapolis and elsewhere.
While riots have become common again, they are the product of choices made by our political leaders. These choices, including failing to back the police, happen when a majority is morally disarmed from imposing the same standards on everyone, whether white or black.
People on the Right are naturally inclined to be on the side of law and order. The Right’s core is in the middle class, people with jobs and families, who own property and businesses. They recognize the need for law to be backed by force, violence even. This flows from the premise that civilization and peace are not the natural state of men, but rather a delicately constructed edifice, dependent on myth and memory and social solidarity, as well as law and order.
No conservative movement worthy of the name would accept that rioting is acceptable in response to police brutality, even when it is demonstrably proven. But Conservatism, Inc. gave away the game by accepting the Left’s warped moral compass, which says America is fundamentally illegitimate due to endemic racism. Their condemnation of the riots is ineffectual, because it stands alongside a more wide-ranging condemnation of America itself as racist and illegitimate. Until the Right finds a way out of this straight jacket, nothing can be conserved, because the contemporary obsession with racism declares that nothing in our nation is good or worth conserving.