The first fact of sociopolitical life in America today is this: liberals in elite positions are frightened of the Left.
A college president may direct an institution with a $900 million endowment, meet with legislators and business heads, and boast a 30-year record of academic honors, but the sight of eight African American undergrads marching toward his office with scowls on their faces alarms him like nothing else.
A CEO may draw a $3 million salary and manage 1,300 workers, but the threat of a boycott coming from a few networked Millennials with ties to Sleeping Giant calls for immediate emergency action.
They know what they’re up against. Leftists form digital mobs, shut down events, block access, cancel, and dox. They show up at people’s homes, harass employers, and ruin businesses. They’re ruthless, they’re irrational, but the tantrums they throw muck up the works and clog the pipes. That’s the advantage they press—they will tear the system down if the people in power don’t comply.
A liberal in charge of an organization is particularly vulnerable. His job is to do precisely the opposite of clogging. He must maintain the flow, keep the wheels turning, and the money coming. His highest ideal is stability. He doesn’t believe very deeply in Truth, Honor, Integrity, and Fairness, but he’s not cynical. He does favor those virtues, but he knows not to clasp them too closely. That road, he understands, leads to conflict.
Conflict, however, is the Left’s primary method, not resolution. In the 1960s, when youth protests hit the campus and the streets, liberal leaders were baffled by the frequent absence of clear and distinct priorities laid out by the protesters. Oh, there were lots of specifics, but the crowds’ actions seemed to exceed the content of their stipulations. The concessions liberals made to demonstrators didn’t appear to satisfy them even though the concessions were exactly what the demonstrators asked for.
There was an antic, anarchic character to the mass that didn’t fall sway to negotiation. Liberals in charge kept asking themselves, “What exactly do they want? What’s their agenda?” Protesters talked about “the system” and other hazy conditions that were too abstract and cosmic for high-level bureaucrats to address.
It was very confusing for them, and that was the point: to keep officials uncertain and off-balance. If liberals never quite understood what these unpredictable characters would do next, if they saw that the protesters didn’t give a damn about the institution for which the liberals were responsible, the intimidation worked.
This is where liberals in power are now. They aim for a peaceful, prosperous society wherein nobody pushes the strong beliefs—God, family, nation—too strongly. Let’s all get along. But the crowd to their left is volatile, and it senses a moment of opportunity. Not long ago, hard leftists were marginal figures in liberal institutions, from the New York Times to Yale University to the Democratic Party. Now, they run a fair portion of the operations, including human resource departments in corporate America.
Liberal leaders dislike the dynamic, but they can’t face down the Left. So they choose another tactic: to fabricate dangerous terrorism forming on the Right.
When we compare the facts of right-wing violence against liberal anxieties over it, we have to judge those professed anxieties either as a cynical maneuver or a pathological defense mechanism. I favor the latter. I’ve heard too many liberals express their concerns with too much sincerity to think otherwise. The grave distress over a dangerous, anti-democratic Right looks like a way for liberals to appease or distract their leftist accusers, though liberals may not realize exactly what they’re doing.
The ridiculous overreaction to a putative white nationalist threat doesn’t just foster liberal politics, for instance, turning Donald Trump into a demon that must go. It also serves a psychic need. By postulating a right-wing menace, liberals can work off the nervousness that leftists cause them by applying it to a substitute object. Their tension with the far Left is displaced onto tension with an imagined far-Right, one that does indeed allow them to speak out. College presidents can’t confront leftist protesters and punish them for violations of academic codes. Still, they can broadcast with fervor their abhorrence of the “haters” on the Right who have caused those protesters to suffer.
Whatever actually happened at the Capitol on Wednesday, liberal leaders have expressed their alarm in such solemn and dismayed tones one can sense a profound relief behind their words. The discord liberals have felt in their relations with the radical Left now dissipates in the sober condemnation of the Trump hordes. For a moment, liberals may unite with the Left in a reassuring unity. The rioters have given them a fresh opening to tell their overheated comrades: “See?—If not for us, these right-wing crazies would seize the reins and victimize you all over again.”
The liberal elite has a profound interest in maintaining this right-wing danger. The window-breakers at the Capitol have done them a great favor. While left-wing riots proceeded all summer, liberals had to keep their mouths shut. The hard Left had taught them to watch what they say, and it couldn’t have made the elite comfortable, not when they care so much about a status quo that keeps them in high places. Leftists are quite right to cast the status quo and “the system” as dubious things. This is where the liberal elite is most vulnerable.
All too many conservatives and establishment Republicans fail to recognize this dynamic. They don’t see that when liberal elites sign on to “systemic racism” and other leftist concoctions that liberals are not endorsing an ideology. No, they are protecting themselves.
The failure to discern liberal motives may be because establishment Republicans, too, have an investment in the status quo. It’s done well by them, and it’s made them just as scared of the fractious Left as liberal elites are.
That was the big problem with Donald Trump. He wasn’t scared. The guilt trips, the accusations, #TheResistance . . . none of it fazed him. He didn’t worry about leftist students and activist groups and community organizers and digital mobs targeting him, occupying his office, running through 10 years of Facebook posts, or picketing outside his building. He could have worried about them, but he didn’t. It wasn’t in his character. That is why leftists and liberals hated him so, and why establishment Republicans wanted him gone. He wouldn’t play the game.
Now that his presidency is over, it remains to be seen whether Republicans will go back to the old rules or not. It all depends on this: have enough conservative voters been awakened to the sham that if Republicans sustain it, they will be punished in 2022?