For the second time in a week, men have been shot and killed during protests. In Kenosha the shooter was a right-wing counter-protestor, and the victims part of the original protests; in Portland, things are much less clear. This is the development that I have feared for more than three years, since the Charlottesville confrontation. It echoes what happened in the last years of Weimar Germany, when militia groups from the Nazi, Communist and Social Democratic parties battled one another in the streets, taking hundreds of lives. (The Nazis actually got the worst of it in the streets but eventually outpolled these two rivals at the ballot box and worked their way into power.) With the country so awash in guns that a 17-year old can acquire an AR-15, it is surprising that it took so long to come to this. But how far will it go?
I think there will be further incidents along these lines between now and the election. Across the nation, our police consistently kill about three people a day. So far this year they have killed 661 people, most of whom we never hear of. 242 of them, it is worth noting, are white, and 123 are black. 80 are Hispanic and more than 200 do not have an identified race. Only when actual video exists do they become national issues. Shootings remain constant and videos become more and more common, and thus, I expect more well-publicized cases. Each of them will lead to more marches, probably to more outbursts of arson and looting, and perhaps to more violent counter-protests as well. I share the fear that all this will help Donald Trump in his campaign for re-election.
Yet I still do not think that we are heading for anything remotely resembling national socialism, because that was a product of a completely different time and place. The militias of Nazi Germany were highly organized and hierarchical. That was natural in a country that had had compulsory military service until very recently (it had been eliminated by the Versailles Treaty.) The whole western world, I would argue, was more organized and more respectful of authority at many levels then than it is now. For half a century, we have been living through a revolt against leadership of all kinds. It began in the 1960s, when young Americans rebelled against the draft, young women began to reject traditional roles, and young black activists rejected the authority of long-established civil rights groups. That revolt has continued through three generations on both sides of the political fence. On the right it has been mainly economic, on the left, it is more based on identity. The two revolts have left us almost without common values and certainly without the ability to devote major resources to a common goal.
COVID-19 is dealing another huge blow to our institutions. Not only is the Administration utterly unable to cope with it, but it has crippled our entire educational system. Paralysis has now stopped the Congress from passing effective new relief measures, allowing the President to step in with his own mock measures instead. Certainly I hope that Joe Biden will win election this November and return a functioning adult to the White House, but I certainly understand why so few Americans believe that any outcome will make a meaningful difference in their lives. They may turn out to be right. A prolonged controversy over the election will not help, either.
The United States, I think, went through a somewhat comparable period during the last three years of the Hoover Administration, when the government could not cope with a devastating economic crisis. That came to an end when FDR convinced the nation that he understood its problems and was doing something about them--even though it actually took the war to end mass unemployment. The Revolutionary War and the Civil War were more difficult periods to live through, but in each of them the nation was making a huge and ultimately successful effort to solve the big problem before it. It has now been decades, however, since our government successfully attacked a major problem of interest to us all.
Future posts will discuss how all of this began. I cannot predict where it is going. The national discourse, reflected on the front and op-ed pages of mainstream media and by the memes that keep popping up on my facebook page, is only making matters worse, based as it is on unrestrained anger, suspicion, and self-righteousness that rarely reflects real facts.
There is, I think, a profound connection between political and intellectual anarchy. That is why, as a favorite Harvard professor of mine remarked nearly 50 years ago, history thrives in periods of restoration--that is, the 20-40 years after a great political crisis, when political authority has won renewed respect, society is relatively stable, and there is enough time, and calm, to think. We do not live in such a time. I do not know when it might return.