by Victor Davis Hanson
Amid plague, national lockdown, riot and arson, iconoclasm, recession, and the most contested voting in history, the country leaves 2020 with some scars that won’t heal.
Mail-in Voting: Election Day as we once knew it no longer really exists. It has been warped, trimmed, and made nearly irrelevant in the panic of the times. The prior, but now accelerating, changes and the “never let a good crisis go to waste” efforts during the COVID-19 lockdown rammed through vast changes in previous voting norms. If the Democrats win the two U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia, new federal voting mandates designed to supersede state laws will institutionalize the chaos.
During the slow-motion November election “process,” the last presidential debate that Donald Trump won mattered little. Some 50 million people had already voted—and 100 million would before Election Day. The Hunter Biden scandal? Even had the media covered it, the result of such new laws would have made it a late October sparkler rather than a fiery bombshell.
When some precincts reported over 90 percent turnout, and when it was impossible to verify the authenticity of such a massive influx of votes, and when the tallying went on for days and weeks in some jurisdictions, gone entirely was the idea that Americans showed up on Election Day—with only a minority of elderly, sick, or at work voting by absentee ballots. Under the old system voters showed their IDs as if they were cashing a check, signed in, had their names checked against voting rolls, and then were directed to a booth, with the election decided in a few hours—in other words, a tradition that did not always yield the correct results.
Mail-in voting now joins open borders and promises to pack the Supreme Court, and junk the Electoral College, as systematic efforts to change the system when the system cannot guarantee the Left the retention of power. It will be impossible to return to a mostly Election Day vote, and so another American tradition of more than two centuries has been jettisoned cavalierly.
Legal Looting: America had seen violent protests throughout its history. Many had been marked by opportunistic rioting, looting, killing, and arson that often overwhelmed police, the state guard, and even the insertion of federal troops. And in the mid- to late-20th century, the result in cities from Los Angeles and Detroit to Baltimore were areas of unrest that for brief periods were effectively no-go zones where the only law in the arena was the rule of stronger and more brutal.
But what was new about the recent destructive rioting in Seattle, Portland, Washington, and New York during the summer of 2020, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, were three strange developments.
First, local and state authorities did not regularly try to suppress the violence. They either sympathized with the complaints of lawless Antifa and Black Lives Matter rioters or found the general chaos and sense of unrest during the Trump Administration conducive for Joe Biden’s candidacy in the November presidential election.
In the past, on rare occasions, authorities and police had sided with the rioters and let their terror and destruction and lawlessness continue without restraint—as during the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 that saw blacks gunned down and their property burned with impunity by white vigilantes while civic authorities looked the other way. Birmingham, Alabama public safety commissioner Bull Connor in 1961 on occasion more or less let the Klan crack heads as it pleased. But rarely in modern times have authorities abdicated and let a Lord of the Flies mentality take over their downtowns, as Seattle officials did with the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” over the summer.
Second, when violent demonstrators, arsonists, and looters were on rare occasions arrested, in most cases they were released by local and state public prosecutors, many of whom clearly sympathized with their use of violence. The result was a crash in police morale. To arrest a violent offender was simply deemed a waste of time and money, given his near-instant release and likelihood that he would never face any consequences for his actions.
In other words, as is the case in former Third World countries, America’s criminal justice system became warped. Now there was good and bad looting, permissible and outlawed arson, correct and incorrect resisting of arrest, and quarantine-violating mass rallying and mass rallying that is exempt from lockdowns. Carving out a swath of autonomy for rioters and looters in downtown Seattle proved legal; had a row of restaurants and bars done the same to be allowed to serve the people, they would have been fined, closed, and likely jailed.
Third, Democratic mayors are now avowed revolutionaries, at war with their own police departments—or at least those other than their security details that protect their families and property from the very Jacobins they empowered. In the old days, Democrats ran the cities, but a Richard Daley in Chicago, Jerome Cavanagh in Detroit, Sam Yorty in Los Angeles, or Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia at least assured the public that there would be consequences for law breaking and often begged for more federal support to quell unrest.
If one believes some of these prior mayors were racist, illiberal, or corrupt, then that indictment reflects the inherently racist traditions of the Democratic Party and its long history of delivering votes to Democratic candidates as the price of exempting their city machines from civil rights and racketeering investigations by mostly Democratic state and federal attorneys.
The common denominator with all of the above? There is no longer the rule of law as we once knew it.
Erasing Our Past: Coups, revolutions, and civil wars often witness the toppling of statues, usually of those identified as “tyrants” by self-described liberationists, reformers, and democratic activists. But in times of peace in general, and, in particular, in a constitutional United States, iconoclasm, Taliban-like destruction of statuary, and the Trotskyization of the past—whose luminaires are suddenly deemed enemies of the people—was mostly unknown.
Not now. By summer 2020, the Left was well beyond defacing, toppling, and destroying en masse statues of Confederate generals. The mob of Antifa, BLM, and renegade students had gone on to “dead white males” in general, whether it was Miguel de Cervantes, Father Junipero Serra, or Abraham Lincoln. What was new in American history was that mobs could assemble on spec and destroy or deface any statue or icon they wished—with impunity. For the foreseeable future, no civic organization or municipality will erect a statue, without first informally consulting the local Antifa thugocracy.
Antifa and BLM so terrified authorities that the latter often preemptively retired their once revered statutes, usually by night and without a vote of a local council or plebiscite. Hundreds are now hidden away in sheds and storage, apparently on the chance that a saner generation in a century or so may one day resurrect them as reminders of 21st-century mass insanity.
The reverse of statue toppling was also true, as the work of destructive creation was sanctified. BLM could simply declare plazas or sections of streets its own, brand them with its trademark BLM signature, and rightly assume mayors in Washington and New York would protect their sloganeering with the force of law—in the fashion of the Old West in which cowboys were given free rein in saloons to shoot and destroy. Defacing had now been redefined as the good ruining of public property. What is illegal is the attempt to restore a street to its original condition before it was illegally painted over with BLM slogans. From now on, mobs know that destroying art, statues, and monuments is their birthright—at least if they are professed revolutionaries.
Class War Is OK: Well before Trump, the country was bifurcating into two nations, two globalized bicoastal, wealthy internationalized ribbons within 50 miles of the Atlantic and Pacific, with a vast red interior in between. The distinctions were subtle and often hard to stereotype. But the former America was mostly left-wing. The corridors had higher percentages of the college educated and pseudo-credentialed, but more also without practical ability. They were mostly in control of the nation’s culture and politics—as defined by the administrative state, bureaucracies, media, academia, foundations, corporate boardrooms, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the elite echelon of the military, professional sports, and entertainment in general.
Yet the latter in-between the oceans was what still fed, built, and fueled America. That is, the interior is where the food grows, oil and gas gets pumped, timber is cut, cement, steel, and building materials are fashioned, and things get built—from cars to tractors to plastics to shingles. Globalization gave the coastal elite a new market of 7 billion—and to the interior, outsourcing, offshoring, and stagnant incomes.
During COVID-19, the abyss widened between Zoomers and Muscles. The one often stayed home and made about the same or more than the pre-quarantine days. They enriched Amazon and various delivery services that brought food, meals, and “stuff” to their front doors. The world outside their walls terrified many of the Zoomers as if America was Camus’ La Peste, or amid the great plague at Athens.
The others kept driving trucks, spent their savings and borrowed to save their small businesses by following the orders of the ensconced—buy more air filters, refit your business, empty out three-quarters of your restaurant, shut down your florist shop. Had California Governor Gavin Newsom, mostly enriched by others, ever been subject to his own executive orders, he never would have been Gavin Newsom. Millions lost their jobs, while millions made more than ever. And the rationale? The elite Left apparently shrugged that the deplorables who dropped off their Amazon goods, or trucked in their new Pelosi-style refrigerator, or delivered the daily produce to the French Laundry, never quite got with the plan. In our brave new world, Oprah was a victim, the guy on a forklift in Modesto was her oppressor. Mark Zuckerberg was a leftist; a Latino small business owner, a sell-out.
Like it or not, the Democratic Party is run by billionaires, albeit at times masquerading in “cool” flip-flops, nose rings, and hip T-shirts. Barack Obama is the master of the script, now and then emerging from one of his three mansions to lecture the nation on the revolutionary logic of adding new states, or the false-consciousness of black males, or the voting pathologies of counter-revolutionary Latinos.
The Left’s officer corps is the wealthy professional of the upper middle class, its legions of highly paid and well pensioned government employees, and the elite woke apparatus, all united by the fierce protection of their privileges under the pretense of protecting “the poor,” “the children,” “the nonwhite,” all from the ravages of the supposed lower white middle class without privilege.
White Americans who are branded with degrees and certifications defend their own “unearned” privilege by assuring minorities that they are the vanguard of the woke and know best how to spot “white privilege” among those who have none of it. The result has been a charade of confessionals, as the white elite give written and five-minute oral confessions of their “unearned” status to save their jobs and lifestyles—usually at the expense of those distant Americans, who have less status, money, and power than the beneficiaries of their virtue-signaling.
Rarely has illiberality and bias been so redefined as social justice.
So the Left weaponized an entire culture. Everything from lifestyle magazines and NBA games to Netflix and fashion are now aimed at squaring the circle of hard-Left megaphoning and disguising privilege with “taste” and “discretion.”
How weird that the party once of the Bushes and Romneys is now the party of the working-class deplorables—earning the everlasting hatred of the NeverTrump elite, whose interest in conservatism was mostly its bicoastal cultural cachet, not in any concern with bettering the plight of millions of the working lower middle classes. The losers of a sustained class war are now felt by the winners to deserve it as proper recompense for their alleged illiberality.
The summer of COVID-19, quarantines, riot and arson, and an absence of confidence in the sanctity of voting ended with a lot of scars—and we will always bear them from now on.
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Victor Davis Hanson is an American military historian, columnist, former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He was a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and is currently the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004.
Photo “Riots and Fire” by Laurie Schaull CC2.0.