It’s the Fourth of July, and revolution is in the air. Only in America would it look like this: an elite-sponsored Maoist revolt, couched as a Black liberation movement whose canonical texts are a corporate consultant’s white guilt self-help manual, and a New York Times series rewriting history to explain an election they called wrong.
Much of America has watched in quizzical silence in recent weeks as crowds declared war on an increasingly incoherent succession of historical symbols. Maybe you nodded as Confederate general Albert Pike was toppled or even when Christopher Columbus was beheaded, but it got a little weird when George Washington was emblazoned with “Fuck Cops” and set on fire, or when they went after Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionist Colonel Hans Christian Heg, “Forward,” (a seven-foot-tall female figure meant to symbolize progress), the Portland, Oregon “Elk statue,” or my personal favorite, the former slave Miguel de Cervantes, whose cheerful creations Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were apparently mistaken for reals and had their eyes lashed red in San Francisco.
Was a What the Fuck? too much to ask? It was! In the space of a few weeks the level of discourse in the news media dropped so low, the fear of being shamed as a deviationist so high, that most of the weirder incidents went uncovered. Leading press organs engaged in real-time Soviet-style airbrushing. Here’s how the Washington Post described a movement that targeted Spanish missionary Junipero Serra, Abraham Lincoln (a “single-handed symbol of white supremacy,” according to UW-Madison students), an apple cider press sculpture, abolitionist Mathias Baldwin, and the first all-Black volunteer regiment in the Civil War, among others:
Across the country, protesters have toppled statues of figures from America’s sordid past — including Confederate generals — as part of demonstrations against racism and police violence.
The New York Times, once the dictionary definition of “unprovocative,” suddenly reads like Pol Pot’s Sayings of Angkar. Heading into the Fourth of July weekend, the morning read for upscale white Manhattanites was denouncing Mount Rushmore, urging Black America to arm itself, and re-positioning America alongside more deserving historical parallels in a feature about caste systems:
Throughout human history, three caste systems have stood out. The lingering, millenniums-long caste system of India. The tragically accelerated, chilling and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States.
It’s tragic that this even needs saying, but the sudden reinvention in the press of modern America as a Nazi apartheid state is as phony as the thousands of patriotic campaigns that occupied the news media previously. We’re witnessing an obscene malfunction of the elite messaging system.
The people who run this country have run out of workable myths with which to distract the public, and in a moment of extreme crisis have chosen to stoke civil war and defame the rest of us – black and white – rather than admit to a generation of corruption, betrayal, and mismanagement.
I saw the first hints of this crackup in the panicked conversations of campaign reporters four summers ago. Colleagues in news media had always reveled in the power to police the boundaries of national politics. Former ABC reporter Mark Halperin* (henceforth canceled people will be marked here with asterisks, for shorthand purposes) used to cheerfully refer to a handful of pollsters, pundits, and pols he called the “Gang of 500. who “set the political agenda for the country.”
People like Halperin wrote glowing self-referential “exposes” every four years about the power of their bullshit. If they told Americans a presidential race would be decided by angsty “soccer moms” (because Bill Clinton was talking up “zero tolerance” for school truancy and a return to school uniforms), then it was so. If eight years later the deciders were “security moms,” because what mattered then was not schools or prescription drugs but “what are you doing to protect my kids from terrorists?”, then that was so.
If they said voters cared most of all to know which multimillionaire candidate was a better potential beer-drinking companion – because “a person is smart, people are dumb,” as one pundit put it – then that was to be taken seriously also.
Unfortunately, voters had other problems. By 2016 Americans had lived for a generation under an economic model dominated by huge transnational companies that sold weapons into holocausts of urban violence, rejoiced in addiction to opiates or carcinogens as a revenue model, bled virtually all the savings of the American middle class (targeting minorities especially) through a succession of speculative bubble schemes, and relentlessly lobbied to be exempted from taxes, environmental laws, criminal penalties, and even their own business errors, through bailouts approved by the “politicians” they sponsored in both parties.
The concessions to civilization employers had once under great pressure agreed to provide – pensions, medical insurance, sick leave, the forty-hour work week – vanished as the manufacturing economy was exported in a snap to unfree labor zones like China and Indonesia. Both parties supported the deals American business made with monster states. Just this week U.S. customs seized 13 tons of human hair farmed from the heads of Uighur political prisoners in Chinese labor camps: we gave that country Most Favored Nation Trading status eons ago.
I watched for election cycle after election cycle as politicians and press lackeys alike promised lives would improve with middle-class tax cuts, “service for college” grants, federal retraining programs and an endless succession of proposals to “cut red tape” and “run America like a business.”
Through the election of Barack Obama maybe there was patience for this, but within a few years after the crash of 2008 people stopped believing. When protest movements popped up on both the left and right – ordinary people mad about everything from crushing consumer and student debt to unpunished financial fraud to pointless war to surveillance to bailouts to stolen pensions to, yes, police brutality – the first reaction of donor-fattened pols was to blow off the warning signs. They controlled both parties, what was the worst that could happen?
When the election of Trump made a solid first attempt at answering that question, establishment figures howled in self-pity and outrage. Who but deplorable racists could hate us this much? Those were the first gusts hinting at the current hurricane of stupidity.
About those “deplorables”: the populist fury that drove the Trump campaign was obviously not rooted in concern over police brutality, and just as obviously Trump was using gross racial rhetoric to drum up support. I wrote about this repeatedly covering him in 2015-2016.
But he did stress other themes. In hunger to suck up discontent of every stripe, candidate Trump complained about everything from the anti-trust exemption for insurance companies (“the lines” around states prevented competition, he said half-coherently) to the “obsolete” mission of NATO, to “nation building” abroad (he pledged instead to “build the roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, and the railways of tomorrow” at home), to NAFTA to the Fed to, yes, Most Favored Nation trading status for China.
In Trump crowds one frequently heard people talking about being willing to “try anything” as long as it didn’t come from a “politician,” a term which by 2016 had become synonymous with “paid liar.” Of course Trump was a liar, too, but at least he was his own liar, which in a testament to the level of pessimism gripping the country by 2016 was an important distinction to some.
Trump proved almost completely insincere with respect to all of these policy complaints. But it was amazing to watch the speed with which it became consensus that Trump’s entire platform had been only a promise to restore the power of white identity. It became taboo even to say something as tame as, “Trump sold fake solutions to real problems.” Even that was too near the truth.
Papers like the New York Times did post-mortems citing research that concluded things like “how trade affected personal finances had little bearing on political preferences,” while “unemployment or the density of manufacturing jobs in one’s area” were similarly irrelevant. The same pundits who chanted “It’s the economy, stupid,” throughout the nineties reversed tune.
Trump in 2015-2016 was not the only politician complaining about a broken system. “Millions of Americans are giving up on the political process because they understand the economy is rigged,” Bernie Sanders said in early 2016, using nearly the same language as Trump.
It was one thing when Donald Trump’s campaign was denounced as racist. But as far back as the 2016 primaries, when the Clinton campaign began adopting the language of critical theory to denounce Sanders and “Bernie Bros,” we started to hear that protests coming from the left were also a white grievance campaign.
Campaign reporters chuckled at this at first. They remembered 2008, when pictures of then-Clinton opponent Barack Obama in Somali garb mysteriously circulated during primary season. They also recalled Hillary’s Pat Buchanan-esque transformation that year into a white working-class champion who scoffed at Dr. King’s dream (“It took a president to get it done,” she huffed). She won Pennsylvania talking up her lace-factory worker granddad, while insisting, “I was raised on pinochle and the American dream.” Were reporters really supposed to take seriously whispers from this politician that the training-wheel FDR socialism of Bernie Sanders was a dangerous white identarian movement?
Apparently, yes! Identity politics became the Democrats’ magic incantation for wiping out structural critiques. “If we broke up the banks tomorrow,” Hillary asked in 2016, “would that end racism?”
Though meaningless if you thought about it for a fraction of a second – a lot of things very worth doing won’t “end racism” – in the moment it was a zinger that helped cast Sanders as a man divorced from the real business of American progressivism.
The press from January 2017 on presented a basically unbroken succession of terrors and manias, whose purpose was the psychological expunging of the insult to aristocratic America that was Trump’s Napoleonic occupation of the White House.
Everything was a maximum-level emergency. When Trump was too chummy with Putin in Helsinki, it was literal treason (“A historic moment in the entire history of the United States,” was the redundant gasp of Thomas Friedman). The administration’s admittedly grotesque decision to expand separations of detained immigrant children from their parents – a policy not terribly far off from that of George Bush or Barack Obama, but still – became “Trump’s Concentration Camps.” Trump’s phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was an attack on “democracy itself.” In this reporting era, a cigar was never just a cigar; all things had to be unthinkable historical evils.
By the accident of a leak, we know exactly how the New York Times perceived its mission during the Trump years. When Slate published a taped transcript of a Times town hall captained by editor Dean Baquet, we learned the paper in the early Trump years “built their newsroom to cover one story,” i.e. the Trump-Russia scandal. Unfortunately, by the summer of 2019, Baquet told the troops circumstances that story had been mined dry, demanding a shift to “a more head-on story about the president’s character”:
The day Bob Mueller walked off that witness stand, two things happened. Our readers who want Donald Trump to go away suddenly thought, “Holy shit, Bob Mueller is not going to do it…”
But fear not! There was a new story they could run that would be palatable to those “readers who want Donald Trump to go away.” Baquet announced:
This week [we] will publish the 1619 Project, the most ambitious examination of the legacy of slavery ever undertaken in [inaudible] newspaper, to try to understand the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump…
Jake Silverstein, the editor for 1619 writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, argued in a piece explaining theproject that literally everything “exceptional” about America grew out of slavery, “the country’s very origin”:
Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, its diet and popular music…
Hannah-Jones made an extraordinary case: the American revolution was not a project to oppose a despotic king and install a durable system of democratic government. Instead, Jefferson and all of those slave-owning revolutionaries only broke off from England because “independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue.” The revolution in this conception was a wordy, elaborate lie, enacted by slaveholding intellectuals who were afraid that Britain might soon outlaw the institution that made them rich.
It is impossible to disentangle this profoundly negativistic portrait of the American experiment from the admitted context of the 1619 Project: an effort by the nation’s leading elite media organ to explain the Democratic Party’s loss to Trump. Would this have been published if Hillary Clinton had won the White House?
As journalism, 1619 read almost exactly like the paper’s post-mortems on the 2016 election – probably not an accident, since Baquet told us it was conceived identically as an effort to “understand the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump.” In both cases history was reduced to a simplistic showdown between evil racists and oppressed peoples.
The best explanation for these sudden reversals in rhetoric is that Trump broke the brains of America’s educated classes. Like Russian aristocrats who spent the last days of the Tsarist empire flocking to fortune-tellers and mystics, upscale blue-staters have lost themselves lately in quasi-religious tracts like White Fragility, and are lining up to flog themselves for personal and historical sins.
In desperation to help the country atone for their idea of why Trump happened, they’ve engaged in a sort of moon landing of anti-intellectual endeavors, committing a generation of minds to finding a solution to the one thing no thinking person ever considered a problem, i.e. the Enlightenment ideas that led to the American Revolution.
The same pols and pundits who not long ago were waving the flag for wars and insisting that American-style democracy was so perfectly realized that it made sense to bring it to all the peoples of the world, by force if needed (think Friedman’s hypothesis of a borderless utopia of forced wealth creation called the Golden Straitjacket), have now reversed course to tell us our entire history needs to be wiped clean.
Everything is a lie now. CNN even put “Independence” in quotes when describing the holiday today (i.e. “Reexamining ‘Independence’ Day”). This revolution will end with Wolf Blitzer pulling a switch to dynamite the Statue of Liberty. Even if America is an idea whose time is past, I doubt it deserves an ending this ridiculous.