This election “is no longer about Donald Trump’s tweeting,” conservative historian Victor Davis Hanson told Fox News host Tucker Carlson the other night. Nor is it about “a lockdown, the virus, the economy, [or] foreign policy. It’s an existential question, a Manichean choice between whether you want civilization or [whether] you feel it was inherently flawed with a cancer and we have to use radiation and chemotherapy to kill the host to kill the cancer. . . . And I’m going to vote for civilization.”
Ah, the conservative warning of barbarians at the gate. It’s a hardy perennial. I recognize it because, as a conservative myself, I’m in sympathy with it—to a point. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt observed that both progressives and conservatives are motivated by morality, but their hierarchies are different. Progressives tend to value care, especially for victims of oppression, while conservatives cherish order and sanctity. Conservatives, in our era and arguably in all eras, are hypersensitive to threats to order. This is neither good nor bad, it’s just a fact (some studies suggest that inclinations toward conservatism and liberalism are somewhat genetically influenced). Order is no small virtue in a polity and progressives shouldn’t discount it. Arguably, it’s the foundation for other virtues progressives treasure, such as fairness.
The conservative battle cry in response to the triple whammy of Joe Biden’s poll numbers, the pandemic, and the weakened economy is to point to the mobs toppling statues as evidence that safety and security are threatened—just as they claimed in 2018 that the caravan from Central America would upend American civilization. Sean Hannity warns that if Donald Trump is defeated, “America will become unrecognizable.” Laura Ingraham described the Democratic agenda as “to pull down our whole culture: the American founding, Western civilization, and everything that sprang from it.”
Mobs are never attractive, whether in the streets or on cable opinion shows, and they are not exactly discriminating in their iconoclasm. In addition to statues of Confederate generals and slave traders, other monuments targeted have included those of Hans Christian Heg, an abolitionist who died fighting for the Union at the battle of Chickamauga in 1863, and Ulysses Grant, who defeated the Confederacy and offered one of the pithiest summations of the conflict. The Southern cause, he wrote in his autobiography, was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
Disorder in the streets is an engraved invitation to a right-wing backlash. But there are two reasons that the current conservative appeal to law and order is several tones flat. The first is that while there has been some rioting and looting, the vast majority of protests have been peaceful and the trajectory is toward less, not more violence. The second problem with the call to defend the gates of civilization is this: Donald Trump is the barbarian.
An orderly society is not one that performatively hugs the American flag, but one that upholds the rule of law for which it stands. Throughout his administration, Donald Trump has demonstrated contempt for law. He has violated campaign finance laws by paying off a porn star, flouted legal subpoenas from Congress and other duly constituted authorities looking into administration actions, abused Article II power by dangling pardons to former associates facing criminal trials, encouraged border officials to keep asylum seekers out in violation of law (again promising a pardon), unlawfully diverted Defense Department funds to begin building a border wall, wrongly fired numerous inspectors general, and encouraged police to rough up arrestees—among uncountable other violations. He has attempted to strong-arm an ally to invent lies about his domestic opposition, and begged for other foreign leaders to help his election prospects. His attorney general is diligently attempting to reward his friends and punish his (perceived) enemies—exactly what happens in corrupt dictatorships.
In addition to respect for the law, a thriving civilization requires a certain minimum level of integrity and honor in its people, and particularly in its leaders. This president is not just the most dishonest person ever to darken 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he and his enablers have made war on the very concept of truth. As Peter Wehner wrote:
Many politicians are guilty of not telling the full truth of events. A significant number shade the truth from time to time. A few fall into the category of consistent, outright liars. But only very few—and only the most dangerous—are committed to destroying the very idea of truth itself.
They do this not just by lying, but by lying when there are videotapes, to demonstrate that they are above mere morals. They demand that, knowing the truth, you assent to their lies as obeisance to power.
The annihilation of truth permits the cultivation of group hatreds. Trump’s followers are led to despise supposedly criminal immigrants, “disloyal” Republicans, ungrateful allies, the press, the courts, the “deep state,” and at this point a large percentage of Trump’s original cabinet. Election results are to be distrusted—and elections are to be thwarted where they can’t be fairly won. Any unflattering portrayal is “fake news.” Conspiracy theories that any competent fifth-grader can detect as bogus grace the president’s Twitter feed.
One of the most admirable features of our civilization is our dedication to human dignity. While imperfectly implemented, our basic commitment to human rights around the globe has been an aspiration shared by Democrats and Republicans—and by freedom-loving people the world over. But with a barbarian in the Oval Office, we are now “falling in love” with Kim Jong-un, praising Rodrigo Duterte for extrajudicial murders, defending Vladimir Putin by suggesting that we are just as guilty of murdering our enemies as he, and giving the green light to China to build concentration camps for a million innocent Uighurs.
So a statue or two may unjustly bite the dust. But the greater threat to law and order, and yes, civilization, is the guy at the Resolute Desk.