February 11, 2021
Author: Chilton Williamson
Democracy in America in the 20th century has been periodically threatened by latent mass hysteria that has broken surface on three major occasions. The first was the Red Scare of 1919-1920 that was fired by popular fear of Bolsheviks, anarchists, and labor unions, and culminated in the three Palmer Raids against the Union of Russian Workers and thousands of supposedly dangerous and “un-American” elements. The second occurred from 1949 to 1954, when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s accusations that Communist agents in the State Department and elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy were subverting the government inspired a sustained anti-Communist movement in America, and an equally exaggerated and irrational anti-anti-Communist response that is not yet spent.
The third and most recent outbreak commenced in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump as President and reached its peak after January 6 of this year, immediately following the riot at the Capitol Building when scores of the President’s supporters, encouraged by members of antifa and Black Lives Matter, pushed past the Capitol guards and invaded the federal government’s inner sanctum, thus “desecrating the People’s House” which indignant politicians and commentators of both parties are calling “sacred ground.” Since then, American leftists of every kind and degree have discovered that the Republic is in imminent danger of being taken over and destroyed by 74, 222, 958 Trump voters organized by the Republican National Committee, the command quarters of a party described by Neera Tanden, President Biden’s choice for director of the Office of Management and Budget, as having a “capacity for evil [that] knows no bounds.” Immediately following the break-in, Simon & Schuster canceled its book contract with Senator Josh Hawley, citing his decision to question the accuracy of the electoral vote during the Senate hearing that provoked the riot. Since then, the entire American publishing industry seems set to refuse contracts not only to former members of the Trump administration but also to all conservative authors. When the left thinks of conservative writers it has in mind, of course, not people like Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, or even William Buckley, but rather ones like Ann Coulter, Tucker Carlson, or Michael Anton—best-selling authors who as television celebrities enjoy mass publicity for themselves and for their socially and politically dangerous ideas that “incite” acts of mayhem. Such people should be suppressed and “cancelled,” progressives insist, to prevent “freedom,” as woke liberals imagine the thing, being canceled itself and replaced with tyranny by “extremists.”
Since World War I Americans have lived in fear—at times low-grade, at others acute—of being deprived of the “freedom” they believe is their birthright and a thing unique to themselves among all the peoples on earth. It was during the First Red Scare that Mencken described the ordinary American as going to sleep suspecting that Bolsheviks are hiding under the bed, and waking in the morning with the sickening fear that his underwear has been stolen. This fear has been experienced alternately by the political right, middle, and left in America. Citizens of the other Western democracies—Britain for example, or France, or Italy, or Spain—have neither shared this fear nor exhibited the mass hysteria of the sort America is presently experiencing. A plausible explanation is that Americans since the Revolution have over-emphasized “freedom” and its value, while never stipulating to themselves what they mean by it—a failure the left has exploited by expanding the definition of the word to mean whatever anybody wants it to mean. The British have never been similarly obsessed with freedom. Nor have the French; who, though insistent on their “liberté,” have balanced its importance with their commitment to “égalité” and “fraternité.” The same goes for the Italians and the Spanish. What we value most, we most expect someone to take from us; and the American people have had “freedom”—a much more indeterminate word than liberty—as the ultimate human good drummed into their heads for nearly a quarter of a millennium. Consequently they have fetishized it and developed a collective neurosis about the subject. Neurosis is the root of hysteria. Hence the present deranged mental and emotional state of half the American people living in the mass culture formed and shaped by the mass media, a degraded system of education, and the historical paranoia of leftists and left-wing movements everywhere who claim that “our democracy” is under siege by “fascists” and “extremists.”
It is nevertheless a fact that some episodic hysterias are better grounded in reality than others. Daniel Henninger, in his column in the Wall Street Journal today (February 11), makes the astute observation that what American leftists call “our” democracy” is really “their” democracy: an anti-liberal, anti-democratic mental construction that American conservatives and anti-progressives are justly trying to rescue the country from. Similarly, although the Red Scare that followed the First World War was an example of irrational mass panic encouraged and exploited by A. Mitchell Palmer, the U.S. Attorney General at the time, Americans did in point of fact have reason to protect themselves against the agents of anarchism and the left; just as, after 1945, the threat of Communist influence and subversion was both very real and very dangerous, as William Buckley and Brent Bozell demonstrated in McCarthy and his Enemies, published in 1954. (Their conclusion was strangely affirmed a decade later by Eldridge Cleaver when he stated, to the horror of his former revolutionary allies, “There were Communists in the State Department.”)
Be that as it may, the current spectacle of the American left creating the left-wing equivalent of McCarthyism seventy years farther on is an historically intriguing phenomenon, as it squanders the moral capital it has always supposed it amassed during the period Lillian Hellman, in her eponymous book published in 1976, called “scoundrel time.” The Republican Party should sit up, notice, and exploit the rhetorical possibilities provided to it by the scoundrels of the new liberal-progressive and anti-democratic left.