This is what decadence looks like.
The MAGA mob that overran the U.S. Capitol Building contained moments of both tragedy and outrage, made even worse by the farce of it all — no one should have died for something this stupid. Motivated by conspiracy theories and the complaints of a sore-loser president, the crowd forced its way in and then mostly wandered the halls of Congress smashing and stealing things and taking selfies.
If this was a coup, it was a coup of the comic opera variety, as there was no way for it to alter the election. Thus, it is easy to dismiss the mob as delusional political theater — a dramatic, futile gesture made by people who had given up on the integrity and efficacy of the ordinary political process. There is truth in this description. The MAGA riot was a high-profile tantrum, and like most tantrums, it was self-destructive.
Nothing could have done more to discredit President Trump and his red-hatted brigades than this deadly rioting by a tiny portion of his voters. That the police officer slain in the line of duty was a populist-minded Trump supporter is both a cruel irony and a reminder that the mob did not represent all 74 million Trump voters.
We should hope that justice is meted out to the guilty. But these are not the only riots we have seen recently. Although Democrats and their media allies would like to forget it, the Black Lives Matter and Antifa riots of last year were much more widespread, violent, and destructive than the MAGA mob.
That the media has a hierarchy of rioters is to be expected; the double-standard is less interesting than the civilizational rot the riots and the responses to them reveal.
The rioters on both sides mix of revolutionary rhetoric and equivocal action. They are angry and alienated enough to flirt with revolution and political violence, but most are still too uncomfortable to kill for the cause. There’s a shared belief that normal politics won’t work combined with a reluctance to fully commit to deadly violence. Thus, there is the juxtaposition of rioters storming the Capitol, burning cities, declaring autonomous zones, and taking selfies and souvenirs.
The minds of Black Lives Matter and Antifa rioters, as well as the MAGA mob, are half-apocalyptic, half-ironic. This playacting at revolution can still be deadly, of course. But, for the most part, however, the rioting is a means of emotional expression.
The responses of those in power also tend to be more expressive than effective. In response to the BLM/Antifa riots, there was an outpouring of symbolic solicitude that did nothing to address the legitimate grievances of black Americans.
For instance, recall how we witnessed an insane frenzy of renaming, from sports teams to ice cream to bedrooms. “Master bedroom” is now politically incorrect. Of course, calling a master bedroom the “owner’s bedroom” or the “primary bedroom” won’t help black families who cannot afford to move into the upscale, mostly white neighborhoods that have the best public schools.
Thus, a politics of dramatic gestures tends towards the decadent, for although it offers a cathartic release for those who are powerless and gives a salve to the conscience of those in power, neither the gesture nor the response addresses the real problems at the heart of things. The plight of many black communities in deep-blue cities illustrates this: a great deal of energy is expended, and grifters find many ways of making money, but there is little real change.
Failing to Genuinely Listen to Populist Voices
There is often a similar dynamic at work among right-wing populism, which has its own gestures of grievance and resentment. Most of our elite class loathes it, of course, but many conservatives who claim to be sympathetic often do not go much beyond affirming populist grievances, real or not.
Although I generally like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, they should have stuck to developing and advancing a genuine populist agenda. Yet, contrary to what their enemies say, these senators did not incite the mob, let alone attempt a seditious coup; after all, this is hardly the first time such electoral objections have been used as a form of protest.
The suggestion that they should be expelled from the Senate is insane, as is the proposal to launch a primary challenge against Hawley. The idea that there are plenty of “ambitious Republican candidates in Missouri who can make Hawley pay” is delusional. The wishes of the GOP’s donor wing, which fears that some of Hawley’s populism is sincere, will not make it so.
The sources of the present populist discontent are no mystery: at a time of unmatched technological mastery and economic output, much of our nation was being destroyed by opioids, family breakdown, and economic stagnation. Even before the pandemic, America was becoming a land of loneliness with declining birthrates, declining marriage rates, declining religiosity, and declining community participation.
The Problems Are Out in the Open
There is no conspiracy behind this disaster. Or, to put it another way, the conspiracy is spontaneous and out in the open: a convergence of ideology, career incentives, economics, culture, peer pressure, and social media.
There is no cabal; there are just people following the crowd and their self-interest. Why would anyone in power try to stop the corporate money train that runs on cheap, sometimes enslaved, Chinese labor? They were profiting off it, not suffering — consumer goods were cheaper, Wall Street was happy, and laid-off blue-collar workers don’t live in their neighborhoods.
Our leaders tend to be protected from the worst trends of American life. They and their families are not entirely unscathed, but they are cushioned by money, education, clout, and geography. For many of them, the disintegration of the working class is data in a spreadsheet, not a personal experience. But only a few hours’ driving distance from the shining imperial capital of Washington D.C. is the heart of Trump country in West Virginia. It does not take much time in its left-behind environs to understand why so many people are alienated and angry.
Trying to tar them all with the brush of the mob will not make them go away, and they already know that storming the U.S. Capitol was evil and that it will not fix the problems around them. But they also know that they will not be helped by another round of outsourcing to China or another lecture on how much white privilege they have.
They have no reason to trust leaders who despise them. Nor do they have much reason to trust a so-called conservatism that has allowed, even encouraged, the decimation of their communities.
Forming Havens From Decadent Turmoil
Without mutual trust and a genuine common good, there is rage, despair, conspiracy theories, and misplaced hope. The rhetorical excesses and grandiose gestures of political violence that some resort to are symptoms of our decadence — sound and fury changing nothing. Politics is treated as entertainment and activism as catharsis, even as serious issues go unaddressed.
Unfortunately, it will probably get worse. The MAGA mob has given left-leaning institutions — which is most of them, from universities to tech companies to the media to finance — an excuse to repress and exclude dissenters, and they will not stop with the QAnon kooks.
The government and the private sector will unite to squash nonconformists, such as dissenters from critical race theory, those who believe in orthodox Christian teaching on marriage, and those who argue that men cannot become women — all will be labeled as bigots who should be cut out of society.
The immediate future may be one in which an ineffective right-wing populism provokes repressive responses, which lead to more resentment and extremism, while anger from the dispossessed portion of the Democratic coalition is patronized but ultimately unaddressed.
We should not abandon politics in our efforts to avoid and ameliorate such a future. In particular, we should pressure politicians to pursue meaningful reforms, rather than being content with populist bluster.
Still, our most ardent focus must be on making our families, churches, and community groups into havens from the turmoil of a decadence punctuated by gestures of rage. We must prepare a flotilla of small arks that might ride out waves of unrest or repression, and preserve seeds of hope for a future beyond decadence.