That call is popping up more frequently lately. Back in October, during the fight over who should replace John Boehner as speaker of the House, Erick Erickson wrote that, “given Washington these days, I think the default should be to burn it to the ground (metaphorically speaking).” Joe Miller, onetime GOP Senate candidate in Alaska, wrote, “I will endorse the first 2016 candidate to make ‘burn it down’ their campaign theme.” He was in luck. Mike Huckabee’s short-lived campaign ran an ad declaring, “Let’s burn down the Washington political machine!” In New Hampshire Chris Christie said, “I’m angry, too. I want to burn Washington down because it’s so ineffective.”
And destructive it is. If you’re ready to burn down the world, you’re part of what’s wrong with the world. There are plenty of places on this planet where “burning it down” has been tried — Syria, Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, the territories of Boko Haram — and the results are never anything short of catastrophic. It’s easy to forget, but even in the toughest of times, Americans are incredibly blessed compared to those living everywhere else. Our wealth, our spirit, our untapped potential, and our capacity for renewal are mind-boggling. And yet some significant portion of the population relishes the thought of sending it all up in flames.
You dare not call yourself conservative if you belong to this arson-minded mass. Conservatives are here to preserve, create, and build, not to ignite and destroy. Insofar as the torch is an American political tradition, it’s not a conservative one — it’s the recourse of our country’s worst radicals, from the Klan to the Weather Underground to the Black Panthers to Timothy McVeigh.
Victor Davis Hanson calls what we’re witnessing “Republican nihilism,” a dangerous strain of the historical perspective that there is nothing to approve of in the current social order. It’s a self-evidently ludicrous perspective when applied to our country as it stands today.
Yes, of course, America has problems. We’ve got paranoid zero-tolerance school administrators suspending kids for pretending their lunchtime sandwich was a gun. We’ve got CEOs getting dismissed by their own corporate boards for past opposition to gay marriage. We’ve got journalists lecturing others about which pronoun to use for a former Olympic hero who changes names and genders. We have 46 million families using food banks and food-service programs, and half-a-million homeless, one quarter of them children.
The average American is not sitting in his basement, typing on his keyboard with Cheeto dust on his fingers, watching anime porn and leaving profane, hateful comments on a YouTube video. This is a country full of kind, loving, hardworking, decent people who look out for their neighbors. They haven’t gone away. They didn’t get into a fistfight in Chicago Friday night. They were too busy doing their jobs, raising their families, and helping their communities to get caught up in the hateful sideshow engulfing American politics.
Burn it all down? Are you crazy?
‘Burn it down’ is the easy way out. It doesn’t require you to build anything, to prioritize, to compromise, to show patience.
Our problems aren’t primarily the fault of “the system” or “Washington” as a whole. They stem from the particularly petty and arrogant folks currently running the government, most of whom will be leaving in January 2017. The next president could undo all of those far-reaching Obama executive orders that ran roughshod over the powers of Congress. He could get rid of Obamacare’s giant disincentive for full-time workers, so fewer Americans have to struggle balancing two part-time jobs. But he can’t and won’t do so without the help of voters. No problem will be fixed unless enough of the public actually tries to solve it. Throwing up your hands and yearning for an explosion of cathartic violence to wipe the slate clean just won’t cut it.
“Burn it down” is the easy way out. It doesn’t require you to build anything, to prioritize, to compromise, to show patience. It’s the instant gratification of a temper tantrum, with no concern for any long-term consequences. It must feel good to destroy some perceived institutional source of discontent for daring not to follow your wishes. But in so doing, you ensure that institution will cease to exist for whatever legitimate purpose it was created in the first place. What will replace it? You haven’t though that far ahead.
If you’re raging at everybody, it’s because you’re too lazy to make distinctions. “Burn it all down” is a declaration that you can’t be bothered figuring out who’s doing a good job and who’s doing a bad one, who shares your values and who doesn’t.
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The example of Bernie Madoff doesn’t mean that everybody who works on Wall Street is a crook and a fraud. Barack Obama’s blatantly broken promises don’t mean that every politician in Washington is a shameless liar. Ted Cruz and Alan Grayson are not the same simply because they both wear suits and serve in Congress. That false report in Rolling Stone doesn’t mean you should assume everything you read in print is a lie, and instead put your faith in that forwarded-e-mail from Uncle Leo or InfoWars. One nut-job professor at the University of Missouri doesn’t mean that every professor is a worthless charlatan spouting nonsense.
Yes, there’s a reason it came to this. Those angry people painting with a broad brush got so angry at least in part because other people painted them with a broad brush first. Radical feminists depict all men as sexual harassers, creeps, and irredeemable misogynists. Gun owners are accused of being spree killers-in-waiting, while PTSD-stricken veterans are treated as ticking time bombs. The rhetoric of Black Lives Matter makes all cops into racist thugs. Those who subscribe to the Bible’s definition of marriage are called hateful bigots, the worst of humanity, beyond the realm of decent society. Millions of Americans feel like they’ve become suspects in their own country, demonized and villainized.But the “burn it down” crowd confirms all of the critics’ charges, and endorses the stereotype that so many conservatives and Republicans spent decades trying to dispel: angry to the point of hateful, explosively tempered, unthinking, unable to tolerate or respect dissenting views, a fundamentally destructive force in American life.
And for what, exactly, are they fighting? Our grandparents endured the Great Depression and World War II. Our parents ducked under their school desks in the Cold War, enduring the threat of nuclear Armageddon, and managed to come through mostly okay. The tumultuous 1960s, the stagflation of the 1970s, Watergate, the L.A. riots, 9/11 . . . after all that, this moment’s problems are what have us calling for the system’s destruction? This is what’s going to break us?
If you define the country by the very worst you encounter every day, you come to conclusions such as, “this country is a hellhole, and we’re going down fast.” Nobody cares if you burn down a hellhole, of course; it’s already on fire. But our country is not a hellhole, and it’s high time we stopped letting so many of our fellow citizens run around with matches and gasoline.
— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.