The narrative of decline is one of a slow and silent accumulation of ills. Looking backwards, we don’t remember a special moment when the evil days came, or the years drew nigh when all would be changed, but only the painful contrast between the days of our youth and the decrepitude of age. So it is with countries. We fail to see sharp breaks where we can say: There, there is where it all happened.
And yet such moments do exist, the points of inflection where the curve changes from positive to negative. We might have thought little of the changes at the time, perhaps, but they made all the difference, and it is the task of the historian to bring them to light.
I am no historian, but I have one such moment in mind. It was when The New Republic’s senior editor Jonathan Chait wrote in 2003, “I hate President George W. Bush.” TNR was always a liberal journal, but under editors such as Andrew Sullivan (before he went mad) and the restraining hand of Martin Peretz, it prided itself on its reasonableness. The magazine might have been coma-inducing boring, but by God it was reasonable.
And then came Chait’s tirade. For conservatives who seek to be loved by the Left, it was deeply painful. More cynical conservatives took it in stride. And just what was it anyway? Merely an op-ed. But then it was more than that too. It was a sea change in which the swimmer suddenly finds himself in frigid water. And Chait’s permission slip for hatred explains what has happened to American politics since then, the bitterness, the calls for revenge, the IRS campaign against the Tea Party.
A conservative friend of mine asked me the other day why congressional Republicans had failed to offer amnesty to Lois Lerner in exchange for her testimony. What that fails to recognize is that she is already immunized, by an administration, a Department of Justice, and a mainstream media that have her back. She’d get nothing better from a congressional immunity, and what she’d lose is the support of the most powerful people in America. That has to be a no-brainer. Nothing indeed will happen to her, and provided she doesn’t rat anyone out she’ll soon be lionized as one who was unfairly persecuted. We’ll see well-paying lectureships, law-school chairs, ambassadorships offered her. Wait and see.
For her many years of service to the Democratic party, she deserves it all. Sure, she did splendid work in torpedoing the Tea Party, but her efforts to criminalize conservatism go back years, and one of them came to light very recently. In 1996 Al Salvi ran for the U.S. Senate in Illinois against Dick Durbin. Salvi had contributed $1.1 million of his own money to the campaign, as he had every right to do. The Federal Election Commission objected, however, and Salvi found himself talking to an FEC official. “Promise me you’ll never run for office again,” he was told, “and we’ll drop the case.” The official was Lois Lerner.
We wouldn’t be seeing any of this in the America of the recent past. Today, it is happening in another country, Jonathan Chait’s America, where “arrogance and hatred are the wares / Peddled in the thoroughfares,” the country of meanness and spite foretold by William Butler Yeats. If the touchstone of political action, of legitimacy, is hatred, then almost anything is permitted — low crimes, persecution of opponents, disdain for the Constitution — provided the enemy is made to suffer.
— F. H. Buckley is the author of The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America.