Politics & Policy

The Wisdom of Mencken and Nock Seems Fresh Today

Trump at a rally in Charleston, W.V., May 5, 2016. (Chris Tilley/Reuters)

Believing in my bones, as I do, that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are unworthy and unqualified to be president of the United States has inspired me to do a lot of soul searching, and that has drawn me more and more to the writings of the legendary H. L. Mencken and less-than-legendary Albert J. Nock. The two Tory anarchists, as some called them, were friends and intellectual comrades-in-arms who stood athwart the progressive and populist passions that defined American politics in the first half of the 20th century.

The domestic madness of World War I galvanized both men. Under Democrat Woodrow Wilson, the United States established the first modern ministry of propaganda, the Committee on Public Information. The Wilson administration jailed political dissenters by the thousands, encouraged the brown-shirt tactics of the American Protective League, and censored newspapers and magazines with abandon.

The president demonized “hyphenated Americans” — i.e., Irish Americans or German Americans — as enemies of the state. “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him,” Wilson declared, “carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”

Nock wrote a scalding editorial for The Nation criticizing labor leader Samuel Gompers for supporting the government. The Wilson administration responded by temporarily banning the publication.

The government also banned booze — an effort led in Congress by Republican Andrew Volstead. Prohibition further demonstrated for both Mencken and Nock that the zeal to muck about with peoples’ lives was a bipartisan affair.

“The more obvious the failure becomes, the more shamelessly they exhibit their genuine motives,” Mencken wrote in 1926. “In plain words, what moves them is the psychological aberration called sadism. They lust to inflict inconvenience, discomfort, and, whenever possible, disgrace upon the persons they hate — which is to say, upon everyone who is free from their barbarous theological superstitions, and is having a better time in the world than they are.”

What united Nock and Mencken most was a sense of homelessness in the intellectual establishment. Franklin Roosevelt, who campaigned on the promise to use the war-fighting methods of the Wilson administration to fight the Great Depression, further cemented their alienation. “Communism, the New Deal, Fascism, Nazism,” Nock wrote in his memoirs, “are merely so-many trade-names for collectivist Statism, like the trade-names for tooth-pastes which are all exactly alike except for the flavouring.” This was an exaggeration, but one can only exaggerate the truth.

Once again American politics is threatening to become a competition between rival factions of statists.

Once again American politics is threatening to become a competition between rival factions of statists, eager to use the government to reward themselves and punish their enemies, with “enemy” defined as anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

Today, America looks very different from the America of Mencken and Nock’s era, but the similarities are hard to ignore. Liberal elites have decided that if you have a problem with men using women’s bathrooms, you’re not just wrong, you’re a bigot. A registered Democrat murdered 49 Americans at a gay nightclub, in the name of the Islamic State, and the smart set insists that conservative Christians are somehow to blame. The zeal of Prohibition has multiplied like a cancer cell, with reformers wanting to ban everything they don’t like: vaping, free speech, coal, Uber, refusal to bake cakes for gay weddings, and, if they could, guns.

On the right, the presumptive GOP nominee promises not limited government but stronger, more protectionist government enlisted to remedy the grievances of his constituencies. His white working-class supporters represent “real” America, and their problems are always somebody else’s fault. I’ve lost count of how many times his most ardent fans have called me a “bigot” for opposing Trump.

True to their reputations as curmudgeons, no constituency was above reproach for Nock and Mencken. Business elites were Babbitts, eager to chart the course of least resistance. The people, in Mencken’s famous phrase, were the great “booboisie.” The decent and right-thinking were, according to Nock, a silent and tiny “remnant” hiding away from politics. Democracy itself, according to Mencken, was “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

My cynicism is not yet as great as theirs. I have some cause for optimism. But one only looks for signs of hope when there’s ample reason to despair.

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