When There Is No Normal

From left: Activist Tom Steyer, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Amy Klobuchar on stage for the Democratic primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, January 14, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
History lesson: Radicals eventually will need the norms and safeguards they’ve gleefully destroyed.

One of the ancient and modern critiques of democracy is that radicals destroy norms for short-term political gain, norms that they themselves often later seek as refuge.

Schadenfreude, irony, paradox, and karma are various descriptions of what happens to revolutionaries, and unfortunately the innocent, who suffer their collateral damage when radicals of any stripe use any means necessary to achieve supposedly exalted ends.

Three of the most moving — and terrifying — passages in Greek literature involve such ironic payback. In the third book of Thucydides’ history, the historian relates a murderous civil war (stasis) between oligarchs and democrats on the island of Corcyra (modern Corfu). He laments how morals and laws are destroyed in a cycle of madness, all to achieve short-term gain while depriving both parties of sanctuary when the tide one day turns against them.

When extremism becomes normal, there is no prior normal. In his fifth book, Thucydides describes the destruction of the small island city-state of Melos, in a riveting dialogue between the Athenian invaders and the Melian defenders. After concluding his account with the Athenians’ destruction of Melos, Thucydides immediately, in books six and seven, describes the Athenian catastrophe on Sicily, in which the invading and soon-to-be-trapped Athenians play a similar role to that of the doomed Melians, and the victorious Sicilians are no more magnanimous to the defeated than were the once-victorious Athenians.

In the historian Xenophon’s second book, there is a frightening account of the destruction of the Athenian fleet at distant Aegospotami in Asia Minor. The final Athenian defeat of the Peloponnesian War robs the democracy of its last defense against an alliance of Spartans, Thebans, Persians, and Sicilians. As the terrible news arrives at the port of Piraeus, Athenians wail as they fear they are about to suffer the same atrocities at the hands of their victorious enemies that they so often inflicted on others.

Once the Jacobins took over the French Revolution and instituted the Reign of Terror, few of them seriously expected that they themselves would stand convicted in show-trial courts they had helped to establish; fewer imagined they would lose their heads on the same guillotine that they had so often used to execute others.

One of the most fascinating themes of Christopher Caldwell’s just-released The Age of Entitlement is the sad irony that 1960s federal government programs to end institutionalized racialism used the vast power of government to accentuate race and tribalism — and thereby helped ensure the current toxic obsessions of race so characteristic of woke identity politics and radical diversity movements.

The current white leading Democratic candidates should read Caldwell’s book to fathom how their own ideologies now boomerang. They might question why they — and not Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, Deval Patrick, or Andrew Yang — are alone on the primary debate stage. Disparate impact and proportional representation were the federal government’s fillips to the civil-rights movement. They were embraced by the current white Democratic front-runners, without a clue that by the logic of their own ideological zealotry, about a third of them simply would have no right to be on stage and should sacrifice themselves on the altar of government-mandated diversity.

Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), and Gerry Nadler (D., Calif.) are currently furious that the Republican-controlled Senate adjudicates the rules of the trial of the impeached Donald Trump. But their appeals, whatever their merit or lack of same, fall increasingly on deaf ears. One reason is that the House impeachment proceedings started out in the House basement; they were marked by unethical collusion with the so-called whistleblower to jump-start the proceedings; they relied on selective leaks and were not symmetrical in the summoning of witnesses from both sides; and the proceedings were initially outsourced to Adam Schiff’s intelligence committee, by design, because of its greater power of secrecy, rather than the more appropriate House Judiciary Committee.

In essence, the House impeachers are now furious that the Republican Senate might prove as partisan in exonerating Trump as the House was in impeaching him.

For short-term gain, radical Democrats have now institutionalized the abnormal on the expectation that they themselves will never seek refuge in the customs and norms they have abolished. This is odd, given the lesson of the “nuclear option” on judges set in motion by former Senate majority leader Harry Reid: When in power, Reid destroyed the judicial filibuster, only to have this decision come back to haunt Democrats when they were in the minority and suddenly unable to stop majority-vote confirmations of a slew of conservative judges.

So far, the Democrats have redefined impeachment as a no-confidence partisan vote of the opposition upon gaining control of the House, used as an election-year force-multiplier to defeat a first-term president up for reelection — with no need for a special counsel’s findings, public support, bipartisan consensus, or specific crimes as outlined in the Constitution.

The Left has recalibrated the FISA courts as political agencies that apparently will grant the FBI and DOJ whatever they wish — if they can, in unspoken fashion, agree on a common political threat of the sort that Donald Trump apparently represents.

There is little left to the idea of a disinterested whistleblower. From now on, they will be insider moles, leftovers from the prior administration who pop up to work with the congressional opposition, in leaking and misrepresenting administration communications to help impeach a president.

The Left has no awareness that under their new protocols, Barack Obama would have been more exposed to impeachment writs than Donald Trump is today, that the next administration mole as a whistleblower might seek to take out a Democratic president, and that politicized FISA courts might just as easily fast-track the surveilling of progressive campaign aides.

The ease with which Robert Mueller was speedily appointed, the hyper-partisanship (see the recent MSNBC hire of Mueller pick Andrew Weissmann) of his all-star, hunter-killer legal “dream team” (or so they were once heralded by a giddy Left), and the unlimited time and budget given Mueller — all will likely serve as a model when the next Democratic president does an Obama-like hot-mic quid pro quo, weaponizes the IRS, orchestrates an illegal prisoner swap, stonewalls Congress over a scandal such as Fast and Furious, or bypasses the treaty-ratification rights of the U.S. Senate.

Many of the current Democratic candidates have called for a court-packing scheme of increasing the Supreme Court to 15 justices in order to nullify the Trump appointees. Most also want to abolish the Electoral College. And leftist activists increasingly rail about the unfairness of the make-up of the Senate and the supposedly ossified idea that every state, however, small, has two senators.

Apparently, they believe that a Democrat will never lose the popular vote and win the Electoral College, and they don’t care that the solid-blue status of California, Illinois, and New York give any Democratic candidate an assured 84 electoral votes of the necessary 270 before a campaign even begins, and they forget that they once gained control of the U.S. Senate by flipping formerly small-population red states blue, such as New Mexico and Nevada.

We are now in a revolutionary cycle in which existing norms are considered obstacles to equality-of-result politics. The Left believes that they will never need the institutions that they are distorting, but they will soon be the first to rue their own folly.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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