When, after 9/11, the neocons agitated for regime change in the Middle East, they believed that history was on their side: so they conjured up the existential threat of weapons of mass destruction, just in case history had other ideas. More than a decade later, this tactic has found favour with a wholly different tribe: America’s liberal establishment.
Just like the neocons before them, they are bewitched by the prospect of war with an enemy they believe poses a threat to their way of life. The only difference is that this deadly menace doesn’t live in some far-off land, but right at home. They might even live next door.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
As The New York Times put it in an editorial last week, “the Republic faces an existential threat from a movement that is openly contemptuous of democracy and has shown that it is willing to use violence to achieve its ends”. And there is only one way to survive this threat: to “mobilise at every level”. The NYT was, of course, referring to the attack on the Capitol last January: “Jan. 6 is not in the past,” we’re warned. “It is every day”.
It is hard to exaggerate the feverish excitement with which many progressives responded to the Capitol riot. While the spectacle of hundreds of Trump supporters smashing their way into one of the sacrosanct sites of American democracy generated widespread condemnation, for many progressives the dominant emotional register was one of apocalyptic disgust — and arousal.
Here, finally, was irrefutable proof that they had been right all along: that Trump’s hateful rhetoric would finally become a hateful reality. Here, finally, was a war that could give their lives meaning. There were now Right-wing insurrectionists among them, and they would need to be fought. It was almost as if, on some deep level, they had wanted the Capitol siege to happen.
No, what happened in the Capitol was not a coup
Every group that spoils for war needs a wound or trauma to mobilise around. For the neocons and the liberal hawks who supported them, it was the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. That wound would take a lifetime to heal; but it was also massively generative, filling a spiritual void at the heart of American life at the End of History.
In the half-decade prior to 9/11 one of the biggest political stories in America centred on President Clinton’s marital infidelity with a 22-year-old intern. Was a blowjob really an act that existed outside of the realm of “sexual relations”, as Clinton had sought to claim? And should his receiving them in the Oval Office warrant his resignation? In America, the period leading up to 9/11 was, in other words, one of monumental banality and puerility.
The instant the second plane hit the south tower of the World Trade Centre on 9/11 that period came to an abrupt end. America had entered, in Martin Amis’s expression, “the Age of Vanished Normalcy”: idle talk about illicit blowjobs would no longer cut it. This was a time of war, a clash of civilisations. Such was the level of danger that we could no longer wait for threats to gather, but would need to pre-emptively act to stop them from emerging.
It was all very dramatic and clarifying, as Christopher Hitchens acknowledged from the very start: “I am not particularly a war lover, and on the occasions when I have seen warfare as a travelling writer, I have tended to shudder. But here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated.” Hitchens, who confided that he felt “exhilarated” at the prospect of this confrontation, would soon go on to insist that it was a matter of moral principle for the US to topple the Saddam Hussein regime. He was less rousing and persuasive on whether it was the prudent thing to do, but prudence was never Hitchens’s metier.
The storming of the Capitol was to elite liberals what the destruction of the World Trade Center was to the neocons: a bracing vindication that they had been right all along, and a pretext for engaging in a battle that would give their lives a greater meaning and a chance to prove their virtue. What could be more exhilarating than taking on the historic forces of white supremacy now threatening to destroy the republic? And what could be more virtuous?
None of this is to deny the vast ideological differences between the neocons and modern progressives, the most salient of which is that the latter would never support an American-led occupation of a Muslim-majority country. Nor is it to make a false moral equivalence between the events of 9/11, where more than 3,000 civilians were murdered in carefully coordinated attacks, and the events of January 6, where the only person who was shot and killed was one of the rioters.
Yet the parallels between these two political tribes are striking. So keen were the neocons to invade Iraq that they had to drastically inflate the threat-level of the Saddam Hussein regime. They did so by arguing that the threat was “existential”: that if Saddam were to remain in power, he would not only continue to amass WMDs, but would likely use them to attack America. It later transpired that this argument was based on unreliable evidence: no major stockpiles of WMD were ever found and Saddam’s relationship with al Qaeda was overblown. But such was the war fever that had gripped the neocons that they were apt to ignore any evidence that contradicted their conviction.
Today’s liberals are similarly flushed with ideological fervour, believing that they are in a cosmic struggle of Manichean proportions: they are the elect, the chosen ones, and they believe that their responsibility to purge all traces of white supremacy and hateful extremism is a grave one. Indeed, such is their keenness to root out white supremacy that they are apt to find it everywhere, even where it patently doesn’t exist. They are equally apt to inflate its threat where it does exist, like comparing the storming of the Capitol on January 6 to the terror attacks of 9/11.
Note my use of inflate: no one would deny that there is a white power movement in the US, and there is much evidence to suggest that far-Right terrorism in America has increased markedly over the last few years. It is, however, important to maintain a sense of proportion: America is intensely divided right now, but the idea that the country is in the grip of a perpetual far-Right insurgency is catastrophic to a pathological degree.
In his 1989 article The End of History?, Francis Fukuyama declared that the great ideological battles of the 20th century were over and that Western liberal democracy had triumphed. This, he argued, was a good thing. But, concluding his essay, he lamented: “The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.”
More than two decades later, people in liberal democratic societies such as America enjoy a level of freedom, opportunity and material wealth unmatched anywhere else. And yet, as the response to the Capitol riot shows, they suffer from a deficit of meaning and spiritual fulfilment. This, as Fukuyama observed, fuels a sense of nostalgia for history and all its dramatic entanglements. “Such nostalgia,” he noted, “will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come.”
So when The New York Times publishes an editorial on how “every day is Jan. 6 now”, it is hard not to see this as a form of nostalgia for the kind of historical drama and contention that is clearly missing from the lives of the comfortable, Ivy-League educated, New-York based journalists who wrote it and who represent the vanguard of what Wesley Yang calls the “successor ideology”. Their hysteria, then, says more about themselves than the events of last year.
In his memoir, the Vietnam War veteran Philip Caputo reflects on his motivations for enlisting in the war. Preeminent among them was the desire “to prove something: my courage, my toughness, my manhood, call it whatever you like”. For those Western liberals who secretly wish for an impending civil war at home, the thing they most want to prove is not their courage, and it certainly isn’t their toughness or manhood, something which they would no doubt contemptuously regard as toxically heteronormative. Rather, what they desperately want to prove is their virtue — even if it means engaging in irresponsible fear-mongering and flagrant exaggeration.