The Lives of the Martyrs

Protesters in Portland, Ore., August 23, 2020. (Terray Sylvester/Reuters)

Or, Maoism without Mao

Left-wing militias are crisscrossing the country executing a “coordinated attack on law enforcement, on public property, and on private property,” says Attorney General Bill Barr. “And that can’t be tolerated.”

Nonsense. Of course it can be tolerated. It is being tolerated. Bill Barr is tolerating it as we speak and has been for months. The ladies and gentlemen of the Trump administration have a funny way of forgetting that they are in charge right now, today, that they are not awaiting a mandate but already have received one. The Democrats who run our most troubled cities are in charge, too, and are doing approximately squat.

President Donald Trump whispers about puppeteers pulling the strings in the “dark shadows.” Could be. My friend and colleague Andrew C. McCarthy, who used to prosecute terrorists before he switched to terrorizing prosecutors (public services takes many forms) suggests that the Trump administration could get some mileage out of the Travel Act, which would empower the feds to treat the riots as an interstate conspiracy and go after what might ordinarily be understood as crime falling into the jurisdiction of state and local authorities. That’s as good an idea for a law-enforcement response as I have heard.

But what if there is no conspiracy?

Memes and fake news are not the only categories of things that are propagated virally. Attitudes go viral. Beliefs go viral. Moral commitments go viral. And violence can go viral, too. There isn’t necessarily someone in the “dark shadows” inciting the madness of crowds. Madness is in the nature of crowds.

This is not an entirely new development. In the world of Islamist terrorism, which McCarthy knows so well, there have been both tightly organized, hierarchical organizations and loose affiliations of shared attitude and virally transmitted technique. The men who carried out the 9/11 attacks were part of an organized conspiracy; the man who carried out the Orlando massacre, as far as we can tell, was not, although he was at least acquainted with an American who carried out a suicide bombing in Syria. School shootings and other mass-murder spectacles are not organized by a committee. They are organic horrors, not contrived ones.

For years, white-power nuts, animal-rights wackos, and daft radical environmentalists developed a doctrine and practice of “leaderless resistance,” precisely because McCarthy and his former colleagues in federal law enforcement have developed such fearsome expertise at detecting, busting up, and prosecuting organized criminal conspiracies and, to a tragically lesser extent, organized terrorist conspiracies. Louis Beam, the racist revolutionary who helped to popularize the concept of leaderless resistance in the white-power world, had previously been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization whose members have been successfully prosecuted for their crimes — Jeff Sessions sent one to the executioner in Alabama.

Organized groups such as the KKK have vulnerabilities that loose coalitions — which by their nature are self-compartmentalizing — do not. A generation ago, those vulnerabilities were offset by significant logistical advantages. But changes in communication technology (which includes financial technology) have rendered many of those logistical advantages obsolete. You don’t need meetings or a newsletter when you have social media. Radicals don’t have to go out looking very hard for recruits in 2020 — recruits come to them, self-radicalized. The nature of the way information, attitudes, and money move through modern society is much better fitted to the fluid and distributed model of terrorism than it is to the bureaucratic or paramilitary model. The IRA and the PLO are outmoded forms. And recent social and technological changes raise real questions about what kind of effective state action is actually possible: In a very short period of time, we have gone from being able to 3-D print guns to being able to 3-D print drugs. Good luck, regulators.

The motive principle animating the riots under way in Kenosha, Portland, etc., is less a conspiracy than it is an emergent religious phenomenon. The model for understanding what is happening in our burning cities is not the Mafia — it’s the Moonies.

That radical movements and revolutions take on a religious character is an insight that is hardly original to me. We saw it in the early days of the United States with the apotheosis of George Washington, who became a kind of American Divus Iulius whose great personal integrity and dignity retroactively sanctified the revolution. Mao Zedong was a world-shaking character not because of any deep-seeing political philosophy but because he became a figure of national redemption for China — who was, and remains, the central figure in a cult. (Chairman Xi even dresses up like him on special occasions.) With its conversion narratives, its rites of confession, its ceremonies of excommunication, and, above all, its ritual of mass self-sanctification in communion with its celebrated martyrs, what we are seeing in the cities is essentially religious in character. Those who deride the current moral hysteria in the United States as the “Great Awokening” are not wrong to compare it to the Great Awakening of the 18th century.

Those who compare it to the Cultural Revolution are not wrong to do so, either. It is, in effect, Maoism without Mao.

For now.

One of the great dangers of the current moment is that some genuinely talented demagogue will comprehend the essentially cultic aspect of the current disorder and capitalize on it. Barack Obama was a reasonably gifted demagogue, and one who became, for a nontrivial part of the American people, a figure of national redemption, at least until he had been around long enough to demonstrate his superabundant fallibility. Joe Biden is as vicious and dishonest and grimy a hustler as this country has to offer, but he does not have the demagogic chops to get out in front of this unholy procession. He isn’t leading it — he is being dragged along.

At this point in the conversation, your thoughts may turn queasily to Kamala Harris. But she is not a likely candidate, either: She is intelligent, ruthless, and amoral, and the demagogue to be feared is only two of those things: intelligent, yes, and willing to be brutal when deemed necessary, but also a true believer and a person of genuine moral principle. Senator Harris falls short of the mark. The real danger is not some such clown as Bernie Sanders or an opportunist such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but a figure along the lines of Kwame Nkrumah, the charismatic Ghanaian nationalist-socialist who made his country into a one-party police state but was generally understood, even by many of his enemies, to be a man of great personal integrity. (The question of integrity is distinct from that of competence.) Vladimir Lenin did not get into the revolution business looking for a payday. Fidel Castro was a gangster who liked to wear two Rolexes on the same wrist; Pol Pot practiced, murderously, what he preached.

If you are perplexed by what is happening in the cities and these ecstasies of fire and violence, try thinking about the political career of John Calvin, Savonarola, or Joseph Smith. Ritual and redemption are powerful, especially in the context of a community of believers brought together in suffering and trauma.

Bill Barr no doubt will do what he can. A criminal conspiracy can be countered with arrests and prosecutions. A new faith is a slippery thing — and a dangerous one.

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