More gruel
The Fire or the Arsonist?

The Fire or the Arsonist?

Someone is burning down your house. Do you fight the fire or the arsonist? 

Democrats and their disorganized allies among independents and former Republicans have been failing this test. We’ve lost years in contorted arguments over civility, respect, and potential appeals to Trump cultists while they destroy one crucial institution after another. You can’t save the house until you’ve neutralized the arsonist. You can’t muster the will to attack your root problem until you’ve let go of what’s already lost.

We are not living through a momentary spasm of madness. Forces eating away at civic life have been carefully at work for decades, first perverting the Republican Party then dismantling the public infrastructure that supports civic life. They aren’t going to stop. They aren’t going to respond to logical appeals. They aren’t going to respond to moral appeals. The forces that inspired the Kavanaugh farce have been with us since our founding, but they have never enjoyed more centralized power than they are wielding right now. They know that their capacity to influence electoral outcomes is waning, so they are tearing down the institutions that briefly defeated them in the Civil War, dented their power in the Civil Rights Movement, and have forced them to cede some modicum of power to the rest of us. They are political arsonists.

If we want to defeat the bigots who are burning down our collective house without (for now) resorting to violence, we have to adopt a far more aggressive political strategy aimed at restructuring public life. Dixie is about to win our long, unresolved Civil War. There is no “normal” to which we can return. There will have to be a Nuremberg for the people who ripped children from their mothers. Judges who collaborated with this regime will have to be removed from power. Weak-hearted compromisers more interested in calm than in resolution will have to be nudged aside and marginalized.

White Americans are conditioned to a lifestyle in which political choices are regarded as morally sterile. It was a distinct, and extinct, privilege of our old system. Once upon a time, politics was about policy choices that seemed to carry little moral weight. We used to argue about marginal tax rates, infrastructure policy, trade; largely academic questions on which we could disagree with little heat. It was always a sham. Real people were suffering and dying for political choices we made largely by default, with little consciousness and almost no concern.

All that happened in 2016 is our white bubble burst. Politics has always been a bloodsport, even here in the civil, civilized context of the lingering 20th century American order. Most of us enjoyed the privilege of insulation from the machinery. That’s over now whether we like it or not. We can retreat from the demands of this age, hiding beyond excuses about civility or institutions, or we can engage aggressively and build a new order. Both choices land in same place eventually, where the comfortable assumptions of 20th century white politics are destroyed. Only one of those choices offers an opportunity for a brighter future.

Fight the arsonist. Use every tool and weapon, understanding that you are in a struggle for survival. Carry no illusions about the legitimacy, compassion, or inherent goodness of any institution. The nice, good-hearted people who are imprisoning thousands of immigrant children right now will do the same thing to you and your kids when they receive the order, without the slightest hesitation or a shadow of conscience. You are not safe until this fight has been won.

The most critical battle we fight is in our minds, the fight to recognize and respond to a reality we want to deny. Find your power, join it with the power of allies, build a coordinated plan, and bring that power to bear by any and every means necessary. Identify and isolate your enemies right now by every peaceful means and start preparing for less peaceful circumstances. It was nice not to worry about politics and violence. I miss those days. Maybe we can live that way again someday. Not right now. 

Stop worrying about “damage to institutions.” The next time someone complains about civility tell them to fuck off. This is the moment for decent, compassionate people of conscience to put their elbows out, taking the initiative in the public space and denying oxygen to our enemies. Be clear about this – you have enemies. Gains made now by assertive action could determine the outcome when push comes to shove.

It’s too late to save the house. You can fight the fire, limit the harm, and start cleaning up when the arsonist has been neutralized. Until then, get ready for a long fight in which voting, elections, and conventional politics are merely the beginning and there will be no clear victory for years.

Fight the arsonist. 


  1. Tmerritt- it has been fun and rewarding to participate in the effort to rebuild the Democratic Party in Tx. Especially gratifying has been seeing so many women get actively involved. A start has been made but TX has a long way to go before it will turn blue. Beto O’Rourke is an interesting candidate and his work effort is impressive. Still, momentum is definitely there.

    1. Mary,
      I have been to Texas many times and confess I understand it less and less with each visit (I just don’t get it but then again not the brightest bulb on this site), but am gratified to see and hear the excitement over Beto’s campaign and as an offshoot of that candidacy the growth of some infrastructure for a second party.

      He is running an extraordinary campaign and win or lose he may have some coattails in other close races. I’ve always felt Texas is the keystone…when it changes, everything else will too.

    1. Being an old white boomer myself, I can assure you there are many people who refuse to admit they lost the culture war of the ’60s and ’70s.

      The winners have been patiently waiting for half a century for the losers to concede defeat. Unfortunately, they have chosen conviction over reason. Elect an totally unsavory and unqualified president promising to return the country back to it’s pre-1960 state? no problem.

      Clearly, Kavanaugh and many others were trained and groomed by old white boomers to carry on the fight. The need to overturn Roe V Wade is paramount along with same-sex marriage. This is seen as the their last chance to reverse the “be free do your own thing” hippy mantra.

    2. That may well happen and hopefully will. However, we’ve been through this cycle before and the Republicans keep coming back. The key is that the Republicans have to lose several consecutive elections including midterms overwhelmingly. A good example is the last cycle, where the Republicans lost in 2006 and 2008. For most of the 111th Congress from 2009 to 2011 the Ds had overwhelming majorities in the House and a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. However, they were able to use demagoguery, lies and several factors to win the 2010 election both at the federal and state levels That enabled them to gerrymander several states and enact vote suppression legislation. Though the D’s won the presidency in 2012, they again lost the midterms in 2014. The Ds have a bad tendency to relax during midterms. The intensity has to be kept up and we must maintain vigilance. This is going to be a long battle. Chris is right.

      1. Let’s not forget that the 2010 election was an extra special attempt by the libertarian billionaires to get congressional control. The (successful) plan was then to leverage their minority power to gerrymander districts nationwide to maintain minority power (Google REDMAP or read “Dark Money”). It’s not completely that the Ds are less popular or not working hard enough, it’s that they realized too late how powerful and determined the opposing forces were. Now, the majority of Americans are not represented in the presidency, the Congress, and shortly the Supreme Court. Once the fourth estate is destroyed (in progress), their victory will be complete.

      2. 99%,

        I do not disagree with your comment. Yes 2010 was an extraordinary effort by the dark forces to take control. But every election since then has been that way as well. My point is that the D’s cannot relax and that the intensity must be maintained. Restoring civility to our government will take at least 1-2 decades and the R’s will have to decisively lose every election in that period. I am firmly convinced that the R Party as we know it must become totally irrelevant. Even in CA were the party is largely extinct at the state level, it is still holding onto power in several CDs and LDs in the San Diego area and parts of the Central Valley. Only after the R Party is destroyed may a new or resurrected R Party that accepts pluralism and liberalism be allowed back at the seat of power.

    3. Hi Matt,
      “So many of the old white boomers driving this insanity will be gone. That could happen, no?”

      Its not an issue of demographics but of timing. They are bringing the battle to us now while they still have some electoral clout..they know the clock you are referring to is ticking so they are grasping and stacking power and influence while they can and destroying trust in democratic norms and institutions. They are buying another 25 years of their privilege without a majority of popular support.

      I agree with Chris’s assessment. They are weeds in our garden that need to pulled out by the root. We fought and won a civil war and then never imposed its obvious intended consequence, settling for an end to the institution of slavery without clearly imposing our premise as a country. All are equal and the rights and responsibilities of citizens are based on citizenship alone.

      1. “They are buying another 25 years of their privilege without a majority of popular support.”

        Wow. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I hope it’s not true. If it is, I guess Chris’s rears are warranted.

    4. The problem is that the white boomers may very well have a much younger group that will replace them, thanks to the “skeptic” community producing videos on YouTube meant to foment nationalist and tribalist attitudes among young white people. Luckily, there are people producing videos meant to provide fact-based counterpoints to, and refutations of, what these “skeptics” say, but from what I’ve seen such YouTube channels have only very recently started to rise in popularity. The “skeptic” video producers have been building up their audiences and devotees for several years now.

      What I mean to say is that things won’t start to get better just because a cohort of people are going to pass away due to old age. It will be a steady battle across multiple generations.

      1. I think that’s about right. Shedding race-chauvinism among those that consider themselves white is maybe a 5-10% increase generation-over-generation affair, insomuch as such a thing can be measured in polls.

        It is crucial progress, and I wish we understood it better, because I doubt it is self-executing. I also would like to hear more about poor, isolated, rural whites — you know, the ones that are typically exploited for Trump Voter Safaris — that, for whatever reason, never got caught up in chauvinistic views. This is probably 10-20%: quite a few.

  2. Chris, I agree with this column and your previous one. I might have some different interpretations, but we are largely on the same page.

    I was struck by your reference to Dixie. The current situation in DC, to a lesser extent in some of the states and some local areas, is similar to the characteristics of the antebellum period. The names and characters can be changed and the policies can be changed, but in essence the root causes are similar. Dixie wants a government based on oligopoly with the monied interests on top. Of course white supremacists would be pre-eminent. As you have written in the past, the south has always had a single party government. That is currently the case, except now the party is the Republican, whereas in the antebellum period it was the pro-slavery forces.

    I recently read “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” by Colin Woodward. He divides North America into 11 regional cultures, The most important of these are the Deep South being allied with Greater Appalachia and Tidewater. The other major block is Yankeedom allied with the Left Coast and New Netherlands (NY City and environs) and sometimes the Midlands, i.e. Pennsylvania and similar areas. The author states that the basic history of the U.S. is a struggle for dominance between the Deep South with its allies and Yankeedom with its allies. The other significant blocks are the Far West, New France and First Nations. These have historically been peripheral, but that may be changing somewhat. It is a very interesting read and explains a great deal.

    Right now the Deep South is dominant, because much of the Far West and the Midlands have allied with them. This is because the Southern Strategy of the Republican Party, enabled the South to gain control of the government through gerrymandering, voter suppression, demagoguery and other tactics. They have been tearing down our civic institutions as rapidly as possible to enable the consolidation of their power. They are rapidly losing the demographic advantage that enabled them to gain power and are in a race against time to consolidate their power. The Republicans are very much aware of that. The Kavanaugh confirmation battle is the major current example, but there are numerous others.

    This is a battle for our nation and by extension that of the entire civilized world. As you stated in your last article, the future is pluralism. Before this is over, I am increasingly convinced the U.S. may have to confront an existential crisis and will implement major governmental and constitutional changes, if the forces of pluralism and liberalism* prevail, If not, then the U.S. may cease to exist as a unified nation and by extension much of the current global structure. In the worst case, civilization could cease to exist. Let us all pray in our own way and hope that by some good fortune that great power thermonuclear war can be avoided.

    As the stubborn optimist that I am, I believe that the forces of liberalism and pluralism will prevail, and we will emerge on the other side, as a better, more prosperous and egalitarian place.

    As you write, “Fight the arsonist.”.

    *Note: I use the term liberalism in its classical meaning of “a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of man, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.” This is quoted from Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary and is essentially compatible with the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The definition The Economist used in its recent article on liberalism is largely compatible as well.

    1. I like that book.

      I hope you are right. I don’t think it’s beyond human nature, and what we have is a problem of timing. As you well know, California went through some lost decades on the pluralism front, but as a peripheral domestic organization, it did not threaten Federal order.

      But, it is now a peaceable and prosperous liberal democracy. Sure, there are big problems, especially with regard to well-being of those without property, but there is a certain amount of vigorous organization from a few major fronts to do something about it. And social mobility is generally better than average.

      What we need, probably, is Texas to join that order, and soon (as you probably remember from the book, it’s several nations rolled together). A large, diverse, coastal border state that is having some success in urbanizing and building service economies and low Trump approval ratings, it needs to get there before Federal governance deteriorates too badly, I feel.

      1. This election may mark the beginning of Texas’ transformation. The candidacy of Beto and others, if successful could make a big difference. The work of Mary Guercio and others like her in Texas has already made a difference and will hopefully bear considerable fruit in November. GO MARY!!!!

  3. And for those horrified at the thought of violence, well, violence has been part of the political toolbox since the beginning of politics.

    Without even delving into conspiracy theories, visualize this scenario, however unlikely:
    No JFK, MLK, and Bobby Kennedy assassinations. Now visualize what might have been:
    Bobby: 1969-1976
    MLK pushing these guys the whole time.

    Imagine how the U.S., and the planet, would be different today.

  4. I guess it’s a good time to read “The Open Society and Its Enemies.” For my own part, it would be sad, and calamitous if the United States were to disintegrate, and humanism, freedom, and prosperity would take a blow around the world. But of what use is it to surrender the Open Society in advance at home, if the state no longer even has even good intentions to underwrite it?

    The Republicans currently in Federal government are very unserious, from what I can tell, about Federal authority, and governing in general. As long as they can turn out decreasingly majoritarian elections in their home bases, aided by the courts for quite some time now, who is to care if America’s peripheral states begin to govern themselves in defiance of Federal authority by necessity? It works well on TV in commercials for them.

      1. Blah blah blah. Chris is a white man, but this is a description and says something about his experiences in society, not a totality of being. What does he have in common with me, also descriptively white man (even if I’m half Chinese), of Sicilian and New Yorker descent? Not a lot. Last I checked, white men are prospering just fine, and of those who have humane values are beyond tolerated by commerce and society.

      1. No, it’s more than that. The goal is to destroy an entire identity. There is a not very subtle campaign to make “white people” something to be deprecated and felt bad about. It’s a form of genocide, in the realm of ideology–for now. And that’s the problem; some of us understand that this kind of thinking can lead to piles of dead bodies.

    1. You may find that those who fight for their survival, instead of for delusional abstractions, are not easily defeated. You would think that ex-neocons of all people would realize this by now. But apparently some of them have chosen to double-down on the delusional abstractions by pushing for another insane, unwinnable war–this time within the West itself. We will see you on the battlefield.

  5. I’m sure civilization is continuing just fine in other parts of the world. The pathologies that you talk about, and also display, aren’t as prevalent elsewhere. For example, I have yet to come across anyone outside the “white bubble” who is so ethnomasochistic and obsessed with eradicating their own identities and cultural distinctiveness. This pathology is strictly a “crazy white people” thing, as far as I can tell.

  6. Completely agree. Those who count themselves as allies of our institutions must be willing to accept the burden of their allegiance and defend them. They are fighting for survival as we speak. Each and every small-d democrat should be sharpening their teeth and preparing to use them. That said, we have opportunities to substantively weaken the GOP machine before they’ve broken our republic irreparably. Ground zero is the battle for the House of Representatives this November. The Democrats must deliver a convincing performance in this opening salvo to Part 2 of Trump’s America. Current projections have them winning around 35 seats.

    Better yet if they can eliminate enough of the geriatric orks and Trump lieutenants of the United States Senate to regain control of that chamber. Difficult, but not impossible.

  7. A Call to Arms? Chris, sounds like we are almost out of time. And, after yesterday’s debacle in the Senate, I am looking my ragged self in the mirror and saying “Enough!” Your penultimate paragraph tells me this fight will last longer than the rest of my life. My granddaughters’ lives are not going to be free unless we do, indeed, “Fight the arsonist.” No retirement for me – time to enlist in the ranks of Wide-Elbowed Grannies on the Ground.

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