The Mount Rushmore Election
The 2020 election is a battle for the soul of America.
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There is one thing upon which Joe Biden and Donald Trump agree. Biden has repeatedly described the 2020 Presidential election as a “battle for the soul of America.” Trump has stated that this “election will decide” whether or not “we will preserve the American way of life.” They are both right. The coming presidential election is perhaps the most important since 1860 because what is at stake is not simply policy, but the “soul,” “way of life,” or, in classical terms, the “regime” of the American nation.
I will examine the presidential election in due course. But, first, what is the “soul” of a nation? And what is the related concept, a “way of life”—specifically, “the American Way of Life”?
Major political thinkers from Aristotle to the American Founders, from Machiavelli to Marx, have long examined the question of what is at the heart of a political community. Aristotle wrote that all political regimes had specific concepts of justice and core legitimating principles. Montesquieu talked about the “genius” of a people. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci understood “ideological hegemony” as determining a nation’s direction. Although using very different rhetorical frameworks, these theorists are essentially examining similar phenomena: the core principles, culture, and lived experience of a people.
Regime Change in America
For decades, elite thinking in major American universities has (as academics put it) “problematized” long-accepted understandings of “the American Way of Life” and the core principles of American constitutional democracy. The professors have emphasized race, ethnicity, and gender and the continuing conflict between “oppressor” and “oppressed” ethnic and gender groups in America, while at the same time downgrading the previous focus on the growth of political freedom, individual liberty, and democratic self-government.
It is in this turbulent and revolutionary cultural milieu that the traditional American “newspaper of record,” the New York Times, launched the 1619 Project. The explicit purpose of the Project was to “reframe” the history of the United States by placing “slavery” and “institutional” or “systemic racism” at the heart of America’s story, making it central to America’s ethos and global significance.
As Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of the New York Times Magazine and director of the project, declared, slavery
is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin. Out of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required—grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system…its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality…and the endemic racial fears and hatred that continue to plague it to this day.
Despite its blatant falsehoods (e.g., the slander that the American Revolution was launched to protect slavery), the message of the 1619 Project that America is racist in its very DNA is rapidly spreading in educational institutions across our country. The National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers’ union, is promoting and distributing the project “to help give us a deeper understanding of systemic racism and its impact.” 1619 curriculum material is now being used in K-12 school systems in Buffalo, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Wilmington, DE; and Winston-Salem, NC., as well as in some four-year colleges and community colleges.
All of this—the 1619 project and, most importantly, its original sources in the universities that have for years promoted an adversarial and even revolutionary ideology set against middle-class values as well as American government—constitutes what Aristotle would have called an “inter-regime” conflict. “Regime” in the Aristotelian sense means not just the government but the culture, the “way of life,” and the legitimating principles and concepts of justice of a people.
This adversarial ideology goes by many different names: multiculturalism, identity politics, intersectionality, social justice, anti-racism, political correctness, the Great Awokening (hence, woke-ism and the wokerati) and the “successor ideology,” meaning a post-liberal “successor” to the liberalism of an Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a John F Kennedy, or a Walter Mondale.
This successor ideology—I’ll call it woke-ism—repudiates the legitimating principles and concepts of justice of the traditional American regime as manifested in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution: equality under the law, individual rights, and constitutional republican self-government. Instead, woke ideology emphasizes racial, ethnic, and gender conflict between “oppressor” groups (white males, heterosexuals, etc.) and “oppressed” groups (racial minorities, women, LGBT groups, illegal immigrants).
Woke justice requires assisting the “oppressed” groups at the expense of members of “oppressor” groups. An example of this in practice is the kangaroo tribunals in American universities (initiated by the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague letter”) that have denied due process rights to young men accused of sexual misconduct.
The Long March Through the Institutions
Leading critical race theorists such as the widely acclaimed, New York Times best-selling author Ibram X. Kendi have made it clear that wiping out “systemic racism” will require rigid racial quotas in all sectors of society and suppression of First Amendment free speech guarantees. Kendi recommends the establishment of a super-powerful federal Department of Anti-Racism (DOA) that would preclear “all local, state, and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield any racial inequity…investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas.”
Antonio Gramsci, an early leader of the Italian Communist Party, famously wrote that the Marxist revolution could not succeed politically until the revolutionary forces had conquered civil society (the culture) and established “ideological hegemony.” This meant the fight was not won until the moral values and core principles that had legitimated the old regime (in Italy, Roman Catholicism) had been discredited and replaced with new revolutionary mores and principles.
In the late 1960s, the German radical student leader Rudi Dutschke called for a “long march through the institutions” of power. Entering the third decade of the 21st century, the “long march” of identity politics/wokeism through leading sectors of American society (universities, media, entertainment, government bureaucracy, woke corporations) has achieved considerable success.
The Harris-Biden Administration vs. the American Regime
What has been going on in American civil society and politics for the past 40 years is not simply a “culture war,” though it is often disingenuously dismissed as trivial on those grounds (“are we really going to argue over which bathrooms to use?”). In reality, what is at stake is not a minor argument over habits and lifestyles but a “regime change” conflict between two fundamentally antagonistic visions of America and our way of life. This intense division is clearly represented in the presidential campaigns of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.
Speaking on July 4, 2020, Biden declared, “American history is no fairy tale.” He decried the “more than 200 years of systemic racism” and lamented the plight of “the marginalized, the demonized, the isolated, the oppressed.” He promised to “rip the roots of systemic racism out of this country.”
In another address, Biden bellowed that not only is there “absolutely systemic racism in law enforcement,” but the problem is much, much broader than that. He continued, “it’s not just in law enforcement, it’s across the board. It’s in housing, it’s in education, and it’s in everything we do. It’s real. It’s genuine. It’s serious.” Biden’s language would seem to indicate just how far left he has moved. After becoming the vice-presidential candidate on August 29, Kamala Harris stated that “the reality is that the life of a black person in America has never been treated as fully human.”
The rhetoric employed by Biden and Harris is not the language of the give-and-take inherent in democratic politics, but the language of delegitimization. A political regime that has “never” treated fellow citizens as “fully human” because of their race; that stigmatizes “the marginalized, the demonized, the isolated, and the oppressed”; and that has been “systematically racist” for hundreds of years is, by all accounts, an illegitimate political regime.
These remarks were made in the context of nationwide rioting and insurrectionary disorder. After the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25 there were mass protests across the country. But soon the protests (particularly after dark) became full-fledged riots.
In Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, Kenosha, Washington. D.C., New York City, Rochester, and elsewhere, rioters assaulted the police with bricks, frozen water bottles, balloons filled with feces and urine; they directed lasers at their eyes (Forbes reported three federal officers “are likely permanently blinded” by the lasers) and attempted to burn both police stations and residential buildings with people in them. They looted stores, caused billions of dollars in damages, and destroyed many small businesses forever. They are responsible for the deaths of innocent people.
In addition to the mayhem and violence directed at law enforcement, small businesses, bystanders, motorists, outdoor diners, elected officials like Rand Paul and a Democratic state senator in Wisconsin, and, recently, residential neighborhoods, the rioters also targeted large numbers of statues and monuments that commemorated many heroes of America’s past, of Christianity, and of Western Civilization. They started with Confederate monuments but soon defaced and tore down monuments to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Christopher Columbus, Father Junipero Sierra, Frederick Douglass, and the monument dedicated to the 55th Massachusetts African-American regiment from the Civil War.
Who are these protestors and rioters? As the Heritage Foundation’s Mike Gonzalez explained, “many who joined [the original protests] may have been moved by outrage at the images of Floyd’s death,” but “those operating behind the scenes have prepared for this moment for a long time.”
Two groups of left-wing activists, Antifa and Black Lives Matter (BLM), used the original protests as a means of furthering their long-term revolutionary goals of replacing American constitutional democracy and the American way of life with an entirely different type of “anti-racist” regime.
Antifa is a loose-knit organization of anarchist leftists who are drawn to violent action against law enforcement and other symbols of the hated “system” that they seek to destroy. Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a much more sophisticated and effective organization which in the days immediately following George Floyd’s death gained considerable support among the American public. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt about what BLM stands for. One merely has to read the comments of their leaders and watch videos of their activists in the streets. Up until recently, one merely had to read their website—but, tellingly, they have recently removed their statement of principles that had been publicly available for years.
The BLM website made it clear that the group’s primary political loyalty is not to the United States and American citizenship, but is racially centered on the “global Black family.” BLM is openly hostile to the core institutions of Western Civilization, declaring that “we disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family.” Jonathan Tobin of the Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) warned of the “anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic beliefs” promoted by Black Lives Matter’s “anti-Whiteness” ideology and agenda.
The founders and leaders of BLM openly claim that they are “trained Marxists,” revolutionaries that seek to overthrow the American capitalist system. It should not have surprised us when Black Lives Matter leaders praised Communist Cuba or when BLM activists shouted “Death to America” on the streets of Oakland, California on August 31, 2020.
And what were the Democratic mayors and governors doing from May to September as their cities, night after night, were subjected to rioting that shaded into insurrection? We know the answer. Whatever the reasons (perceived political advantage against Trump, agreement with the BLM agenda, timidity, the concept of a popular front with no “enemies to the left”), Democratic officeholders did not protect their cities. In the case of Seattle, the mayor permitted an “autonomous zone” to be created within city limits that was to initiate a “summer of love.” Instead there were deaths, shootings, robberies, assaults, and countless property crimes.
Across our nation, Democratic officials ordered local and state police to stand down, limited their authority to control the riots, and cut their funding. These are the same Democratic politicians who have declared “sanctuary” jurisdictions that prevent their police from assisting federal agents from removing illegal alien criminals from our streets.
Some Democratic leaders appear to eschew reasoned debate and believe street activists shouting “no justice, no peace” will succeed in intimidating a broad section of the American people into accepting radical transformation. Hence, before she became the vice-presidential candidate, on June 17, Kamala Harris when asked by Stephen Colbert about “protests still happening in major cities across the United States” responded as follows:
They’re not going to stop, and everyone beware, because they’re not gonna stop. They’re not gonna stop before Election Day in November, and they’re not gonna stop after Election Day. Everyone should take note of that, on both levels, that they’re not going to let up—and they should not. And we should not.
Other major Democratic leaders, including the Speaker of the House, respond ambiguously when questioned about the destruction of statues honoring American heroes. When asked about the thugs who tore down the statue of Christopher Columbus in the Little Italy neighborhood of Baltimore (where she grew up) and proceeded to throw it into the harbor, Pelosi replied, “People will do what they do.”
Some (particularly Never Trump Republicans) argue that there is little to fear from a Joe Biden administration. As Biden himself put it: “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?” After remaining silent for months and ignoring the subject at the Democratic National Convention, Biden finally condemned the riots: “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting,” he said. “It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. Those who do it should be prosecuted.”
That should settle the issue, right?
The Democratic and Republican parties are both coalitions which have ideological and interest-based elements. We often use the term “fusionism” in describing the conservative coalition, but there is a fusionism of the Left as well. There can be little doubt that, as the Nation’s Katrina Vanden Heuvel put it, “the Democratic policy community has dramatically shifted left.” The successor ideology of identity politics is dragging once-traditional liberals further toward the politically correct Left.
Aristotle wrote that all political communities have a dynamic element, a ruling element (not always the majority) that sets the tone and provides moral legitimacy. In the Democratic party today, the Woke Left is the ruling element.
At 77, Biden characterized himself as a “transitional figure” who is preparing the way for the new Democratic party of the future. Barack Obama himself acknowledged that “the world is different” from when he first ran for president in 2008 and promised to “fundamentally transform the United States of America.” Because of the changes in the past 12 years, Obama noted, Biden could address the “unfinished business” of their administration and enact “real structural change.” Obama declared approvingly, “Joe already has what is the most progressive platform of any major-party nominee in history.”
As the Democratic Party has changed, Biden has changed his positions. Nothing illustrates this move to progressive wokedom more than when he tweeted on January 25, 2020, “Let’s be clear: Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time. There is no room for compromise when it comes to basic human rights.” In terms of the current debate in high school athletics, Biden supports the position that biological males who identify as women (i.e., “trans women”) should be able to compete in girls’ sports. Biden will not “compromise” on this “human right”—one among many issues that divides mainstream America from the woke revolution.
More than a century ago, Italian political theorist Gaetano Mosca argued that the success or failure of the “highest stratum” of any political class (the prime ministers, presidents, and cabinet officials) depended upon the intellectual and moral capabilities of the crucial “second stratum.” This would be the people just below the top, those in key subcabinet positions, the deputy secretaries and undersecretaries who formulate the arguments, develop the ideas, write the memos, and do much of the actual day-to-day work.
Who would staff a Biden administration? More than likely, there will be many progressive activists (some who have cut their teeth in BLM “organizing”) in their early 30s and 40s, who have thoroughly internalized the woke way of life and are anxious to put it into practice on a continental scale.
Indeed, 13 Biden staffers contributed to the Minnesota Freedom Fund (MFF) to provide bail for arrested rioters. Those released on bail with MFF funds included a man arrested for attempted murder of a policeman, a woman accused of second-degree murder, and a twice-convicted rapist currently charged with kidnapping and sexual assault. Meanwhile, Kamala Harris, in a tweet on June 1, urged people to contribute to the same MFF to help “post bail for those protesting on the ground in Minnesota.”
Meanwhile, the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party—now led by figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—is, of course, already very much in line with BLM and its allies. In 2020, we are witnessing the increasingly symbiotic relationship between the goals and tactics of the mainstream Democratic Party and BLM.
The Ethos of Mount Rushmore vs. the Woke Revolution
In the 2020 election, America itself is on trial. The Biden-Harris campaign, the mainstream media, and the BLM activists find America guilty of 400 years of systemic racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy. The slaughter at Antietam and Gettysburg; the combat deaths of 750,000 in the Civil War (a percentage of the population equivalent to over 7 million today); the success of the civil rights movement of the 1960s; the rescue of the free world from National Socialism and Communism; the election and re-election of the first chief executive of African heritage in the history of Western civilization; and the creation of the freest, most prosperous, and greatest nation the world has ever seen apparently do not absolve or redeem America for the cadres of the Democratic party, the militants of BLM, and the editorial board of the Washington Post.
To be sure, more sophisticated progressives (like Barack Obama) argue that they are patriotic citizens who are simply advocating that America live up to its founding ideals of equality and liberty. But American founding ideals are equality under the law, and liberty for individual citizens. American ideals are not the racial- and gender-group proportionalism or equality of outcomes promoted increasingly not only by so-called “anti-racist” theorists but also by Democratic politicians.
These “ideals” are generic revolutionary quasi-Marxist concepts that have no connection to the American founding or to our principles. Even the Left’s choice of rhetoric, their droning on about “systemic oppression,” is the clanky foreign jargon of Marx, not the majestic American language of Madison. Hence, in truth, progressives (and, yes, the Biden campaign) reject American principles.
After a period of relative silence in the wake of the riots, President Trump definitively answered this revolutionary assault on the legitimacy of the American regime in his address at Mount Rushmore on July 3. Here, President Trump clearly identified the central issue of the 2020 election—whether or not we will (in his words)—“preserve our beloved American way of life.”
In describing America Trump employs the language of affirmation, not (like the Left) the rhetoric of denigration and delegitimization. He explains that the American way of life is based on both principles (what was once called the American Creed) and a lived culture.
The American Founders, Trump declared, “launched…a revolution in the pursuit of justice, equality, liberty, and prosperity.” Directly answering the 1619 Project, the President stated that July 4, 1776 was the “most important day in the history of nations…. 1776 represented the culmination of thousands of years of Western Civilization and the triumph not only of spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy and reason.”
Much of the speech was a patriotic litany that could have (and has) been given by previous Democratic presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy: “Americans harnessed electricity, split the atom…. We settled the Wild West, won two World Wars…. We gave the world the poetry of Walt Whitman, the stories of Mark Twain, [and] the songs of Irving Berlin.”
Nevertheless, the editorial board of Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post characterized the Mount Rushmore address as one that “appeals to racism,” even though the President specifically noted as American heroes people such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jessie Owens, Harriet Tubman, Louie Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Muhammad Ali, and the Tuskegee Airmen.
According to the editors of the Post, at Mount Rushmore on July 3 and the next day, July 4, at the White House, “Mr. Trump plumbed new depths of depravity.” His alleged “attempt to polarize the country along racial and cultural lines is despicable.” His characterization of “angry mobs…tear[ing] down statues of our Founders” is “an obscene misrepresentation of the mostly peaceful marches.” Trump himself “poses the greatest threat to American democratic values.”
Why the unhinged reaction? Because Donald Trump is not following the script assigned to Republicans by the mainstream media and the Democratic Party. Republicans are expected to operate within the “narrative” established by progressive liberalism. They are allowed to decry high taxes and big government, but they are not supposed to notice that our universities, media, foundations, and the Democratic party don’t really like “the American way of life” (its culture, history, people) very much. This despite the fact that the American Left has been increasingly eager to tell the rest of us that America is so racist, sexist, xenophobic, and so on that justice demands its “fundamental transformation.”
The problem with Donald Trump is not only that he notices all of this, but, more importantly, unlike previous Republican leaders, he directly challenges the assumptions and presuppositions of woke progressivism. Just last month, he ordered the end of federal government diversity training related to “critical race theory, white privilege or any other training…that suggests…that the United States is inherently racist.”
Supposing they had won, such a bold and salutary act would be unimaginable in the administrations of the last two Republican nominees for President. Trump’s counterattacks infuriate the broad fusionist left-liberal-NYT-BLM-Never Trump coalition supporting Biden. The woke revolution was supposed to proceed without any questioning from the “stupid party” on the Right. Don’t these “deplorables” know their place?
The 2020 election is, indeed, a “battle for the soul of America.” Like 1860 it is a regime election. And there is one overriding issue: Is the American way of life something essentially good that should be vigorously affirmed and defended, or is the actually existing America (its principles, people and culture), a deeply flawed regime that needs to be “systemically” transformed?
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.