Victor Davis Hanson // Historian’s Corner
In its 245th year has America become dangerously divided or just chaotic—or both? More Americans are currently concluding that their country either does not work as it once did, or works all too well in ways that are frightening.
In a recent five-day period in California’s Central Valley, where I live on the farm on which I grew up, I boarded an airliner that first flew the passengers 180 miles in the opposite direction from our destination in search of now strangely scarce aviation fuel at another airport. On the freeway I counted ten motorists driving alone with their windows up—wearing masks, as the COVID-19 virus might be lingering in the freeway air and sucked into their air conditioning systems (It was 106 degrees outside).
I walked through our small farm in the evening only to encounter a stranger in our orchard who spoke not a word of English. He was glaring at us, while sitting on his truck tailgate—fully armed. My daughter and her husband, a high-school teacher, called to tell me that the three-bedroom tract house they had eyed in Monterey during last summer’s lockdown had now soared from a ridiculous $800,000 to a fanciful $1,200,000.
Do they call all this “multifaceted systems collapse”?
I turned on the news to learn that, despite the nightly shootings, gang violence, and stories of economic recession from the pandemic’s dislocations, Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos during the quarantine had doubled his fortune to become the richest man in the history of the world, with a reported $180 billion in net worth.
Bezos has just given CNN analyst Van Jones a $100 million “Courage and Civility Award,” for being one of the “unifiers” rather than the “vilifiers.” But had not Jones once reductively explained Donald Trump’s 2016 victory as a racist “whitewash”? He had not earlier under pressure resigned from his Obama administration green czar post for calling Republicans “assholes,” blaming the phenomenon of mass shootings on white suburban kids, and in further demonstrable courageous civility, supported the truther myth that the George W. Bush administration was involved in or had forewarning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Can his prize at least be renamed the award “The Group Speak and Vilification Award”?
The historically dangerous force-multiplier of sectarianism—geography—is returning to America, in the eerie 1860-style of Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. Millions of Americans are self-selecting by moving to a red state that better fits their ideology or dropping out of political and civic life altogether. Here in California, the migrations of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath are now operating in reverse. Twenty-first-century Joads are returning to the Midwest, as if better-governed Oklahoma, Tennessee, or Texas can trump the Mediterranean weather and paradisical beaches of an otherwise failed state of California. Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana lure big city folk from Manhattan by being perceived as the antidotes to the New York of Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio.
For others, however, who stay put, there is often not so much anger as a psychological retreat to a monastery of the mind. The recent and occasionally politicized Olympics was a colossal ratings dud. Millions of unhappy Americans tune out the incessant proselytizing of professional sports, the evening news, network sitcoms, dramas, commercials, and Hollywood new releases. Ratings reveal that Americans now have no idea of who says or wins what at the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards.
What is driving our growing divide, our perceived chaos, dread of decline?
There are, of course, the usually cited long-term and short-term suspects. Social media and the Internet transformed individual whines and local trivia into the stuff of collective outrage—and instantly so for billions.
Globalism enriched the world, and especially the informational, investment, and professional American bicoastal classes with new markets of 7 billion consumers. Yet its institutionalized outsourcing and offshoring insidiously enervated the muscular industrial and manufacturing world of the American interior. We Americans brag that the world became like us. Yet half the country believes otherwise—that Americans unfortunately became more like the world.
All agree politics became topsy-turvy. The Democratic Party moved far more to the left than the Republican Party had to the MAGA right. In the new century, it embraced open borders, a new tribalism, and became the party of the richest and the poorest. The old Marquess-of-Queensbury rules Republican establishment of the Bushes, John McCain and Mitt Romney was vaporized by furious Make America Great populism. The Trump phenomenon accelerated the conservative and nationalist metamorphoses of the middle classes from lunch-bucket issue Democrats into populist Republicans.
Yet both parties—and both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—agreed that the US was becoming a more volatile, unhappy, and unfair place. The Left now (in conspiratorial fashion) points to a supposedly iconic January 6, 2021 “insurrection” when the republic changed into something else.
The Right shrugs that lawlessness and insurrection are far better emblemized by the legal exemptions accorded to some 120 days of rioting, looting, arson, and protest during the summer of 2021. Both sides agree only that the US government and its various alphabetic health bureaucracies were often misinformed, if not incompetent, during the pandemic. COVID-19, the lockdowns, the self-induced recession, the rioting of 2020, the controversial elections, and the January 6 assault on the Capitol were the matches that ignited the combustibles of the last 20 years.