Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The “uniform” the eighties band Gang of Four was singing about is not the one our Armed Forces wear. Our military uniforms are the emblem of a superb professional fighting force that is accountable to Constitutional limits, and commanded by a civilian president elected by the sovereign people. No, progressives love the uniform worn by the “strong man,” the “man on horseback,” the “great leader,” what in Latin America is called a “caudillo,” or “cacique,” or more crudely, “El Gran Chingon,” the thugs with the gaudy Gilbert-and-Sullivan uniforms bedecked with rows of phony medals.
Hence the left’s admiration for Castro, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, Chavez, and most recently Kim Jong Un’s sister, the head of propaganda for the North Korean terror state whom the left’s media lackeys effusively praised during her appearance at the Olympics. No matter how blood-stained, any tyrant can be an object of the left’s affection, as long as he or she is on the side of “revolution” against the hated capitalists and the repressed bourgeoisie. This century-long love affair explains the endless parade of useful idiots making pilgrimages to totalitarian hell-holes like Stalin’s Russia or Chavez’s Venezuela or Castro’s Cuba, there to swoon over the Potemkin heaven on earth.
It also accounts in part for the surreal, cult-like worship of the tin-pot messiah Barack Obama, whose very trouser crease could thrill the starry-eyed pundit, whose banal rhetoric could send tingles down the leg of the most hard-bitten journalist. That’s why Obama’s use of Executive Orders and his “phone and pen” to subvert the Constitution’s separation of powers was celebrated by the same progressives who squeal about any Republican president’s “imperial overreach.”
That’s because power is a good thing to the left––as long as it’s used by the right people to construct their egalitarian utopia and “get things done.” Just listen to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman swooning over China’s efficiency at “getting things done”: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.” This is the modern version of the cliché that “Mussolini made the trains run on time,” or the paeans to Stalin’s “miracle” of rapidly industrializing Russia penned by Walter Duranty or Lincoln Steffens. They seem to have forgotten that the power to command forced labor can build a lot of things, from pyramids to autobahns––and precisely engineered death camps.
That “pragmatism,” needing only enough power to build the “better future,” lay at the heart of early progressivism, just as it rationalized the excesses of Marxism and Nazism. Woodrow Wilson whined about the inefficiency of divided government and the inability of the president to make “good” laws. He fretted about superstitions like the balance of power and limited government, which proscribed the centralized power of a technocratic federal government that could run our society and economy more efficiently in order to achieve greater equality, social harmony, and prosperity. Several decades of serial bloody failures to make this pipe dream a reality has not deterred the true believes. They still long for the strong leader, a “soft” despot to be sure, one filled with therapeutic bromides, but still a despot who would not be stopped by antique Constitutional niceties, or concern himself too much with protecting our natural rights.
This explains why Obama was the progressives’ dream boat, complete with the tinsel and gilt messianic aura that most “great leaders” peddle. And like them, he failed to fulfill the dream of “equality” and “social justice.” Obama did succeed, however, at “fundamentally transforming” America into a country dominated by the wannabe totalitarians who abused the Bill of Rights and turned government agencies and the coercive power of the state against the citizens they were supposed to serve. But the Constitution and the common sense of enough American voters proved strong enough, at least for now, to check this abuse of power, proving once again the brilliance of the Founders’ Constitutional architecture.
There’s something, though, even more disturbing about the left’s fondness for the “man in a uniform”: the way it bespeaks an unhealthy love of power, and a sick fascination with political violence. How else do terrorists like Angela Davis or Bill Ayres get themselves reintegrated into society and living among us as celebrities, these two in universities that have “Peace” programs and preach non-violence? Or thuggish groups like Antifa and Black Lives Matter get glowing media coverage and White House invitations? Or psychopaths like Che Guevara, who enjoyed personally executing political prisoners, become matinee idols? Or history’s greatest mass murderer, Mao, still decorate pop art and tee-shirts? Leftists love “a man in a uniform” because when they say, “I need an order,” to quote the Gang of Four again, he answers “Shoot! Shoot!”
Unlike our comfortable “caviar communists” parading their “radical chic,” the earlier more honest totalitarians admitted that brutal violence is necessary to sweep away the old order’s remnants, whose “false consciousness” impedes the creation of utopia. Karl Marx warned the Prussian government in 1843, “We are ruthless, and ask no quarter from you. When our turn comes we shall not disguise our terrorism.” Vladimir Lenin responded to a critic of his war of extermination against the Kulaks, “Do you think we can be victors without the most severe revolutionary terror?” Stalin was brutally laconic: “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.” The logic is clear for the left: if the enemy is the bourgeoisie, then the violent elimination of the whole class is necessary. As the founder of the Soviet Union’s secret police said, “We are not waging war against individual persons. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class.”
Our modern leftists and leftist-lite progressives may have lost their gumption for getting their own hands bloody, but they still have their attraction for the strong man who is happy to bathe his in blood up to the elbows.
The problem with endorsing violence to realize political ideals is that human nature, with its conflicting passions and interests, is vulnerable to the corruption of power, an observation over a thousand years old when Lord Acton composed his famous aphorism in the 19th century. The Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions had acknowledged this tragic fact about human weakness. The Founders knew it too, and so made the limitation of power the foundation of our political order. And even then, they still worried about the tendency of political power to aggrandize itself and threaten political freedom and other rights. As Thomas Jefferson wrote,
Whereas it appeareth that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.
No matter how well-intentioned, no matter how lofty the ideals for which one sets out to kill one’s fellows, in the end the intoxication of power becomes too great, and those using it soon degenerate into murder and tyranny.
This simple fact about the left is what made the hysteria over Donald Trump’s potential “fascism” or malign nationalism so preposterous. Progressivism and communism are the kissing cousins of fascism, and it is their adherents who admire political violence for noble causes––“any means necessary,” as the slogan went in the sixties. Today it is their devotees who get misty-eyed over the “great leader” who promises to sweep away the impediments––human rights, law, traditional morality, faith––that try to limit violence. That’s why today there is no Antifa on the right, no mobs trying to shout down speakers or intimidate them with violence, no murderers turned into specious martyrs, no terrorists living comfortably with university sinecures and book contracts, and no psychopathic criminals the subjects of sentimental Hollywood biopics.
That’s because genuine conservatism loves freedom more than power, and recognizes that all humans, no matter how smart or well-intentioned or idealistic, cannot be trusted with power for too long. And that in turn makes conservatives Constitutionalists, for our political order was built on that ancient wisdom, as was Western civilization itself. When we reject that wisdom and puff ourselves up with arrogance because we are better engineers, we pave the way for the hubris that Sophocles said breeds the tyrant, whose excesses provoke a murderous nemesis.