For millions of Americans, the much-heralded return to post-Trump “normalcy” feels disturbingly abnormal. In early September, President Joe Biden announced sweeping COVID-19 vaccine requirements for federal employees and those working at large private companies. This all-but-certainly-unconstitutional declaration came only weeks after the Supreme Court shot down Biden’s earlier dalliance with unconstitutionality in the form of an extended eviction moratorium. When Biden announced that scheme, he himself recognized it was “not likely to pass constitutional muster.” Presidents enacting measures they know to be unconstitutional is not exactly a return to the good old days of calm and moderation.
If you’re an American who tunes out formal politics altogether, it would still be hard to miss a pervasive sense of division and reproach in the air. Once-adored artists such as Lin-Manuel Miranda are cast out of the progressive pantheon for noncompliance with Wokeness. Your streaming television channels now offer up content split into race- and gender-based categories (having removed entirely some programming that offends woke sensibilities). Similarly, elementary-school teachers separate classrooms by skin tone in a misguided effort to teach kids about group differences. In Richmond, Virginia, a time capsule buried 133 years ago was recently dug up and intentionally replaced with new items, among them loving mementos of the social-justice movement.
Public excommunication, overtly racialized entertainment, segregated classrooms, the literal erasure of history: Is this really what America was like before Donald Trump became president? The answer is clearly no.
This unprecedented period is characterized by a broad and deep disregard for the freedoms that Americans have long taken for granted: foremost among them, freedom of speech. In his new book, The Authoritarian Moment, Ben Shapiro writes: “Our culture wars aren’t about anything so mundane as marriage, policing, or even abortion. Our culture wars are about a simple question: Can we agree that freedom of speech is more important than freedom from offense? Can we hire, work with, and break bread with people who may differ on the nature of the good life, but agree on the individual freedoms that come along with being an American?” The question will remain open for some time.
Despite endless warnings from the media about Trump’s and Republicans’ supposed authoritarian instincts, we are suffocating in an environment of left-wing oppression. As Shapiro, the wildly popular founder of the Daily Wire, puts it, “Trump might have authoritarian tendencies, but he did not wield authoritarian power.” The left does, and The Authoritarian Moment is a comprehensive guidebook to its vast suppression machine. Shapiro explains how “the authoritarian Left has successfully pursued a three-step strategy to effectuate their takeover of the major institutions in our society. The first step: winning the emotional argument. The second step: renormalizing the institutions. The third step: locking all the doors.”
On the first step—winning the argument—Shapiro is particularly enlightening. He leans heavily on the work of French physicist Serge Galam to answer the bedeviling question: How does a small minority of leftist radicals wield such outsize power over the larger population? Here’s how. The uncompromising minority presents a binary choice to the larger group it seeks to coopt: Join us in our righteous campaign, or be thought of as backward bigots who side with the enemy. The targeted party inevitably kneels before the moral blackmailers, petrified of the consequences should they resist. This works across the board. Not only is it how Squad member Representative Cori Bush got Biden to endorse her eviction moratorium, it’s how the revolutionary left got Coca-Cola, for example, to train employees to be “less white” in the name of inclusion.
Institution after institution has caved before this strategy and thereby been renormalized. Shapiro goes into great detail, offering separate analyses of the renormalizations happening in government, media, science, education, and the workplace. Given that he wrote the book during the COVID-19 pandemic, his section on the renormalization of science lands with a fierce immediacy.
He identifies two dominant elements in the current corruption of science: the Ultracrepidarian Problem and the Bleedover Effect. “The Ultracrepidarian Problem widens the boundaries of science beyond the applicable,” Shapiro writes. This happened, for example, when scientists came out en masse proclaiming racism a public-health emergency. By contrast, “the Bleedover Effect narrows the boundaries of science to the ‘acceptable.’” Such was the case when, in 2018, the American Medical Association renounced any definition of sex that referred to “immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth.” Doctors, according to the renormalized AMA, “assign” sex. (Shapiro is never caught wanting for real-word events to bolster his arguments.)
Through the power and reach of American institutions, the radical left has managed to foist its oppressive agenda on the country in what seems like an overnight coup. But it merely feels as if it happened overnight. Shapiro lays out a valuable account of the revolutionary groundwork, a century in the making, that went into the establishment of the new dispensation. The American left, in his telling, has historically oscillated between dreams of utopia and a hunger for revolution. “But the two impulses are in conflict,” he writes. It was Barack Obama who finally tied the two together “by embracing the power of government—and acting as a community organizer within the system itself, declaring himself the revolutionary representative of the dispossessed, empowered with the levers of the state in order to destroy and reconstitute the state on their behalf.” This insight perhaps best explains Joe Biden’s clunky “Build Back Better” slogan. What the revolution has destroyed, the Biden administration will rebuild—along utopian lines.
Shapiro is famous, in part, for a rapid-fire speaking style that enables him to pack years of analysis into a single TV appearance. He manages something analogous in The Authoritarian Moment, conveying a door stopper’s worth of information in fewer than 250 pages (not counting notes). He is infamous on the left, however, as an emblem of right-wing nastiness. But that misunderstanding of Shapiro points to a paradox that gets at why the left truly detest him. He is a cool-headed and surgical expositor of complicated ideas—so cool-headed and surgical that his targets can only take their wounds for the work of a monster. He in fact models an alternative to political nastiness. What is his oft-repeated catch phrase—“Facts don’t care about your feelings”—but an admonition against excessive emotionality in discourse? In The Authoritarian Moment, Shapiro paints with a fine brush and makes a clear distinction between liberals (who respect free speech) and leftists (who do not). He throws powerful rhetorical bombs, but they’re smart bombs. “To be politically incorrect means to say that which requires saying,” he writes, “not to be a generic, run-of-the-mill jackass.”
The Authoritarian Moment says very much that requires saying. Shapiro is beloved—indeed, he is a phenom—among young conservatives because he can articulate the multitude of frustrations that most others can only groan or rage about. And he can do it more concisely than any human being alive. But, more than that, he dissects the actual mechanics of the current crackdown in a way that is undeniable. His new book is, in short, an argument-winner. Shapiro maintains that if conservatives and liberals are to resist the new reality, they must undo in reverse order the three-step authoritarian takeover. This means that they will finally have to win more arguments than they currently do. The Authoritarian Moment is, then, a vital step toward genuine normalcy.
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