Ross Douthat: The grinning skull beneath the liberal city’s skin

(John Minchillo | AP photo) In this May 30 photo, a protester adds materials to a fire of a building that once housed a check cashing business, in St. Paul, Minn. The destruction caused by vandals and looters in cities across the country, who struck as demonstrators took to the streets in reaction to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, has devastated small businesses already reeling from the coronavirus outbreak.

The polarization of American life, the withdrawal of liberal and conservative Americans from one another, has generated a poisonous distillation on both sides. In separating into geographic-distinct enclaves, into heartland and metropole, our factions have become steadily worse versions of themselves — deprived of the leaven of perspective, hardening into self-caricature, losing the democratic capacities that a more diverse and fluid political atmosphere can teach.

The poisoning on the right helped give us the Trump presidency, which speaks to the alienation of conservative America from the corridors of wealth and power — the sense across rural and exurban America that our great cities are alien, their inhabitants dangerous, their elites grasping and malign — without speaking effectively to anybody else.

President Donald Trump’s administration is Washington-based performance art for Americans who know the capital primarily as a television backdrop, a festival of lib-owning and deep-state bashing — and as of Monday night, bizarre tear-gas-and-the-Bible photo ops — that doesn’t even try to master the government it notionally runs. His reeling, staggering style of governance — once blackly comic, now deadly serious and disastrous — reflects not just the incapacity of its leader but also the insularity of his coalition, which doesn’t encompass enough of America’s diversity to claim a real democratic mandate or include enough of the administrative talent that it would need to competently rule.

But the riots engulfing America’s cities aren’t just a testament to Trump’s mix of provocation and abdication. They also reveal how the Democratic coalition’s distillation into a metropolitan formation, a liberalism of the “global city,” has created deep pressures inside the liberal coalition, fissures that can widen with the right cascade of shocks.

The coalition of the liberal city is a high-low coalition, an alliance of highly educated urbanites, service workers and the underclass, inhabiting the same geography but very different social spaces, sharing a common political opponent but lacking a common way of life. The weaknesses of the conservative coalition are reversed for liberals. Instead of uniformity, there is Balkanization. Instead of chauvinism against outsiders there is suspicion against neighbors. Instead of a pious Christianity that’s too often distant from the stranger and the orphan, there is a pious liberalism that depends on the cheap labor of immigrants and the surveillance and harassment of the poor.

Above all, the liberal city lacks a middle — the ballast of a substantial middle class, the mediating institutions of old-fashioned machine politics, the cement of shared religious and cultural institutions. Instead, its mediating institutions are the cops, the public schools and welfare bureaucracy, and the professional-activist class. None of these groups have broad legitimacy. The cops are distrusted from below and from above — increasingly regarded by the cosmopolitan class as distasteful mercenaries, a necessary evil to protect gentrification’s gains. The schools and welfare system are stagnant yet resilient, constantly resisting attempted reinventions by elites whose own families rarely use them. The activists portray themselves as spokesmen for their race or class, but their main task appears to be running consciousness-raising sessions to salve the uneasy consciences of white elites.

In place of any broad legitimacy, the liberal city relies for public order on wealth and entertainment, surveillance and prison sentences, pot and video games, elite guilt and lower-class forbearance.

This is a decadent-but-sustainable arrangement under normal circumstances, but the coronavirus has exposed its weak points. Take away schools, pools, sports and movies and suddenly the infotainment complex is reduced to Zoom and Netflix and claustrophobia sets in. Tell people to wear masks and the surveillance camera doesn’t seem like such a threat. Close the colleges and suddenly the activist cohort and its more radical pupils are set idle. Put cops to work enforcing social distancing and their authoritarian temptations are magnified … and then all you need is a particularly brazen injustice to light the spark.

Now that it’s been lit, the liberal coalition’s claim to represent order against Trumpian chaos or political competence against right-wing fecklessness is burning day by day. And the torching of its credibility has happened fastest among the white and woke. As public officials, white progressives lack both credibility with aggrieved protesters and full control over their own overzealous cops. As supposed custodians of public health, they’ve proven unable to sustain social distancing requirements when it’s someone other than disreputable conservatives challenging them. And as ostensible champions of facts and reason, they’ve been as quick as any Southern sheriff in the 1960s to blame outside agitators, false flags and even foreigners for their own misgovernment.

But worse than progressive officials are the young white radicals, anarchists and antifa and would-be Tyler Durdens, who have decided that the suffering of black communities is an excellent justification for a frenzy of white-on-white (or, sometimes, white-on-immigrant-owned-business) crime. One of the most striking trends of the last few years, the studies showing that white liberals are increasingly angrier about racism than the average black American, has reached its consummation in the spectacle of peaceful black protesters remonstrating with white kids who just want to loot, burn and fight.

Perhaps the logic of polarization will eventually help restore stability. Perhaps whatever flailing or cruel response Trump eventually gets goaded into will reunite the liberal cities against the right-wing president. Perhaps we can return to a world where Nike mouths radical slogans but nobody loots their stores.

But we’ve seen what happens when you pull back that surface, and we know what’s underneath: the grinning skull beneath the liberal city’s skin.

Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.