Jean Paul Marat, one of the main leaders of the French Revolution, once mocked the notion that liberty would be established by his fellow rebels. He said, “Apart from a few tragic scenes, the French Revolution has been nothing but a web of farcical scenes.” This sounds familiar today.
Welcome to the American version of the French Revolution. The horrible killing of George Floyd sparked an important focus on race relations and justice in this country. However, it is being lost to an emerging radicalism that challenges people to prove their faith by endorsing farce. Politicians and commentators are outdoing each other to demonstrate fealty to this new order by attacking key institutions and values. Politicians are calling to defund the police and commentators are calling for censorship. Most moderate voices seem to be fading under escalating demands.
Take the idea to defund the police. Once the mantra of the very extreme elements in society, it has now been picked up in Congress. Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib has said that defunding the police should not be brushed aside. Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar declared, “The Minneapolis Police Department has proven themselves far beyond reform. It is time to disband them and reimagine public safety.”
Other politicians have joined pledges to go after police budgets or entire departments, even as officers continue to maintain order and end looting. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti declared that, despite the major cost of the riots, he will refuse to expand the police budget. Instead, he said his administration has identified $250 million in cuts and pledged to give as much as $150 million from the police budget on to the black community, minorities, women, and other people who have been left behind.
Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison told residents that the Minneapolis Police Department would be dismantled. During the protests and rioting, Ellison claimed support for antifa, a violent movement which stands against free speech. His father, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, had also voiced support two years ago for antifa when he was the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, declaring that the movement would “strike fear” in the heart of Donald Trump.
Seattle City Council member Tammy Morales dismissed concerns about looting and said, “What I do not want to hear is for our constituents to be told to be civil.” Moreover, New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah Jones explained, “Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence.” Northwestern University professor Steve Thrasher said, “The destruction of a police precinct is not simply a tactically reasonable response to the crisis of policing, it is also a quintessentially American response.”
As politicians rallied around defunding police or defending looting, the media had its own storming of the Bastille. Some journalists at the New York Times denounced their publication for running a column written by Republican Senator Tom Cotton on the use of military troops to address the rioting. Despite the public outcry and calls for editors to resign over the issue, the New York Times publisher gave a strong defense of using the opinion section to hear all sides of every national controversy.
It was a high point in journalistic ethics that did not last. New York Times editors soon confessed they had sinned in allowing Cotton to express his conservative perspective in the opinion section. They swiftly promised an investigation and a reduction in the number of columns. The one thing we were spared of here was the appearance of the New York Times publisher rolling down the street inside a French oxcart for public judgment.
History suggests that such demonstrations may not be enough. As shown by the French Revolution, the rebels today are the reactionaries tomorrow. Maximilien Robespierre had led the reign of terror until he was guillotined as one of its last victims, and the farcical scenes of Jean Paul Marat ended with his stabbing in a bathtub in retaliation for his bloody excesses. It is a cycle repeated in history. When the music stops, fewer and fewer chairs can be found by those who readily embraced extreme measures.
That is why many of our American leaders should consider the words of Abbe Sieyes, a Catholic clergyman and author of the French Revolution manifesto, in thinking about the unrest today. When asked what he had done in the national uprising, he simply responded, “I survived.”
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.