The Reign of Terror had an end. Is ours around the corner?
Thermidor was the 11th month of the French revolutionary calendar, falling between the third week of July and the third week of August. In 1793 the Revolution was in crisis, with the new French state at war with enemies foreign and domestic. The invading armies of Europe’s kings had been thrown back, but the nation was under siege. A “Committee of Public Safety” was created to protect the people against the enemy hordes.
According to its leader, Maximilian Robespierre—with national emergency in full panic mode—the ring of evil could only be defeated through “virtue and terror.” La Terreur reigned for about a year, in which thousands of citizens were beheaded. Then, as furiously as it had descended on Paris, the rage evaporated. Robespierre lost his head too, beneath the blade, and then, at Fleurus, the Army of the Republic defeated the allied Hapsburg-Hanoverian-Dutch-British army, and the sense of hysterical emergency began to lift. Robespierre was guillotined on 9 Thermidor: Hence, that was the day the “Thermidorian Reaction” began.
In our COVID year, not so many heads rolled (although at least a couple mock-guillotines appeared!)—yet the sense of national emergency weighed just as heavy on national consciousness. Moreover, the governors of many states issues scores of emergency decrees, many of which, like la Terreur, were tinged with the same autocratic yet therapeutic tone. The Revolution had its Committee of Public Safety, for which the new argot of “lockdown” was “safe space.”
Going further, as in France, terror-as-public spectacle was often whipped up and celebrated by Blue ruling regimes as a way to further their power agenda. The internal enemy were called out as Red “extremists,” “White Supremacists,” and “domestic terrorists.” In contrast, BLM and Antifa were defenders of “our democracy.” The external enemy—the counterpart of Europe’s invading ancien regime—was personified by the MAGA Man himself, creature and agent of a malevolent Russian Czar. So framed, President Donald Trump would always be the carrier of a foreign contagion, of “authoritarian,” “anti-democratic” forces, seeking to infect the stainless purity of “our democracy.”
As the story has progressed, will the hysterical dynamics of America’s la Terreur yield, as they did in 1794 France, to our own Thermidorian Reaction? There are certainly positive indicators. Here are 10:
1) The absence of Donald Trump actually weakens the woke forces, in that it takes away their (always fragile) unity, and puts them—as the party in power—under scrutiny and on the strategic defensive.
2) Pushing to ram home their “transformation” agenda, their true motives and goals are everywhere exposed to view.
3) With a weak president, without strength in Congress, they do not have the power, in the face of widespread popular restiveness, to follow through with real legislation, other than multiple spending splurges that themselves already promise to bring galloping inflation—the eternal political killer.
4) The lifting of COVID restrictions is in itself an (unconfessed) expression of weakness (as Blue forces wished to keep them enforced); yet even more debilitating, the more things return to normal, inevitably the less prominent a role reflexive kowtowing to arbitrary Blue power plays in our lives. Once-perpetual emergency is lifted, with it will go the unlimited dispensation that crisis gives to state power.
5) Worse yet for our Committee of Public Safety, the end of encompassing national emergency comes too soon. COVID was not only an instrument to defenestrate Trump. It was also intended to be a bridge: a strategic roadway to span the gap between the immediate dispensation of COVID emergency and the forever dispensation of Global Climate Crisis.
6) The shock troops of woke remain uncontrollable, and cannot be herded into less-threatening legions. The larger woke agenda cannot be called back and will continue pushing ahead within America’s elite institutions: government, media, academic, corporate. Thus they cannot be made to look less threatening to the majority of moderate and conservative voters. Hence Red (and Old Liberal) will have plenty of recruiting material for an electoral Thermidorian Reaction in 2022.
7) The American Military is being hollowed out from within—at a time when Chinese invasion of Taiwan is increasingly imminent. Moreover, President Biden has just acceded to Putin’s Nord Stream, which will only incentive Russian bullying in Europe. The suggestion here: Looming crises have the potential to upset a delicate, post-COVID domestic equilibrium. A weakened military and a weak nation will be forced to yield to China over the future of Taiwan, and that will be a great defeat.
8) Anti-woke voices are rebelling and resisting. An American majority tells us they actively dislike political correctness. Parents vehemently protest at school board meetings. More and more voices oppose openly on social media, many of them from the liberal-left: a clear counter-offensive.
9) Collapse of consensus support for BLM means that their brief power surge is over. Much breast-beating in the NYT, blaming evil forces—i.e., Republican racism—and for good reason: Without nationwide legitimacy, woke movements have devolved into purely partisan enforcers of the Blue agenda.
10) Evidence of a true Wuhan lab leak has the potential to wipe away what little residue remains of the people’s trust in state and elite institutions.
Irish writer Angela Nagle, posting on Substack, believes that the “armed wings” of the Church of Woke—from BLM to Antifa to GLSEN—were used, if not cynically, then quite self-consciously, as the shock troops of Trump Regime defenestration (Nagle calls them “a fanatical vigilante force”). Now that they have successfully served their purpose, she argues, the elite class, fully seated in power, can default to an equally self-conscious strategy of assembling a tranche of policies that everyone likes. This includes explicit appropriation of President Trump’s “economic populism.”
Technocrats yearn for stability, she says—so they do, indeed! Hence, Nagle sees more “a Macron-style Thermidor within liberalism than an ‘anti-woke left.’” Furthermore, she believes that Blue is successfully outbidding “their national-populist rivals on the right” and these technocratic elites are “somewhat less ridiculously and incurable woke than the left have become over the last few years.” Thermidor relief indeed!
I find Nagle’s packaging of elite class strategy persuasive—at least from elites’ perspective. Her argument, however, gives too much controlling agency to elites: “… the libs have the magical powers to change the rules at any time and I suspect they’d quite like to go back to brunch without an anarchist with fleas spitting in their food and trying to burn the place down.” No disagreement here—except…
There is always a problem with magic that relies on a lamp, bottle, or box. As I suggested above, the shock troops promised blood will never sheath clean blades. Beyond metaphor, however, is the reality of a new religion seeking to get beyond cult status and become an anointed sect. The Church of Woke is intent on toppling the temples of the Old American Religion, and is, moreover, ensconced across the cultural realm of our elites. It has burrowed far more deeply than the Jacobins ever could, and has seized the most powerful institutions in the nation—and it truly is a religion.
For America to suddenly be “less ridiculously and incurably woke” may lead to that “waiting to exhale” feeling of relief at last. Yet we might wish to remember, as one cigar-aficionado wagged during an old and great war: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Michael Vlahos is a writer and author of the book Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change. He has taught war and strategy at Johns Hopkins University and the Naval War College and is a weekly contributor to The John Batchelor Show. Follow him on @Michalis_Vlahos, and his blog at anewcivilwar.com.
The American Conservative