"I hear the train a-comin'; it's rollin' round the bend …" —Johnny Cash
It was almost a decade ago that I had dinner at a suburban Des Moines sports bar with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was running for president at the time. He wanted my lay of the land in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, but I couldn't resist widening the conversation beyond that with one of the few politicians whose intellect I actually respect.
So we expanded our horizons to perhaps the only subject Gingrich loves more than politics — history.
"This is the most divided this country has been culturally since the 1850s," I remember Gingrich saying, "And you know what that set the stage for."
Gingrich went on to say he thought the only way out of such a zero-sum game was for power to be taken out of Washington, D.C., and given back to the people. I shared with him that I thought it was "(spiritual) revival or bust" for the West in general, not just America, and that has become a consistent mantra on my show these past few years.
That dinner was a decade ago. Before we knew what Covidstan was. Before we left Americans behind in Afghanistan. Before we debated whether to let our children mutilate themselves and call mental illness like gender dysphoria public policy. Before drag queen story time for the kiddos became a "blessing of liberty." Before we paid people more money not to work. Before "defund the police" but let domestic terrorists declare whole blocks of a major U.S. city as now "Chaz."
The birth pangs are coming faster now and more severe. The stuff the Tea Party rallied against a decade ago almost seems trite now, and needless to say, that is not good.
A decade later, we are on the brink as a people. We are desperate to create a two-tiered society, with those who are comrades in good standing with the Spirit of the Age pitted against those who still desire on some level to think for themselves. Mark my words: If permitted, that fault line will make even the most bitterly partisan Republican-Democrat tribalisms look like a pillow fight.
The instruments of that division may be called critical racist theory (my name for it), masked or unmasked, or vaccinated or unvaccinated, etc. — but the end result is the same, for they're all driven by the same zealotry: the compulsion, based on self-righteous superiority, to use the coercive force of government to impose upon (if not outright trample) the God-given rights of others. The pursuit of happiness has become passé, while the pursuit of power and control is what all the cool kids are doing these days.
In the meantime, while the Spirit of the Age metastasizes like the malignant tumor it is to corrupt every last cell of American exceptionalism, what's left of traditional America is growing increasingly desperate. Whether it's the proliferation of COVID rules for thee but not for me; teachers' unions openly showing they hate the children they're trusted to educate; an unprecedented border crisis; a return to pre-Reagan-era soft-on-crime sophistry; mounting skepticism regarding the integrity of elections; skyrocketing debt and inflation; or now demands to use us as lab rats for the injection of experimental tech over a virus slightly more deadly than diabetes, traditional America is facing unsustainable taxation (both monetarily and morally) without representation.
With tragically few exceptions we can count before exhausting our fingers and toes, the Republican Party either isn't interested in or is incapable of being an effective, peaceable weapon to be wielded on behalf of what's left of America. Whether it's Lindsey Graham types pimping Forever War or Kristi Noems who are down with the tyranny provided it's a "private business" doing the state's dirty work for it, a growing multitude of Americans are coming to a painful realization.
We are on our own. The cavalry isn't coming.
Republicans will likely do very well next year in the midterms, but mostly because people have nowhere else to go in response to another reminder that Democrats, well, suck. It's not that Republicans have collectively earned such confidence, let alone inspired it. Let's face it, too often you vote Republican in a last-ditch attempt to slow down Democratic decay just enough to catch your breath. Not because you believe Republicans will collectively go on offense on your behalf.
This is not a sustainable paradigm for any civilization. Eventually the center cannot hold. Eventually the levee breaks. Eventually, once the system makes it clear it has no plans to seriously confront injustice regardless of how you vote or who wins, the stage will be set for unconventional means of social change to emerge.
Which brings us back to Gingrich's comparisons to the 1850s.
Slavery was an injustice that threatened the cohesion of the Union from the beginning. The original draft of the Declaration of Independence was going to confront the evils of slavery head-on, until two Southern colonies threatened to reject it if the language wasn't removed. However, the constitutional republic those 13 colonies forged would eventually set the stage for slavery's undoing.
As America began its ascent in the mid-19th century in search of manifest destiny, politicians attempted to stave off the existential debate over slavery by enacting a series of "compromises." These weren't compromises so much as compartmentalizations; after all, how can you compromise on whether a human being is actually a human being? That's a yes or no, with no nuance. But there was lots of money to be made in this booming country, so the contentious slavery debate was compartmentalized in a such a way as to avoid getting in the way of the pursuit of wealth.
Until gold was discovered in California.
The California gold rush provided motivation for importing hundreds of slaves into the new economy out West, despite the fact that California was supposedly admitted to the Union as a free state. This ambiguity, which went unconfronted by the elites who were enriching themselves and couldn't be bothered, set the stage for an even bigger betrayal to come — Bleeding Kansas.
After the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed states to vote by "popular sovereignty" as to whether they would treat people with a different skin color as subhuman, the territory descended into chaotic violence as rival guerrilla groups — both pro-slavery and pro-abolition forces — quite literally went to war. One of the leading figures to emerge from this period was a man named John Brown.
A devoutly religious man, Brown vowed that "here before God I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery." And much like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the 20th century, a minister who saw no other way out of the evils of Nazism except to take part in the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler, once Brown saw pro-slavery forces deploy a violent attack that became known as the "Sack of Lawrence," he also decided to literally fight fire with fire.
Nature abhors a vacuum. And with the system either incapable of or uninterested in finally confronting the stain on our civilization that was slavery, it was just a matter of time before someone like John Brown stepped in to fill the void. At first, Brown was seen as a potentially righteous instrument. He befriended Harriet Tubman and was acquainted with Frederick Douglass. Brown was leading raids to free slaves. He was considered a bit of an avenging angel, or even a dark knight.
Then came his infamous raid on Harper's Ferry. The first casualty was ironically a free black man who refused Brown's orders, the very kind of person Brown was supposedly fighting for, and for it he was shot in the back. By the time the attempted raid was foiled by then-Col. Robert E. Lee and the Marines on orders directly from the president of the United States, there were numerous casualties, including Brown's youngest son.
Brown was eventually tried and convicted of treason, for which he was hanged.
His grave in New York State is a National Historic Landmark, despite his treason conviction. His final speech went viral at the time and was said to have galvanized northern abolitionists. In it, Brown cited the Bible's call to defend the downtrodden as justification for his mission, scolded the assembly that if he had done these things on behalf of the "rich, powerful ... the so-called Great" society would have praised him for it, and even said, "I desired to have done the same thing again on a much larger scale" in order to free slaves.
It is important to relive this history, not to re-litigate Brown's methods, especially in light of the fact that 750,000 Americans lost their lives on the battlefield during the Civil War settling this matter, but to understand how the stage is set in a free and prosperous society for such reckless vigilantism to find an audience.
Decade after decade, the political process could have righted the wrong of slavery peaceably, but it chose expedience and instant gratification instead. And then when the system no longer would live up to even its immoral compromises, it became clear to those Americans then that they were on their own, too. The cavalry wasn't coming, unless it was coming for them.
In the history of this fallen world, there has never been a peaceful transfer of property and liberty on a mass scale within a culture, and there never will be. There won't be one on this North American land mass, either, if it sadly comes to that, as it has before. I pray it doesn't again, because I happen to enjoy living here. I happen to enjoy the mindless and shallow fun, entertainment, and convenience we're afforded here. I'd really like to pass on that whole American dream thing to my children. I'm very blessed to be a spoiled American. I doubt I'm alone.
However, the ballad of John Brown is a cautionary tale that reminds that us our sins have a way of finding us out. That we can only kick the can down the road for so long until we come to a dead end. And that when the powers that be go from powerless to stop injustice to actively promoting it, sooner or later a presence will arise from elsewhere to take that power back.
Our Founders gave us a political process to avoid John Brown moments. That we would fight it out at the ballot box instead of in the streets. But for that process to sustain us, the growing number of betrayed Americans need representation within that process that actually and actively fights for them when empowered for a change.
Absent that for too long, and John Browns are eventually born.