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Reject the Mob. Every Mob.

Will Kristol

Morning Shots Newsletter

April 23, 2004

The AP reports on this week’s spring breakdown: 

Columbia canceled in-person classes, dozens of protesters were arrested at New York University and Yale, and the gates to Harvard Yard were closed to the public Monday as some of the most prestigious U.S. universities sought to defuse campus tensions over Israel’s war with Hamas.

More than 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had camped out on Columbia’s green were arrested last week, and similar encampments have sprouted up at universities around the country as schools struggle with where to draw the line between allowing free expression while maintaining safe and inclusive campuses.

At New York University, an encampment set up by students swelled to hundreds of protesters throughout the day Monday. The school said it warned the crowd to leave, then called in the police after the scene became disorderly and the university said it learned of reports of “intimidating chants and several antisemitic incidents.” Shortly after 8:30 p.m., officers began making arrests.

Here’s a tweet from Jay Nordlinger that’s stuck with me: “There is scarcely anything in this world more terrifying than a mob. It is, frankly, pretty much at the root of my politics: this anti-mob feeling. Madisonian conservatism (or Madisonian liberalism, if you like) has struck me as right from a young age. Popular passions can kill.”

As we say on Twitter: 💯. Or even 💯💯.

Mobs can kill. They can also destroy the fabric of a civic order. They can disfigure the politics of a liberal, representative democracy. And so a healthy society will deter, will tamp down, will reject as much as possible mob action and mob spirit.

Now it’s of course true that there will always be elements of mob spirit in our politics, in our life. Some of the spirit of the mob runs, one might say, through each human soul.

A sound society suppresses that spirit to some extent. And since it can’t be altogether suppressed, a healthy social order also channels it, so it can be indulged and released harmlessly. A liberal democracy can have lots of sports fans.

But of course being a “fan” is the civilized version of being a fanatic.

Even in a healthy society, resistance to fanaticism is always fragile. And once fanaticism is unleashed, once the mob is empowered, it is hard to restore order and civility and decency.

Which is one reason thoughtful defenders of democracy have always feared demagogues, have sought to thwart their emergence, and have opposed them when they do rise.

Demagogues who can stoke mob spirit are dangerous. The problem with Donald Trump isn’t simply his policies, or his personal character. It’s his willingness, or rather his eagerness, to stoke the spirit of the mob. Trump’s posts on Truth Social condition some among us to the mob spirit as much as the hateful chants at Columbia or Yale condition others. MAGA is an expression of mob spirit. The campus encampments are manifestations of mob spirit.

And mob spirit is always nearer at hand than those with a sunny view of human nature would like. The lynch mobs in the South often consisted of respectable citizens, pillars of their communities. Many Berliners who participated in Kristallnacht went back to their normal office and jobs the next day.

So I’m with Jay on this. It seems simple, but it’s important: Be anti-mob. Because resisting and combating mob spirit is central to our political and social well-being.

And not just when that spirit is on the other side politically. Indeed, it’s more important to resist the mob when it claims to be acting for purposes you agree with.

Yes, it’s true that the consequences of the mob spirit taking over one of our two major political parties are greater than those of the mob spirit erupting on some elite college campuses. But lesser evils are still evil, and they can grow into greater ones. And history also suggests that indulging the mob spirit on one side soon enough empowers it on another. The mob spirit must be resisted across the board.

Resisting the mob isn’t all it takes to establish a sound society or a healthy politics. But it’s a necessary start. 

 —William Kristol

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