By: Matthew Hennessey – wsj.com – October 3, 2023
A framed copy of a March 1993 editorial written by Daniel Henninger hangs in the Midtown Manhattan conference room where the Journal opinion staff meets. My colleagues and I refer to the piece with reverence. We frequently use its headline—“No Guardrails”—as a shorthand for the devolution of societal norms, a process that seems to be accelerating.
“No Guardrails” is striking for several reasons. It’s three decades old, which makes it something of a time capsule. But as reports from bygone eras go, it is shockingly fresh and familiar. The editorial laments the loss of “a time in the United States when life seemed more settled, when emotions, both private and public, didn’t seem to run so continuously at breakneck speed.” If you’re paying attention at all, you can relate.
Donald Trump’s recent suggestion that Army Gen. Mark Milley, the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, might deserve execution for his communications with China after the Jan. 6 riots was a No Guardrails moment. So was Gen. Milley’s riposte alluding to Mr. Trump as a “wannabe dictator.” The debate last month over the U.S. Senate dress code had No Guardrails written all over it.
On Saturday afternoon, as the House was preparing to vote on a bill to keep the government funded, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D., N.Y.) pulled a fire alarm in the Capitol. His apparent purpose was to disrupt the proceedings, delay the vote, and increase the likelihood of a government shutdown that his media allies would blame on Republicans.
Schools teach children that raising false alarms is a dangerous business. It can cause panic that leads to injury. It diverts resources from real emergencies and potentially puts first responders at risk. Mr. Bowman knows all this because he is a former middle-school principal. He claims to have made an honest mistake and pulled the alarm by accident, but that strains credulity. It’s likelier that the guardrails have fallen away, even—or perhaps, especially—in Congress.
The erosion of norms goes far beyond politics as anyone who has ever been online knows. Social media is filled with videos of breakdowns, beat-downs and freak-outs. Only in a society without guardrails does it feel right to film a crime in progress or a person in distress for public titillation.
Urban life is degenerating because the traditional authorities have removed essential guardrails. Police and prosecutors have stopped doing their jobs. Large chains like CVS, Walgreens and Target are pulling out of American cities because shoplifting has been effectively decriminalized. New York City has surrendered its streets to bullies, pot-heads and the untreated mentally ill. Now Gotham’s health commissioner advises residents to carry Narcan, or naloxone, the medicine that reverses opioid overdoses. New Yorkers who would rather not live in a society without guardrails are nevertheless expected to provide first aid to its victims.
Mr. Henninger identified August 1968, “when the Democratic National Convention found itself sharing Chicago with the street fighters of the anti-Vietnam War movement,” as the moment when America “began to tip off the emotional tracks.” For those of us whose memories aren’t that long, there are other contenders—the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, the Clinton impeachment, Bush v. Gore. Donald Trump’s 2015 trip down the escalator will cast a long shadow in the American political mind.
In 2012, after the Sandy Hook school massacre, Mr. Henninger revisited “No Guardrails.” He wrote that it wasn’t “a plea for retrieving a mythical past” but an argument that “we would be better off if our intellectual, political and cultural elites rediscovered—and publicly revered—the protective virtues of self-control and self-restraint.” Maybe that seemed possible in 2012.
To Trump Republicans, “guardrails” sounds like “Make America Boring Again.” They love to cheer their champion as he lays waste to political convention and common decency. If we’re one election away from losing the country, who cares about manners? He fights, they say.
Even before Mr. Trump’s rise, Democrats had similarly convinced themselves that they were democracy’s guardians and every low stratagem was justified. Remember Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 2012 assertion that Mitt Romneyhadn’t paid taxes for 10 years? Four years later, Reid justified this lie: “Romney didn’t win, did he?”
The prospect of a Trump restoration gives both sides an excuse for all manner of unscrupulous tactics. The 2016 election cycle will look like a garden party compared with what’s coming. I make a point to read “No Guardrails” from beginning to end every few months. I do it in part because I still can’t believe I get to work alongside Dan Henninger—but mostly as a reminder that, amid all the allegations and fire drills, none of this has come suddenly. The guardrails have been gone for a while.
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