The Trump administration’s recent designation of several American cities as “anarchic jurisdictions” may turn out to have been nothing more than a quixotic gambit in the supercharged run-up to November 3. But the fact that it was thinkable in the first place points to a truth beyond electoral politics: The frenzy that has been enacted in city after American city since May 2020 demands more scrutiny than it has yet received.
It is true that most protests have been peaceful. It is also true that the exceptions—marked by violence and biliousness and unreason and, well, anarchy—have been far more common than many people have understood, at least until recently. As of late September, a USA TODAY/Ipsos poll reports that two-thirds of respondents believe that “protesters and counterprotesters are overwhelming American cities.” The majority is on to something.
According to the first thorough examination of the street protests triggered by the death of George Floyd, undertaken by Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project in conjunction with the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton, more than 10,600 incidents of what is benignly called “unrest” were recorded between May 24 and August 22. Of these, some 570 involved violence. Of those, most have involved Black Lives Matter activists. Preliminary insurance estimates show that the damage will surpass the $1.2 billion in damages accrued during the 1992 Rodney King riots. And then there are the atmospherics that separate these protests from many that have gone before: lusty screaming, ecstatic vandalism, the menacing of bystanders.
The ritualistic exhibition of destructive behaviors in city after city is without precedent in America. Neither the civil rights demonstrations nor the protests against the war in Vietnam looked remotely like this. The differences demand explanation. Blame what you will on the usual bête noirs: Donald Trump, cancel culture, police brutality, political tribalism, the coronavirus pandemic, far-right militias, BLM, antifa. All these factors feed the “demand” side of the protests and rioting, the reasons for the ritualistic enactment. But what about the “supply” side—the ready and apparently inexhaustible ranks of demonstrators themselves? What explains them?
The answer cannot be “racism.” The spectacle of often-white protesters screaming at sometimes-black policemen undercuts anything dreamed of by Critical Race Theory. So do the actual statistics concerning cop-on-black crime. So do public attitudes. In 2017, according to Pew Research, 52 percent of respondents said that race “doesn’t make much difference” in marriage, and another 39 percent said that interracial marriage is “a good thing.” When 91 percent of the public shrugs at or applauds interracial marriage, it is absurd to speak of a spectral racism that permanently and irredeemably poisons society.
So, here’s a new theory: The explosive events of 2020 are but the latest eruption along a fault line running through our already unstable lives. That eruption exposes the threefold crisis of filial attachment that has beset the Western world for more than half a century. Deprived of father, Father, and patria, a critical mass of humanity has become socially dysfunctional on a scale not seen before.
This is especially true of the young. The frantic flight to collective political identities has primordial, not transient, origins. The riots are, at least in part, a visible consequence of the largely invisible crisis of Western paternity. We know this to be true, in more ways than one.
First, a syllogism: The riots amount to social dysfunction on parade. Six decades of social science have established that the most efficient way to increase dysfunction is to increase fatherlessness. And this the United States has done, for two generations now. Almost one in four children today grows up without a father in the home. For African Americans, it is some 65 percent of children.
Some people, mainly on the left, think there’s nothing to see here. They’re wrong. The vast majority of incarcerated juveniles have grown up in fatherless homes. Teen and other mass murderers almost invariably have filial rupture in their biographies. Absent fathers predict higher rates of truancy, psychiatric problems, criminality, promiscuity, drug use, rape, domestic violence, and other less-than-optimal outcomes.
Here’s another pertinent, albeit socially radioactive fact: Fatherlessness leads to a search for father substitutes. And some of these daddy placeholders turn out to be toxic.
The murder rates in inner cities, for example, are irreducibly familial phenomena. That’s because the murder problem is largely a gang problem, and the gang problem is largely a daddy problem. As the Minnesota Psychological Association put it in a study published in August:
A high percentage of gang members come from father-absent homes . . . possibly resulting from a need for a sense of belonging. Gaining that sense of belonging is an important element for all individuals. Through gangs, youth find a sense of community and acceptance. In addition, the gang leader may fill the role of father, often leading members to model their behaviors after that individual. . . . Having a father in the child’s life greatly reduces the likelihood of a child joining a gang . . .
Second, the language of BLM itself suggests that daddy issues are an ingredient in the political mix that has exploded in cities across the country. Before it was removed in late September, one section of the BLM website declared: “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.”
Note the missing noun: fathers. It is as if fathers—as distinct from “parents”—had ceased to exist. And indeed, for at least some of the people drawn to BLM’s ideology, fathers have ceased to exist. In this sense, BLM is a direct heir of the founding document of identity politics, the Cohambee River Collective Statement put forward by black feminists in 1977. That manifesto spoke of women and children only—never of fathers, brothers, or sons.
What does it tell us that these seminal declarations of identity politics are shot through with “the presence of the absence” of fathers? At minimum, the politics of identity are not operating in isolation from the disappearance of paternal authority.
Third, the biographies of at least some of today’s race-minded trailblazers suggest a connection between fatherlessness and identity politics. The author of the bestseller White Fragility was a child of divorce at age two. The author of the bestseller So You Want to Talk About Race reports that her father left the family and broke off contact, also when she was two. The author of another bestseller, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, was raised by a single mother. The author of another hot race book, The Anti-Racist: How to Start the Conversation About Race and Take Action, was raised by his grandmother. Colin Kaepernick’s biological father left his mother before he was born, but he was then adopted and raised by a white family. James Baldwin, a major inspiration for today’s new racialist writers, grew up with an abusive stepfather; his mother left his biological father before he was born. The list could go on.
So what? A skeptic might say. Maybe family breakup is just part of many peoples’ kitchen wallpaper by now. True. But it may also be motivating the formation of identitarian political groups that operate as functioning families do, by providing protection and community—just as family breakup in the inner city lures many fatherless kids to gangs.
Biographies on the alt-right and far-right offer similar suggestive evidence. The founder of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa is a child of divorce. The neo-Nazi who founded the alt-right media network The Right Stuff is a child of divorce. George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, was a child of divorce. Timothy McVeigh, the poster boy and prototype for today’s violent far-right aspirants, was a child of divorce who was raised largely by his father. This list, too, could go on. An Atlantic profile of neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin concluded: “Like so many emotionally damaged young men, [he] had chosen to be someone, or something, bigger than himself on the Internet, something ferocious to cover up the frailty he couldn’t abide in himself.” Exactly.
Consider a fourth proof that AWOL fathers have something to do with this summer’s social crackup: Portland.
The city that has been ground zero of nonstop protests and riots for months now is not just any American town. For more than thirty years, abandoned children and runaways have been a unique part of the city’s culture. And, for thirty years, documentaries and other reports on these lost children have abounded. It was Portland’s permissive approach to runaways that created the nation’s best-known subculture of “teen hobos,” “teen homeless,” and “street teens.” In Portland, the link between dysfunctional kids and absent authority figures has been clear for a long time now. As one researcher summarized: “The inability to emotionally connect with parents is a thread of commonality linking the narrative of street kids and travelers in Portland.”
Lacking family ties, Portland’s feral children have bonded since the 1980s in “street families,” complete with “street moms” and “street dads.” Some of the most grotesque crimes in the city’s history have ensued thanks to “laws” about “family” loyalty—including last year, when a group of three boys from such a “family” shot and killed a man as he was collecting cans, then took his car on a joyride. “Street families” are an especially toxic variant of the current voguish phrase, “chosen families.” Street families are like gangs: poor and desperate substitutes for the real thing, called into being by the absence of the real thing.
In the violent Neverland that is a part of downtown Portland, the lived connection between social breakdown and family breakdown has been inescapable since long before the death of George Floyd.
But the story of the long, hot summer of 2020 is much more complex than the subplot concerning missing dads. More and more Americans, especially young Americans, have suffered not one but several ruptured connections to authority and community simultaneously.
That fact explains why even the young who do come from intact homes are affected to some degree by the crisis of Western paternity. The institutions that once anchored teenagers and young adults in paternal authority are in free fall. Their concomitant collapses generate a social anxiety that is contagious. This dynamic renders the occasional spectacle of well-off protesters from unbroken homes smashing people’s property more intelligible than it appears at first. The saying “People, not property” inadvertently points to what ails young America most: a people deficit.
Christianity, to name one institution that has connected Americans to other generations and one another, began a stark decline around 1963. That decline has accelerated with particular speed among the young. In 2019, 44 percent of Americans aged eighteen to twenty-nine were “nones.” “None of the above” is now the fastest-growing religious subset in the United States.
There is evidence that the loosening of family ties and the loosening of religious ties are linked—especially among practitioners of identity politics. A 2016 study of white nationalists by the University of Virginia’s Family Policies Institute turned up at least two suggestive findings. One was that subjects were much more likely to be divorced than to be married or never married. Once again, family rupture and extremist identity politics appear to be related.
The same study also confirmed that those drawn to white nationalism are unlikely to attend church (indeed, most white nationalists fervently oppose both Christianity and Judaism). Thus, religious rupture and extremist identity politics also appear to be related. The same seems true of BLM, which as a Marxist movement would oppose Christianity in principle. It seems unlikely that antifa members are tithing or spending Sunday mornings with a hymnal, either. Identitarian bands seem to function as “street families” for the soul.
If fatherlessness and secularization are two aspects of the decline of the paternal principle, there remains a third: attachment to country. Here, too, Millennials and Gen Z stand out. For many years, the decline of American patriotism among the young has been charted in surveys. Gallup reports a fifty-year decline in Americans’ trust in both political and non-political institutions (the military, the police, organized religion, the media). A headline last year summarized the point: “Poll: Patriotism, Religion, Kids Lower Priorities for Younger Americans.”
Plainly, weakened bonds in one phase are not an isolated phenomenon; they encourage weaker bonds elsewhere. Filial piety, perhaps, is like a muscle that is strengthened by different forms of exercise.
We are only beginning to understand how filial piety operates, such that loss of patriotism, loss of faith, and loss of family each seem to encourage breakdown in the other parts of the triad. In his groundbreaking 1999 book, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, sociologist Paul Vitz analyzed one way in which the father-Father connection might operate. He examined prominent atheists across four centuries and argued that each had experienced some form of “defective fatherhood,” such as absence or abuse. Anger at fathers, Vitz theorized, was translated into anger at God. In 2013, my book How the West Really Lost God connected godlessness and fatherlessness to argue that secularization amounted to fallout from the sexual revolution. Together, Vitz’s book and mine suggest an avenue of research: Does lacking an earthly father make it harder to believe in a supernatural Father? And might the reverse also be true?
To understand better how these simultaneous attenuations of filial attachment play out, consider two imaginary characters: William, born in 1950, and his grandson Brandon, born in 2000:
A member of the Baby Boom generation, William grew up in an intact home. His parents took him and his siblings to church. Two adults in the home meant twice as many warm bodies for driving and organizing. This meant that William, like his siblings, belonged to Boy Scouts, Little League, high school sports, the church youth group, marching band, and other activities.
Though William wasn’t much of a flag-waver, he wasn’t a flag-burner, either. This was true, in part, because almost every male authority figure William knew had served in World War II or the Korean conflict, and, of course, some of his contemporaries served in Vietnam. The Star-Spangled Banner was played without incident before every football and basketball game at his high school.
William married young and had a family. He and his wife found an evangelical church to their liking. He didn’t always attend with her, but he did volunteer in the church’s soup kitchen. It made him feel good. William also coached Little League, volunteered with the local ambulance corps, and played regular poker games. William smoked cigarettes, especially with friends on his work breaks. His favorite TV show, which he watched with his family, was Star Trek. He thought it would be cool if his children or grandchildren ended up traveling in outer space.
William’s grandson Brandon, a Zoomer, was born in 2000. His mother—William’s daughter—married Brandon’s father. The pair split up when Brandon was three. Brandon has no siblings. He rarely saw his father, or his father’s side of the family, after the divorce. Given what he has heard from his mother, he doesn’t much want to. He thinks of his father, who eventually remarried, as a two-time loser. At age twenty, William has already decided that he won’t let any woman entrap him in a marriage. Thanks to the Internet, he has other outlets for sex, anyway.
Having a single mom put certain activities off the table. Brandon never joined Little League or the Scouts or other youth groups. He played soccer for his school and loved it. But logistics placed other possibilities, such as travel-team sports, beyond reach. Since he graduated high school, most of Brandon’s “irl” activity—like much of his activity, period—has been solitary.
Brandon’s mom swore off religion at the time of her divorce, so he’s rarely been inside a church. When his mom’s boyfriend moved in, Brandon started spending most of his time in his room or out of the house. He doesn’t pay much attention to politics, but he does watch lots of sports. He likes Colin Kaepernick’s FU attitude. Brandon smokes pot by himself. His favorite video game, which he plays alone or with others online, is Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition.
Like other young adults, Brandon spends a lot of time on the Internet. During high school, two of his favorite sites were Reddit and 4chan. For a while, Brandon was drawn to the alt-right; he liked that they had an FU attitude, too. As of summer, 2020, though, he’s been following social media about antifa with growing interest. He likes the action of their protests and riots and street fights with the cops. He might move to Portland someday for the politics, or maybe to Colorado for the pot. Brandon thinks it would be cool to skateboard with a real gun.
As these imaginary lives convey, a generational divide has opened between the Boomers and the Millennials and Zoomers. It is a wealth gap over social capital. And it is enormous.
As is plain in retrospect, William’s attachments to entities other than himself, and larger than himself, were not neutral coordinates of human geography. They informed and enriched his life, not least because they put other people in it—people from whom he could learn, with whom he could connect and network, and through whom he could learn commitments and make common cause.
Brandon’s more tenuous attachments make his existence very different from his grandfather’s. His days are lonelier. His enthusiasms are less tempered by familial and communal influences, and hence more volatile. The deficit lies not merely in Brandon’s fatherlessness. It is arithmetical, beginning with the subtraction of his father’s entire side, which effectively halves the number of Brandon’s relatives. The diminution of kin continues with the shrinking number of family members on his mother’s side.
As a result, there are fewer people in Brandon’s life from whom he might learn essential skills such as negotiation, diligence, compromise, teamwork, delayed gratification, and self-control. If and when the time comes for Brandon to become a father, he will have less to impart on all these fronts, as well. In sum, Brandon is a poster boy for the trends mapped in Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone, a book that appeared in the very year that our imaginary Zoomer was born.
Of course, there are other variables that diminish Brandon’s chances in life. Millennials and Zoomers face economic problems the Boomers did not, especially staggering college debt and the continuing effect on capital of the financial crash of 2008. But dollars and cents may not be the only reason for the wealth-and-opportunity divide. Perhaps the relative economic success of the Boomers is not a matter of business cycles alone. Perhaps the social skills attained through respecting and negotiating with different kinds of authority are valuable training for a productive life. Perhaps having more siblings rather than fewer, more social ties rather than fewer—more contemporaries and others of all kinds, from whom “social learning” becomes possible—are lifetime pluses.
This much we do know. The streets of Portland—and Kenosha, and Baltimore, and Rochester, and all the other cities serving as proscenia for today’s mob explosions—are full of Brandons. And in a curious coda at a time when race seems to be everywhere, note that it does not matter whether William and Brandon are black, white, or other. The demographic trends that shape their stories and the resulting social wealth gap remain the same.
This brings us to the point that has been missed so far, not only during the long summer of 2020, but throughout the many recent discussions of American disarray, or American unraveling, or just plain what the hell is happening to America?
What is happening to America is an excruciatingly painful truth that life without father, Father, and filial piety toward country are not the socially neutral options that contemporary liberalism holds them to be. The sinkhole into which all three have collapsed is now a public hazard. The threefold crisis of paternity is depriving many young people—especially young men—of reasons to live as rational and productive citizens. As the Catholic theologian Deborah Savage put it recently, reflecting on America’s youth: “They have been left alone in a cosmos with nothing to guide them, not even a firm grasp of what constitutes their basic humanity, and no means of finding the way home.”
All manner of accelerants have made matters worse: the Internet, social media, racial prejudice, lax political leadership, scandals within the churches, the coarsening of political conversation, the polarization of the media into clashing armies. So has the metastasizing of the Civil Rights Act, as Christopher Caldwell has observed. A feverishly partisan intellectual class has stoked the flames with Critical Race Theory, charges of “fascism” in America, and other debased characterizations of the country. What Jeane Kirkpatrick called “blaming America first” has become the standard classroom narrative for practically every humanities major under the age of seventy. Doubtless, such intellectual hooliganism has something to do with declining faith in authority of any kind—and with diminishing patriotism, too.
Still, summer 2020 signals something new. The triply disenfranchised children of the West have achieved critical mass. They have slipped the surly bonds of their atomized childhoods; they have found their fellow raging sufferers and formed online families; and they have burst as a destructive force onto the national consciousness en masse, left and right, as never before.
Like Edmund in King Lear, who despised his half-brother Edgar, these disinherited young are beyond furious. Like Edmund, too, they resent and envy their fellows born to an ordered paternity, those with secure attachments to family and faith and country.
That last point is critical. Their resentment is why the triply dispossessed tear down statues not only of Confederates, but of Founding Fathers and town fathers and city fathers and anything else that looks like a father, period. It is why we see generational vituperation toward the Baby Boomers, like the diss of “OK, Boomer” and the epithet “Karen.” It is why bands of what might be called “chosen protest families” disrupt actual family meals. It is why BLM disrupts bedroom communities late at night, where real, non-chosen families are otherwise at peace.
Resentment of the Edgars of the world is also the unbidden method beneath the seeming madness of BLM protesters surrounding a home in suburban Portland and demanding that the American flag be taken down, as happened in September. That the homeowner was black, and a veteran, did not matter. The men and women who think they have no country cannot abide those who have a country, any more than the illegitimate son in King Lear can endure his half-brother’s enjoying a patrimony.
The dispossessed children who roam the streets in search of yet more destruction may not be large in number compared to the rest of America. And to understand them is not to exonerate them—far from it. But they will not go away until the crisis that has unhinged them, and severed them from their own, is ameliorated. In one of the most chilling passages in all of Shakespeare, Edmund calls on the gods to stand up for bastards. As gun sales double within a year, and as America navigates the results of what may be the most contentious election in the country’s history, we are about to find out whether they will.
Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.