Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Sources of American Estrangement

Are we worse off than the latter-day subjects of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe?

Credit: Levan Ramishvili

How does one respond to being made to feel like an unwelcome stranger in one's own country without losing one’s bearings and dignity? 

First, let’s review some of the history of that estrangement. Three and a half years ago, urban riots shook this country in a way not seen in over half a century, yet there was little in the way of any federal response. In 2020 we saw the mandating of lockdowns and vaccines by a bought-and paid-for public health bureaucracy. Today, we have the ongoing efforts by the Biden administration to jail the former (and perhaps future) president as well as hundreds of his supporters implicated in the January 6 riot. 


We should view these examples not as disparate events, but rather as parts of a comprehensible whole, as components of a message from the permanent state to the population at large. 

That message is an inversion of the traditional way of understanding how this country is supposed to work; citizens, once understood to be the sovereigns of the republic, have been put on notice: The federal government in Washington no longer belongs to the American people in any meaningful sense.

As political analyst Michael Anton recently pointed out, the permanent state, or ruling class, in this country has “captured everything, run everything, and get their way on everything.” And their appetite has grown with eating. Dissenting from the program simply will not do. And so, the unrelenting message from the permanent state to the people: Washington is ours, not yours.

The hold the permanent state and its adepts have on American life, particularly as it pertains to the formulation and conduct of American national security policy, is seemingly unbreakable. What we have ruling Washington is our very own nomenklatura, and these elites are currently in the process—now quite far along—of consolidating its grip on public discourse.

Taken in toto, the very public failures and misdeeds of the permanent state over the past three and a half years are actually a kind of a taunt, a thumbing of the nose, a flipping of the finger, from them to us. And the near daily insults to our intelligence issued forth from the representatives of that same permanent state in the years since 9/11 have become more and more brazen.



  • The architects of the Iraq War and the series of post-9/11 wars which have killed millions of people worldwide have not only paid no price, but are continually feted and promoted
  • The permanent state attempted a coup d’etat in the run-up to the inauguration of the 45th president, who was falsely accused of colluding with a foreign power to steal the 2016 election. Instead of ending up behind bars, those behind the attempted disenfranchisement of 63 million Americans were rewarded with jobs as well-paid analysts on CNN and MSNBC. 
  • In 2020, the permanent state once again brazenly interfered in a presidential election, demanding the suppression of a story that would have been highly damaging to the challenger, a longtime ally of the permanent state. The successful suppression of the story helped to lead to the defeat of the sitting president. The story regarding the now-incumbent's wayward, drug-addled son and an influence peddling operation, which the permanent state claimed was false (it was the work of the Russians, they said) is, some years later, shown to be true. Yet we see zero consequences for the members of the permanent state who lied to influence the election by trading on the privilege of their security clearances and the prestige of their offices for political purposes. 
  • And then there is the disparity of sentences handed out to the perpetrators of the violent riots of 2020 and the rioters of January 6. The former caused $2 billion in damage and at least 25 deaths, and pushed many major American cities into a downward spiral of violence and lawlessness from which they have yet to recover. The latter delayed a vote of the Electoral College by several hours. The only death resulting from the violence on January 6 was that of an unarmed rioter shot dead by a plainclothes Capitol Hill policeman who was not only not disciplined for killing an unarmed female military veteran, but has been lauded and promoted for the killing. 

The message in all of these cases is the same: Washington is ours, not yours. 

Those who staff the permanent state to all appearances possess an unshakable antipathy towards the people who remain outside of it. Though nominally Americans, those who staff the permanent state are really proud citizens of The Republic of Merit—the products of the meritocracy. This Republic is borderless; it disdains as quaint and unnecessary the notions of patriotism and community; it is proudly post-Christian, and aggressively, even ravenously, anti-family. Membership is conferred by the right degrees, the right clerkships, internships, and employers, but most important of all—the real key to membership—is holding the right opinions.

The array of forces which are aligned against common Americans, and against conscientious Americans who object to the permanent state, its projects, wars, and Soviet-like hold on American institutions, are only getting stronger. The Trump interlude between Mr. Obama’s second and what is now essentially his third term was the point at which the permanent state disregarded any and all pretenses that it exists to serve American citizens. As became all too clear, it exists to serve itself and feast on the fat of the land while the common American drowns in debt, in drugs, in despair. Those who object to the regnant state of affairs are relegated to the category of thought criminals, or worse.

In 1978, as the Brezhnev regime, and Brezhnev himself, were crippled by sclerosis, the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel penned his famous essay, The Power of the Powerless, with its immortal opening, “A specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called ‘dissent.’” Havel describes a system that “has become so ossified politically that there is practically no way for such nonconformity to be implemented within its official structures.”

In Havel’s telling, Soviet hegemony over the countries of Eastern Europe gave rise to a situation where “the center of power is identical with the center of truth.” The centerpiece of Havel’s essay concerns a manager of a fruit and vegetable shop, a “green grocer,” who places in his window a sign carrying the Marxist slogan, “Workers of the world unite.” Havel’s essay is, in part, an investigation of the peculiar psychology behind the placing of the sign. It is a question to which we will return shortly. 

We Americans have, of course, our own signs in the windows, our own quasi-official mantras. Over the past three years, the messages conveyed by these signs seem, on the surface at least, to be unconnected. Beneath the surface, the signs our fellow citizens hang comprise the tapestry of the ideology of the permanent state. And so, down the years, signs and stickers have materialized on the stores and homes and car bumpers on topics seemingly as disparate as racial equality (“Black Lives Matter”); support for non-heterosexual unions and groupings (“Love is Love”); vaccine mandates (“Thank You Dr. Fauci,” “Science is Real”); and foreign wars (the now ubiquitous Ukrainian flag).

Of his own green grocer, Havel asks, “Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world?” In the Czechoslovak case, this amounted to praising a foreign power that, in 1968, had crushed the nation’s and the man’s own aspirations. So it wasn’t truly a voluntary thing, but the green grocer, in effect, told himself: ‘I don’t like it, but what’s the point of resisting–what can I do? I just want to live and not get in trouble.’

The situation in the United States of 2023 is, in some respects, darker than the situation that prevailed in Eastern Europe in the late 1970s; after all, a key difference between then and now is that people here are not being coerced by the state to post their signs. No, such is the pervasiveness of the ideology of the permanent state: They post their signs quite happily and of their own volition. And ideological enforcement and conformity of opinion is the point. It is how the permanent state shields itself from even the minutest scrutiny. As Havel also notes, “Ideology…offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”

Reading Havel in 2023 is jarring not least because his description of the state of affairs under Eastern European communism forty-plus years ago also quite aptly sums up the state of play under the permanent state: 

…the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.

For the human being living under such a regime, it becomes imperative to navigate a way forward, to prepare and seek alternatives to the ruling system. The key, according to Havel, is for people of good conscience to revolt against “manipulation.” Fortunately, many of the means by which the permanent state manipulate us are not hidden. They are in full view, all about us, on our screens. In order to break the permanent state’s monopoly on what constitutes “truth,” dissident Americans would be best advised to simply opt out and withdraw their tacit and overt support from those crassest tools of mass manipulation, including, above all, the two major political parties, and network, cable and legacy news outlets. Perhaps the best way to defeat or tame the permanent state is to not play its game. The most powerful, indeed, perhaps the only, tool American dissidents have in their arsenal is their refusal to be manipulated—as Havel put it, to “live within the truth.”