Dostoevsky’s Demons is often read as a denunciation of a spineless liberalism that makes way for a nihilistic radicalism. But the fundamental problem with Stepan Verkhovensky, the father of the revolutionary Pyotr Verkhovensky, is not that he’s a naïve liberal — though in fact he is that. No, what Dostoevsky ruthlessly exposes is the sheer effete frivolity of Stepan Trofimovich and people like him. Stepan Trofimovich loves playing at being a dangerous figure: pretending to explore radical ideas, enjoying his sense of himself as a fearless intellectual unrestrained by convention and tradition. He delights in the pretense because he has the serene confidence that it’s all a game: No one would ever take such ideas seriously, the existing social order could never be disrupted, his peace and comfort would remain untouchable. And the little frisson of self-delight at saying something risqué would always be available to him.
That’s Senator Josh Hawley this morning expressing his solidarity with the crowd that would soon storm the Capitol building, trash it, and parade around inside it with Confederate flags. (Yes, they’re patriots all right — but of what patria?) I’m sure he never saw it coming. Nor did my own Senator Ted Cruz. It was all a game to these senators, an enjoyable and rewarding game, to connive at the frothing-at-the-mouth rage of the Trumpistanis, to cheer them on, to pose as their advocates and spokesmen. What harm could come of it?
Trump, he loves this. He loves the bile, the wrath, the mockery. It’s a well-done steak to him, with extra ketchup. But Hawley and Cruz? I bet they are befuddled and mystified. How could it possibly have come to this? They are, then, our own Stepan Trofimoviches. It was all a game to them, until it wasn’t. They are, like him, utterly frivolous. If they had any dignity, any moral backbone, they would resign their offices. But the very frivolity that led them, and us, to this pass is the vice that will prevent them from acting honorably. I hope I am wrong, but I expect they will go to their graves thinking How could we have known?