Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump
By Robby Soave
All Points Books, 2019
Robby Soave is an editor at Reason magazine, and he’s a young and articulate speaker and a persuasive writer, and Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump is his first book, a broad-spectrum look at political and social extremists in the US since the election of Donald Trump as President. His focus is the activists of “Generation Z,” the so-called “Zillennials” who were born later than 2000 - young people who do not remember the 9-11 terrorist attacks and whose parents are classically characterized as hyper-interventionists intent on “helicoptering” and “lawn mowing” every possible obstacle out of the path of their children.
In these pages, Soave descends into the worst, most psychotic, most headline-grabbing depths of the ranks of campus Zillennials, and there he attempts to hold rational discussions with the hysterically, delusionally privileged dregs of humanity. These are the people even casual news-browsers in the American Midwest have heard about: the college undergraduates mugging for YouTube cameras by screaming at their administrators, the blue-haired fourth-wave feminists with Gary Larson glasses and the sides of their heads shaved, the young free-speech advocates who spend all day every day trying to silence opinions they don’t like, the Twitter activists who police every stray word of their “allies” and organize social media hate-mobs with a skill that would have been the envy of East Germany’s State Security Service, the “snowflakes” who demand such things as trigger warnings, sensitivity readers, and safe spaces - and who are perfectly willing to trample on civil rights or black-letter law to get them. These are, in other words, the grotesques of the progressive Left, and Soave does his best to present them and their political and social positions with fairness and perspective. After all, as he mentions a few times, he shares some of those political and social positions.
The resulting collective impression conveyed by Panic Attack is heart-stoppingly grim, like an EKG of a patient who most certainly cannot survive. After 200 pages of reading about idiots decrying something they call “the cisheteropatriarchy,” even the most optimistic reader will feel like concluding that if this is humanity’s youth, the species is doomed.
Soave is aware of this impression, and he stresses that it’s at least partially a mistaken one: “I’ve cautioned previously that we shouldn’t overstate the Zillennial left’s size and influence,” he writes, “most people are politically indifferent, and we can’t judge an entire generation based on its most extreme members.” Panic Attack is one of the most clear-eyed and comprehensive field guides to a fringe movement since Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs.
The campus Zillennials, with their hatred of free speech and their eagerness to censor, are not the majority or anything close to it, and as Soave adds, “The same holds true for the weird movement known as the alt-right [which is] a radical fringe movement with blessedly little power to affect public policy.” This is one of the only major disappointments of Panic Attack: its focus on the alt-left relegates the alt-right to one chapter at the end of the book - and prompts its author to his only blocks of temporizing “whataboutism”:
I don’t mean to draw a false moral equivalency between the far left and the far right. Even the most unreasonable fourth-wave feminist, for example, is not an an extremist in the same sense as Richard Spencer. And while the left has a lot of power on college campuses and a great deal of currency on social media sites run by tech companies that are themselves staffed by left-friendly young people, the federal government is currently under the control of Donald Trump, a left-winger’s nightmare.
Pussyfooting like this not only trips over itself (fourth-wave feminists and Richard Spencer-style “red-pilled identitarian right-wing populists” don’t need to be exactly the same thing in order to be morally equivalent) but also tends to refute itself (a group that bullies people on Instagram has a good deal less “currency” than a group that got a President elected to the Oval Office who’s been busy for three years enacting an alt-right agenda). Soave’s “story of two extremes” would have benefited from giving more even spotlight-time.
Even so, this is an important look at ideological extremes under obvious if obscure pressure. Parents, especially parents of college-bound children who’ll be dealing with these people (either to sleep with them or to become them), can’t expect a better in-depth look, much though they’d like it to show them different things.
—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.