The Ironies Of The Rioting Youth Of 2020

By: Victor Davis Hanson


By August 2020, the protests, demonstrations, riots, looting, and arson that followed from the national outrage over the killing of George Floyd had spread to most of America’s cities. But the furor over Floyd’s death was not the only catalyst of the protests. The previously instituted national quarantine—roughly from March 20 through September—had emasculated the U.S. economy.


Unemployment claims, in a prior economy of 3.5 percent near record low unemployment, now soared to 31,491,627 Americans out of work. The annual budget saw over $4 trillion in additional debt. Those who bore the greatest brunt were not coastal elites, but the recovering and once stagnant areas of the nation’s interior and inner cities. 


Forty percent of Americans making less than $40,000 were believed to have lost their jobs. But even the lockdown was not the only catalyst for the rioting. There were also more existential foundations of the hysteria. Many of those inner-city youth rioting and demonstrating, for all the political rhetoric, were suffering from a 21 percent unemployment rate during the quarantine, nearly three times higher than the rate of college graduates. Half those under 50 had lost their jobs, were furloughed or suffered pay cuts. 


Some of the urban single youth of all races, the foot soldiers of the more organized BLM and Antifa brigades—who were not mere opportunistic looters and rioters—were mired in tuition debt to acquire what were often nonmarketable degrees. They often added insult to injury by finding themselves nevertheless working in low-wage jobs. That paradox required the architects of Antifa and other purveyors of violence apparently to retreat to Marxist exegeses to explain their own lack of upward mobility and society’s culpability for not appreciating fully their woke genius and potentials. So veritable mass imprisonment within one’s homes, followed by an economic tsunami were the fuel for public rioting, should any spark, such as the killing of George Floyd, ignite the prior combustible fumes in our midst. 


During the violent protests, a TikTok video went viral on social media, showing a recent Harvard graduate threatening to stab anyone who said “All lives matter.” In her melodrama, she tried to sound intimidating with her histrionics. She won a huge audience as she intended. But her video also came to the attention of the company that was going to give her an internship later that summer, Deloitte, which decided it didn’t want to add an intern who threatened to kill strangers who said something she didn’t like. 


Then the narcissistic Harvard alum posted a very different video—one that showed her weeping in a near-fetal position. She fought back tears while complaining how unfair the world had been to her. Her initial TikTok post had earned cruel pushback from the social media jungle she had courted. Deloitte, she sobbed, was mean and hurtful. She wanted the world to share her pain. The Harvard grad instantly became an unwitting poster girl for the current protest movement and the violence that has accompanied it. What turned off millions of Americans about the statue toppling, the looting, the threats and the screaming in the faces of police was the schizophrenic behavior of so many of the would-be revolutionaries. 


On one hand, those toppling statues or canceling their own on the internet pose as vicious Maoists—again the hard-core shock troops of the revolution. Their brand is vile profanity, taunts to police, firebombs and spray paint. But on the other hand, the demonstrators and looters proved fragile and mostly bluff. Apparently, the protestors were especially cognizant that their 20s were nothing like what they believe to have been the salad days of their parents and grandparents—who did not incur much debt, bought affordable homes, had families, and were able to save money. 


Earlier generations went to college mainly to become educated and develop marketable skills. They had little exposure to ethnic and gender “studies” courses, ranting professors, and woke administrators. For the students of the 1960s, protesting was a side dish to a good investment in an affordable college degree that would pay off later. 


But when such pathways are blocked, beware.  

  • The woke but godless,  
  • the arrogant but ignorant,  
  • the violent but physically unimpressive,  
  • the strutting but fragile,  
  • the degreed but poorly educated,  
  • the broke but acquisitive,  
  • the ambitious but stalled, 

these are history’s ingredients of riot and revolution. In sum, the rioting of spring, summer, and autumn of 2020 reflected a sort of “elite overproduction.” Universities churned out thousands of graduates who were poorly educated but felt that their financial and time investments in getting a “college degree” entitled them to either remain in, or enter, the elite of well-paid and influential America. When a BA no longer garnered such entre, millions of indebted youths were preconditioned for riot and vandalism, as if they were medieval peasants primed for revolt. 


The beleaguered middle class, especially those of the suburbs, for the most part did not join rioting radicalized youths and inner-city minorities in the violence, looting, and destruction, even as their businesses were often targeted, and jobs lost. Some small stores that had somehow endured the two months of shutdowns, did not survive the flames and break-ins that devoured entire city blocks from Santa Monica to Minneapolis. 


It was also no accident that many of the nation’s wealthiest, from enclaves in Malibu, Silicon Valley, and Manhattan, played the Jacobin role among the French aristocracy, and so cheered on the violent protests, assured that they were exempt from the violent ramifications of their own ideology. Certainly, while there was expressed outrage about the use of tear gas in dispersing violent protestors in the nation’s capital, few even noticed that the Beverly Hills police department stopped all would-be Black Lives Matter protestors aimed at Beverly Hills, through the generous use of tear gas. 


In reductionist terms, the violence was medieval. The underclass attacked the sustenance of the middle class, while the progressive upper-class virtue signaled the protests from their secure keeps. Disenchanted and mostly white youth found a new relevance for their education as megaphones for violence, in a loud and visible fashion that working at Starbucks or Target had never offered. Their foot soldiers who looted on television were all too often the urban and minority underclass. 


So, in bitter irony, an entrenched feudalism was apparent even in the new resistance society—as the more educated middle class condescendingly directed the noncredentialled poorer to new looting grounds. The absurdity of course, is the system that the protestors hated, and the president whom they despised, had just begun to arrest a decade of economic stagnation and chronic joblessness, achieving record low youth and minority unemployment. 


We know the fuel for rioting—youth, boredom, idleness, economic frustration, and just enough education to allow the ignorant to believe they are all-knowing. We know its antidote—job stability, a good salary, marriage, children, and ownership of a home. But when the latter are absent, the former predominate. The rioters made the necessary adjustments, as they veneered over their own personal sense of failure and bleak economic futures, with the public sheen of cosmic injustice and damnation of the culpable state and common culture.


An outside observer might have said of them, “Never in the history of education have so many students incurred so much debt ($1.7 trillion) for such mediocre instruction.” 


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