Look Back in Anger: Nellie Bowles’ ‘Morning After The Revolution’ Documents the Insanity that was 2020

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

The whiplash of events that we all witnessed in 2020 seemed overwhelming at the time. The growing fears of a pandemic as the year began, and the effects of the government forcing a near-total shutdown of the economy beginning in mid-March, followed by the springtime George Floyd riots and a summer filled with massive amounts of property damage and looting, the left’s “defund the police” mania, followed by the presidential election were a never-ending series of perfect storms that cry out for a book-length review placing them into context and historical perspective. 


Enter Nellie Bowles’ new book, Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches from the Wrong Side of History. Bowles, writing for the New York Times from 2017 to 2021, had a tour of Seattle’s infamous Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (aka CHAZ) in the summer of 2020, interviewed the man who was allegedly in full tripod mode in the Wi Spa women’s locker room in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, visited a San Francisco open-air drug clinic in the Tenderloin district, and audited est-like “anti-racism” sessions with White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo

Ideally, 2020’s assault on our collective senses needs a conservative journalist with the skill of Tom Wolfe or the satiric chops of P.J. O’Rourke, or the research skills of Thomas Sowell or Liberal Fascism-era Jonah Goldberg to assemble the root causes of all that went wrong during that annus horribilis, and explore what their long-term effects could be. Often during the anecdotes Bowles describes, she remains too much of a leftist true believer to produce the required deep dive into the events of that year. As she writes early in Morning After, “I owe a lot of my life to political progressivism, and I bristled at the alternative, which certainly wouldn’t want me,” and she ends the book a bit more curious about life on the other side of the (political) wall, but not quite ready to cross over just yet. In-between though, what she delivers is a worthwhile cataloging of some of the crazier moments of 2020, and a few glimpses of the cultural revolution that drove them.‎ 

Like Michael Herr’s original Dispatches, his classic 1977 “New Journalism” look at the Vietnam War, Bowles’ own Dispatches are largely personal vignettes from the often bloody frontlines of 2020’s battles, a war that had its own uniform-wearing paramilitary socialists, except that it took place here, not in a tiny far-off nation. 

Old and Busted: “We Are All Socialists Now.” The New Hotness? We Are All National Socialists Now.  

In “A Year To Remember (Even if We Don’t Want To),” her Washington Free Beacon review of Morning After, Kara Kennedy writes: 

In her new book The Morning After The Revolution: Dispatches From The Wrong Side of History, reporter Nellie Bowles takes the right attitude to this almost unbelievable moment we all lived through and, in most cases, prefer to forget. She tells us that "the ideology that came shrieking in would go on to reshape America in some ways that are interesting and even good, and in other ways that are appalling, but mostly in ways that are—I hate to say it—funny."

It’s funny until it isn’t. That is, until you remember the ludicrous ideology we were all subjected to and forced to adopt. If not, we were branded Nazis. Fascists.

Early on in Morning After, Bowles writes about her new girlfriend being branded the N-Word by a then-colleague:  

Between dating [Bari Weiss] and trying to write about the most interesting story of the moment—the revolution!—people very quickly decided I was an in-house enemy. A fascist, right in their midst. The shift was so fast it left me dizzy. 

One early evening I was having drinks with an editor and a group of colleagues. The editor, who I liked a lot, heard I was dating this very bad liberal. And he looked at me straight in the face and said he thought it was pretty messed up. 

He wanted to know: How could I do that? “She’s a Nazi. She’s a fucking Nazi, Nellie,” he said. I tried to laugh it off and he kept going. “Like are you serious, Nellie?” He lobbed another she’s a Nazi. My colleagues agreed. He kept going. He couldn’t believe I would do this, like wow. Eventually I got him to change the subject. 


You get a sense very early on in her book that Bowles doesn’t want to truly deliver the goods in her description of this encounter. Faced with that moment of absolute absurdity, Bowles does nothing to deconstruct the scene she transcribed. Her new paramour is a Nazi? A Nazi? A Jewish staunchly pro-Israel lesbian whom Bowles describes politically as “A Joe Biden voter who would simply never go Bernie Sanders. A Hillary Clinton voter who never went AOC.” This is the second coming of Goebbels or Himmler? She even ends the story by writing, “Anyway, I liked that editor. God help me but I still like him. He’s a kind man. Other than this. I didn’t want to get him in trouble.” 

He’s a kind man – who’s an editor reviewing and polishing the output of journalists working under him at what used to be one of America’s most prestigious newspapers who smears anybody he doesn’t like as a Nazi. This is the first of many stories Bowles presents in a breezy style that will likely leave most readers simultaneously astonished, angered, and wishing for more thoughts about how a once proud nation descended to this point. (Conspicuously absent in Morning After are Bowles’ thoughts on her colleagues’ meltdown in June of 2020 over the Times’ publishing Sen. Tom Cotton’s op-ed or the paper’s firing of Don McNeil.) 

Defund This 

Throughout Morning After, whenever Bowles gets too close to the truth on the frontlines of 2020, the nearby far left protestors will fling F- and N-words at her; right after declaring someone a racist, it’s now their go-to catch all insult. (Odd that, from a group ruthlessly determined to spread their socialism on a national level.) 

A notable exception to her anecdotal approach is her chapter on the left’s cult-like obsession during the summer of 2020 with “defunding the police,” in which she writes: 

Before terms like defund and abolish crash into our Instagram feeds as memes, they begin as ideas at places like Columbia Law School. 

Bernard E. Harcourt is developing a model curriculum there called Abolition Democracy and has taught courses like, Abolition: A Social Justice Practicum. He also gives lectures on the topic. He is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law, a professor of political science, and founding director of the Initiative for a Just Society at the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought at Columbia University—and a directeur d’études at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. For his 2020 event—Abolition: Abolish the Police—he has brought together a number of police abolitionists, including Amna Akbar, a law professor at Ohio State University. “Policing and criminal law enforcement were and are today what I’ve come to call the linchpin in the new mechanisms post-slavery to recreate a racial hierarchy in this country,” Harcourt says, citing police collaborating with the Ku Klux Klan for lynchings, for example. “Never before in American history has the call to defund and abolish the police resonated so loudly across the country. It has turned police abolition into almost a mainstream idea.” 


“Almost” — except the people it was putatively designed to benefit absolutely loathed the idea, as Bowles writes: 

There were numbers showing considerable support given how radical the idea seemed: 27 percent of Oregonians supported abolishing the police, according to one June 2021 poll. Among those under 30, a full 45 percent supported eliminating the police department. 

But some of the polling didn’t look as clean. It was confusing. It looked almost as though black Americans wanted police departments. A study from the University of Michigan found that in Detroit, white residents were nearly twice as likely as black residents to say that an increased police presence in their neighborhoods would make them feel less safe. White supremacy mindset, no doubt. New Detroit residents were three times as likely as longtime residents to say they would feel unsafe with an increased police presence. 

By October 2021, only 23 percent of black Americans wanted police funding cut in their area, according to Pew Research.

Of course, the “defund the police” movement was a rehash of the ‘60s-era left attempt to fight crime by allegedly focusing on its “root causes,” invariably with disastrous results, Steve Hayward wrote in volume one of his magisterial two-part The Age of Reagan books: 

 Even as crime was rising sharply, the number of criminals in prison was falling, and average time-served was declining. Punishment was out; “rehabilitation” was in. The public went along with this—for a while. In July 1966, a Gallup Poll found for the first time a larger number of Americans opposed the death penalty, by a 47 to 42 percent margin. This did not last long, however, and as crime rose, support for the death penalty soared back to 67 percent by 1976, peaking at 79 percent in September 1988. 

In the face of this obvious deterioration in the criminal justice system, liberals decided to blame—society. Johnson had appointed a President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, which reported to the American people in February 1967 that neither law enforcement nor the administration of justice could do very much by themselves to stem rising crime. “The underlying problems are ones that the criminal justice system can do little about,” the Commission said. “Unless society does take concerted action to change the general conditions and attitudes that are associated with crime, no improvement in law enforcement and administration of justice, the subjects this Commission was specifically asked to study, will be of much avail.” 

The Commission’s report became a collateral endorsement for enlarging the Great Society: “Warring on poverty, inadequate housing and unemployment, is warring on crime. A civil rights law is a law against crime. Money for schools is money against crime. Medical, psychiatric, and family-counseling services are services against crime.” The Commission endorsed, among other progressive measures, giving convicts furloughs to work in the community during daytime hours. The only measures the Commission didn’t endorse were the ones the public most strongly desired: money for police protection and more prisons. To the contrary, the Commission endorsed lenience toward criminals: “Above all, the Commission’s inquiries have convinced it that it is undesirable that offenders travel any further along the full course from arrest to charge to sentence to detention than is absolutely necessary for society’s protection and the offenders’ own welfare.” 

Liberalism would be a generation recovering from this kind of thinking. Many poor urban neighborhoods have yet to recover, for it was precisely the poor, and largely black, populations of central cities who suffered most from this negligent criminology—the very constituency liberals thought they were advancing. Blacks were two and a half times more likely than whites to be victims of crime in 1966, and this gap would widen over the next decade as black victimization in the inner city soared. 


The lynchpin connecting Democrats’ flipflopping on this issue is Joe Biden, who very publicly took credit for the left’s reaction to the public’s love of President Reagan’s tough on crime approach, the 1994 Crime Bill, which Biden claimed full credit for in 2007, adding that “It was the Biden Crime Bill that became the Clinton Crime Bill.” In 2020, Biden (and/or his handlers) was smart enough not to go all-in on the defund the police movement in but of course, plenty of his fellow Democrats certainly did:

Curiously though, in Bowles’ book, Biden is only mentioned in passing twice. (In case you’re wondering, Trump gets 13 mentions.)

 “The Most Beautiful City You’ll Ever See” 

One of the most touching chapters in Morning After involves Bowles exploring her old hometown, San Francisco, but even then, her ideology prevents her from fully connecting the dots: 

So much has been written about the beauty and mythology of this city that it’s superfluous to add even a little more to the ledger. If he ever got to heaven, Herb Caen, the town’s beloved old chronicler, once said he’d look around and say, “It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.” The cliffs, the stairs, the cold clean air, the low-slung beauty of the Sunset District, the cafés tucked along narrow streets, then Golden Gate Park drawing you down from the middle of the city all the way to the beach. It’s so goddamn whimsical and inspiring and temperate; so full of redwoods and wild parrots and the smell of weed and sourdough, brightly painted homes and backyard chickens, lines for the oyster bar and gorgeous men in chaps at the leather festival. The beauty and the mythology—the preciousness, the self-regard—are part of what has almost killed it. And I, now in early middle age, sometimes wish it weren’t so nice at all.

As she goes on to write, “I’d gotten used to the idea of housing so expensive that it would, as if by some natural law, force couples out of town as soon as they had a kid. According to US Census data from 2020, San Francisco now has the fewest children per capita of any large American city, and according to California’s Department of Housing, in 2023 an annual salary of $149,000 counts as low income for a family of four.” 

I’ve seen MSM articles reporting that stat since at least 2005, three years after I started blogging. Which isn’t at all surprising, both because of the city’s extremely high cost of living and, let’s be honest here — would you want to raise your kids in the shadow of the city’s annual Folsom Street Fair? (Trust me on this — do not type those words into Google Image Search while you’re at work.) Or as Harry Stein wrote in his 2000 book, How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace)“Someone's going on about how fantastic San Francisco is, and it suddenly hits you that's one place on earth you never want to live.” 


The date of that quote is a reminder that SF has been circling into the abyss for quite some time.  (Back in the late 1990s through the mid-2000s, during Giuliani and Bloomberg’s reform of New York, it always struck me how scarier SF felt after regular flights back to NYC.) But the 2020 lockdowns and what Elon Musk calls “the woke mind virus” combined to finally send Frisco into what many urban forecasters call its “doom loop.” Which is why it’s inadvertently hilarious when Bowles concludes her chapter by writing, “Herb Caen was right. It’s still the most beautiful city you’ll ever see.” The gauleiters of Dresden and Berlin likely had similar thoughts in the spring of 1945. 

From a Kill to a View

In his review of Morning After in the Federalist, Ben Christenson writes that for her new book, Bowles has deliberately toned down what was once a far more incendiary journalistic style, which may be one reason why the sharp cultural analysis about why her former(?) friends went so crazy: 

In 2018, Nellie Bowles wrote a scathing profile of Jordan Peterson for The New York Times, portraying him as a grifter and the patron saint of incels. In 2021, Bowles obliquely apologized. Not mentioning Peterson by name, she lamented all the past collateral damage from her addiction to going viral.

At the Times, she would write stories that she called “kills,” and her metric of success was how loud the Twitter mob roared in response. This approach made her famous. She also felt it was making her a sociopath. So she left the Times and resolved to be more careful with her words.

Her new essay collection, Morning After the Revolution, is certainly light on “kills,” but, unfortunately, it’s light on conviction as well. Reviewing some of the insanity of the past few years — BLM, CHAZ and abolish the police, trans activism — Bowles seldom offers insight, instead rehashing widely covered events with some wisecracks and colorful reporting thrown in. Whereas her takedown of Peterson was mean-spirited but unambiguous — she was a foot soldier of the progressive left — her new persona is a “hemming-and-hawing moderate” willing to poke fun at anyone.

In the format of her satirical weekly news roundups, this positioning works well. But that same tone doesn’t translate well to a book-length review of the hottest issues of the past five years. By eschewing principled stances in favor of sarcasm, Bowles adds little to the conversation besides entertainment.

Which is unfortunate, because the cultural revolution the left generated in both their fury over Trump and their cognitive dissonance in the post-Covid era could use plenty of thoughtful analysis. On Christmas Day of 2020, James Lindsay published an article at his New Discourses Website, headlined, “Psychopathy and the Origins of Totalitarianism,” in which he wrote:

Pseudo-realities are, simply put, false constructions of reality. It is hopefully obvious that among the features of pseudo-realities is that they must present a plausible but deliberately wrong understanding of reality. They are cult “realities” in the sense that they are the way that members of cults experience and interpret the world—both social and material—around them. We should immediately recognize that these deliberately incorrect interpretations of reality serve two related functions. First, they are meant to mold the world to accommodate small proportions of people who suffer pathological limitations on their abilities to cope with reality as it is. Second, they are designed to replace all other analyses and motivations with power, which these essentially or functionally psychopathic individuals will contort and deform to their permanent advantage so long as their pseudo-real regime can last.


Also, as I was reading Morning After, I began to feel a sense of exhaustion – these aren’t the cool Democrats of the JFK era. All of the quasi-religious rituals necessary to maintain the pseudo-realities of the modern left have to require enormous mental effort. Which is possibly one reason why already, some elements of 2020’s pseudo-realities are fading. And why, faults aside, Morning After is an important cataloging of the handiwork of 2020’s would-be cultural revolutionaries. Or as Kara Kennedy writes in the Washington Free Beacon: 

This is why Bowles’s book is so important in a world where facts are quickly forgotten and washed over with something a bit more forgivable. The first phase of the revolution, Bowles writes in the final chapter, was ending as she wrapped the book. "The movement leaders were sneaking off with funds gathered in the height of rage, settling into pretty canyons. The rallying cries were being deleted from websites and memories. (No one ever said abolish the police, I’ve been told recently.) Black Lives Matter was in disgrace. All the autonomous zones had shuttered. The police were re-funded. The Tavistock pediatric gender clinic in England where children would be assessed and begin their transitions? That’s shutting down." Blink, and you’d have missed it.

But none of us missed it – doomscrolling Twitter in the spring and summer of 2020 felt like witnessing the second coming of the French Revolution. And given that 2024 is another election year, and it’s getting warm out, we’re already seeing repeats of the events of that year, as the people who told us to “punch a Nazi” from 2016 to 2020 morphed seamlessly into raging National Socialist anti-Semites themselves. Oh wait – they can’t be Nazis; they hate Israel too much! 

Regular readers of my posts at our sister site Instapundit are likely expecting me at some point to embed the now-viral clip from the BBC’s Mitchell and Webb comedy series of the Nazi who asks his fellow SS officer on the Russian Front, “Are we the baddies?!” After reading Morning After, another clip keeps coming to mind – the scene from near tthe end of the 1995 psychological horror film Seven, in which Brad Pitt asks Keven Spacey, “When a person is insane, as you clearly are, do you know that you’re insane… do you just stop and go, ‘Wow! It is amazing how f**king crazy I really am!’? Do you guys do that?” 

And the answer is: of course not. Fortunately though, Nellie Bowles’ Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches from the Wrong Side of History vignettes some of the craziest moments of 2020. But I look forward to future books that take a deeper dive into the mindset, worldview, and religious mania that drove that craziness to fruition.


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