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New York City Police Officer Wenjian Liu was buried on Sunday. He was killed before Christmas, along with Officer Rafael Ramos, by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a mentally-ill black man who wanted to exact retribution for the death of Eric Garner, also black, who suffocated as the result of a police chokehold during his arrest. At the funeral for both, a number of police officers turned their back when Mayor Bill De Blasio spoke.

On Monday De Blasio responded by upping the ante. He issued a statement blasting the protesting policemen as violating “what we all feel is the right and decent thing to do,” and “showed disrespect to the families and to the people of this city.”

This is rather silly. The back-turned policemen were showing disrespect for De Blasio. They were expressing their frustration at the tacit and sometimes open support he has expressed for protestors who have kept up a regular tempo of public demonstrations since a grand jury declined to indict anyone in Eric Garner’s death.

Equally silly were Pat Lynch’s comments. Head of the largest of the city’s police unions, he has made accusations suggesting that De Blasio has encouraged an anti-police mentality that led directly to the assassination of the two officers. That’s ridiculous. It makes as much sense to say that progressive expressions of concern over police violence—especially in the black community—caused the very troubled Brinsley to kill as it does to say that conservative concerns about government overreach led Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

But Lynch isn’t altogether wrong about what De Blasio represents. He is New York’s most visible representative of a progressive consensus that views “the system” as rigged. The problem isn’t that people are breaking the law. The problem is that the law itself is unjust.

It’s hard, therefore, for a progressive to avoid implying that those commissioned to enforce that law are officers of injustice. Of course, they’re not to blame. They’re just doing their jobs. But because they’re officers enforcing a rigged system, they’re in fact harming the community rather than helping.

Neither De Blasio nor any other progressives say this out loud, but it’s latent in what they do say. Perhaps the most telling instance was De Blasio’s unguarded statement that he has counseled his son (who is biracial) to be especially careful around police, because he is at risk. Here is what a police officer hears being said: Police target young black men and are a threat to law-abiding black citizens.

The anti-police dimension of De Blasio’s populism was there from the outset. His underdog campaign for the Democratic nomination got a big boost when he took on then Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, vigorously criticizing the “stop-and-frisk” tactic Kelly said was crucial for crime prevention. I think De Blasio right on the merits. A dramatic decline in the use of “stop-and-frisk” under his watch has not led to an increase in crime. But there can be no doubt he took the position for political reasons. He won the Democratic nomination because of his willingness to be the “anti-police” candidate. He did so not by saying that policemen are bad or corrupt or racist, but by treating the police regime as tacitly racist and unjust.

Ken Thompson, the newly elected Brooklyn District Attorney, who also ran as a critic of the NYPD, reflects this progressive consensus. He made good on his campaign promise to stop prosecuting those arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana, citing the disparate impact on “young people of color.” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams issued a statement of support. “I commend him for taking this bold step to stop criminalizing our young people.” Here we see the progressive populism with clarity. Young people are not committing crimes. Instead, the rigged system is criminalizing them.

Not surprisingly, then, the New York police force has done more than show signs of disrespect for De Blasio. For the last two weeks they have largely stopped enforcing law against minor offenses such as traffic and parking violations and various misdemeanors. The message is clear: If we’re the harming the people by criminalizing them, then we’ll stop. If acting as officers of the law promotes injustice, then we won’t. Like it or not, it’s a logical response to the populism De Blasio represents.

The fracas is a symptom of a larger trend in American public life. Both the left and right today feature vocal and at times powerful anti-establishment movements. It’s not hard to identify the conservative equivalents of Al Sharpton. They are ready to denounce the universities, judiciary, and mainstream media—and their political supporters love them when they do so. The anti-establishment trend is likely to accelerate. Polling indicates that young people are increasingly alienated from institutions of any type.

This suggests a paradoxical public culture: being anti-establishment, left or right, is becoming the signal feature of the new establishment. In many ways it’s an old American tradition. Voters like outsiders who promise to reform a system rigged to benefit the insiders, and so the most powerful insiders have reputations as outsiders.

The radical chic of the 1960s deepened this tradition. When “Question Authority!” appeared on the bumpers of Volvo station wagons in swanky Boston suburbs I knew the old establishment was remaking itself as a new anti-establishment establishment.

In all likelihood this cold war between De Blasio and the NYPD will thaw. American populism has a long history of talking loudly to rally voters while carrying a small stick when it comes to changing “the system.” The post-sixties anti-establishment establishment acts more like a well-established establishment than its rhetoric suggests. When Ken Thompson speaks of “young people of color”—a delicate euphemism of our politically correct elites that is even so scrupulous as to avoid “men”—we know we’re not listening to an outside outsider.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous articles can be found here.

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