Guns, Ugly Fantasies and Democratic Politics

Our regional newspaper, The Roanoke Times, ran a story recently about a newly formed group in the area called the Sons of Liberty Southwest Virginia that staged a small demonstration along a busy thoroughfare “to exercise our constitutional rights to assemble peacefully and to bear arms.”[1] The account indicated that the participants, mostly white males, brought an array of firearms to the event, and an accompanying photo showed an individual with an assault rifle. The group’s leader and founder, Daniel Highberger, said to the reporting journalist that, “it is my belief that our constitutional rights are being infringed upon, slowly but surely.”[2] Highberger’s group is part of a larger movement whose members are called the Three Percenters, who believe that only 3 percent of colonists fought to win independence in the American Revolution (a proposition not supported by empirical evidence) and that “government is moving closer to the path of tyranny and citizens must be prepared to defend their liberty” (a claim for which there is also no evidence).[3] Three Percenters often argue conspiratorially that the national government intends soon to confiscate all weapons from the citizenry and they pledge to resist such efforts by force. The loosely knit organization is aligned with the equally militaristic Oath Keepers. Major human rights watch dog groups classify both entities as anti-government and extremist in character. Apparently, the Roanoke group, several of whose members indicated they carry firearms each day “to protect themselves,” staged the demonstration out of concern about President Barack Obama’s announced intention to use his executive authority to strengthen background checks, study new gun safety technologies and otherwise work to ensure that firearms may be accessed only by mentally healthy law-abiding citizens. Rather than viewing these proposals as the very limited steps they represent, these individuals instead saw them as governmental efforts to take away their right to possess firearms. In fact, Congress, under the influence of the well-organized National Rifle Association (NRA), has stymied recent attempts to take action to regulate gun purchases more fully, even after the slaughter of 20 school children and 6 adults in December 2012 in a mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut by an obsessed individual and many similar episodes since.

In any case, since the President made clear at his recent announcement that he was not contemplating the seizure or banning of the right to own firearms for any law abiding citizen, and since there is indeed no evidence that any such draconian action will occur, it is important to ask two questions: How did these Roanokers come to believe a proposition that bears no relationship to reality, and why are they so fearful that many of the 50 participating in the event carry weapons each day? One might also ask of whom or of what precisely are these individuals afraid. More, one might inquire how seeking to close loopholes in an otherwise widely accepted background checks system prior to gun purchase portends government tyranny.

One explanation a number of analysts have plausibly offered for this sort of citizen action—whether by this group, by adherents of the so-called Tea Party or by the small group of armed misanthropes now occupying a federal wildlife refuge facility in Oregon—in the face of no factual confirmation to prompt or support it—is that the individuals and groups have been whipped into such conspiratorial paranoia by the consistent onslaught of entertainment industry elements willing to play to their fears for profit. I suspect there is much to that argument. Broadcast media networks and their “star” personalities, including Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin on radio as well as Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly on television, have made huge sums for many years telling Americans to fear the “other,” whether in the form of their governments, immigrants or changing norms and values, and to pillory these as the imagined architects of their unease. In the specific case of guns, the National Rifle Association, in close partnership with weapons manufacturers, has for decades shrilly labeled any effort to regulate access to firearms as an attack on the Second Amendment, which that group has essentialized and absolutized.

Notably, the NRA has taken this stance and its representatives have labeled federal law enforcement agents and any others who might argue for a more prudent and less hysterical stance as “jack-booted” thugs. This representation, for which the group was forced to apologize in 1995 when it outraged then President George W. Bush, is noteworthy because it is precisely how GOP Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz chose to portray President Obama last week on his website, following the chief executive’s recent gun-related announcement. Cruz depicted the President in helmet and jackboots, “coming for your guns.” While empirically ridiculous, this misrepresentation of reality was certainly consonant with past NRA and conservative talk-radio and television rhetoric. More broadly, Cruz epitomizes that significant portion of the Republican Party that has long sought votes by railing against the presumed criminal wiles of the government writ large or of the poor or minorities of various sorts.

These depictions are routinely cruel and wildly misleading. Nonetheless, they have resonated especially with a group of fear-filled Americans desiring to find scapegoats and willing to demonize and absolutize in the name of their fears. That these appeals are a form of demagoguery, and that they have been growing in number and kind, few sober-minded analysts and scholars doubt. That we have now reached a point that groups such as the newly formed Three Percenters in Roanoke believe them, even against all empirical evidence to the contrary, also seems clear. What is less certain is when and how this turn in our politics might galvanize a majority and result in genuine, as opposed to imagined, tyranny. Nonetheless, it is now clear that danger is real.

Joschka Fischer, Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor of Germany from 1998-2005, has recently captured many of the deeper reasons for this move to the fascistic and demagogic in American and other Western nation politics. As he observed in a commentary in late December, 2015:

 

First and foremost, there is fear—and apparently a great deal of it. It is a fear based on the instinctive realization that the “White Man’s World” —a lived reality assumed by its beneficiaries as a matter of course—is in terminal decline, both globally and in the societies of the West. And migration is the issue that brings that prognosis home (not just metaphorically) to today’s angst-inspired nationalists. Until recently, globalization was largely viewed as favoring the West. But now—in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and with the rise       of China—it has become increasingly clear that globalization is a two-way street, with the West losing much of its power and wealth to the East. Likewise, the world’s problems can no longer be suppressed and excluded, at least not in Europe, where they are now quite literally knocking on the door. Meanwhile, at home, the White Man’s World is threatened by immigration, globalization of labor markets, gender parity, and the legal and social emancipation of sexual minorities. In short, these societies are undergoing a fundamental shock to traditional roles and patterns of behavior. From all these profound changes has arisen a yearning for simple solutions—to build fences and walls, for example,  whether in the US South or in southern Hungary—and strong leaders.[4]

 

In this view, many of those now supporting Cruz’s cynical calls for elimination of the Internal Revenue Service or Donald Trump’s jingoistic, discriminatory and derisive politics are looking for someone to tell them that the insecurity they feel and the changes they see occurring about them are the product of someone or something that can be simply addressed. These leaders and others are providing these restive individuals fodder by way of claims against a never-really defined “establishment,” and the embrace of strong-man (read fascistic) politics. The working-class and lower middle-class white men disproportionately supporting Trump and Cruz realize that their worlds are being upended and that their traditional place of eminence and superiority within them are no longer secure, and these candidates are providing them uncomplicated “answers” for their fears in the form of chauvinistic anti-immigrant and anti-establishment appeals. The insecurity wrought by the stagnation in their real wages that has afflicted these groups for decades—often abetted, ironically, by GOP pressed policies—has been exacerbated by a dizzying rate of social change that has diminished their relative status. Many in this group “know” this deeply, but cannot name its sources and so look for targets to blame. Across America and other Western nations those marks of ire, as in the 1930s, are government, minorities, immigrants and the poor, and once again those coming forward to press this dogmatism are demagogues willing to trade in fear and hate to gain power.

The twin forces of persistent political and broadcast incitement, coupled with what Fischer aptly dubbed “nationalist angst” arising from global economic and social change, are creating conditions for the development of groups such as the Sons of Liberty Southwest Virginia, mobilized paradoxically against their birthright of genuine freedom in the name of an empty virility and hollow fears. Whether those seeking to profit politically from the deep insecurity of members of these groups will succeed electorally remains unclear, but their influence as they work to do so is already evident on our local city streets.

 

Notes  

[1] Petska, Alicia. “Gun Rights Supporters Rally on Roanoke Street,” The Roanoke Times, January 11, 2016, Virginia, p.1.

[2] Petska, “p. 1.

[3] Petska, p.2.

[4] Fischer, Joschka. “The Fascism of the Affluent,” Project Syndicate: The World’s Opinion Page, December 28, 2015, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/affluent-fascists-western-politics-by-joschka-fischer-2015-12, Accessed January 10, 2016.