On Avoiding a Political Extinction-level Event

I recently returned from a two-week field research trip to the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. As I toured the…

On Avoiding a Political Extinction-level Event

I recently returned from a two-week field research trip to the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. As I toured the museum and poured through literally thousands of pages of records, it brought back memories of the 17-year-old me, going door to door in my neighborhood asking those I knew well — or barely at all — to vote for Reagan.

I came of age in an America that was suffering through double-digit inflation, double-digit interest rates, a hostage crisis in Iran that had no end in sight, and a Soviet threat that was real and seemingly growing. I feared not only for my own job prospects, but for the very future of my country and our way of life.

Reagan’s subsequent two terms in office were scandal plagued, both on the domestic and foreign fronts. But the nation did emerge from the economic malaise of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the hostages finally made it home safely, and the year Reagan left office the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended.

This month’s midterm elections, with economic anxieties at new heights and the highly polarized state of our politics seemingly growing worse, were very much on my mind as I made my way through Reagan’s records, remembering the country’s journey from doom and gloom to a fresh sense of optimism about the future. For a moment, I felt I’d gained a healthy sense of perspective. And then I came across something he said not as president, but at the very beginning of his first term as governor of California. It was an observation that resonated chillingly with me.

“We are participating in the orderly transfer of administrative authority by direction of the people. And this is the simple magic of the commonplace routine, which makes it a near miracle to many of the worlds’ inhabitants,” Reagan noted in his inaugural address.

“This continuing fact that the people, by democratic process, can delegate power, and yet retain the custody of it,” Reagan said. “Perhaps you and I have lived too long with this miracle to properly be appreciative. Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction.”

In 2020, the political party that Ronald Reagan led to victory in two presidential elections abandoned, in word and deed, the very principles that he so eloquently described nearly six decades ago. Through the cult of personality embodied in Donald Trump, the 2022 midterm elections attracted a fresh wave of 2020 election fraud peddlers and political hucksters, spreading like a cancer through America’s body politic.

In this November’s midterm elections, the GOP appears to have escaped paying a price for election legitimacy denialism and flirtation with political violence, which included some candidates making jokes about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband.

Contrary to multiple dire predictions, Election Day 2022 produced no gun-wielding attacks or mob violence at polling stations. That’s the good news. For those committed to upholding the legitimacy of free and fair elections, however, the results were disastrous.

Election legitimacy denialists may have suffered some prominent setbacks, but the poisonous mindset they created has catapulted or returned at least 220 of them into political office at the federal and state levels. The lack of a “Red Wave” notwithstanding, their victories mean the threat to future free and fair elections has likely only grown.

And another threat, this one also grounded in politically motivated violence aimed at specific minority groups in society, remains as well. Organized, right-wing and/or white supremacist elements that were instrumental in the 2021 insurrection have not gone away and continue to engage in acts of intimidation and violence across the country.

A prime target of the so-called Proud Boys and related ilk have been members of the LGTBQ+ community. Interestingly, and ominously from a public safety standpoint, those pro-Trump forces have increasingly encountered literal armed resistance from a small but growing element of the far left. An incident that happened this summer in Roanoke, Texas is instructive.

On August 28, the Anderson Distillery and Grill held an event dubbed “Barrell Babes Drag Brunch” that attracted both anti-LGBTQ activists and the armed, leftist Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club (EFJBGC), which bills itself as a “Promoting and assisting marginalized communities in organizing community defense against white supremacists/fascism. Not a militia.”

The local Cross Timbers Gazette reported that via Facebook, restaurant owner Jay Anderson stated “We did not hire or pay for security services from the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club for this event. They were present of their own volition and cooperated with us to peacefully make sure our patrons and performers remained safe from protestors, who attempted to destroy property and threatened violence. We are grateful to the City of Roanoke Police Department for responding quickly when protestors became aggressive towards our patrons.”

If you look at the photo accompanying the Cross Timbers Gazette article, you’ll notice several things. EFJBGC members dressed almost exclusively in black and wore gaiters or balaclavas to shield their identities. Wearing de facto uniforms and face coverings is a tactic also employed by the white supremacist Patriot Front group, as was the case in Indianapolis earlier this year. Another similarity between the groups like the EFJGBC and the Oath Keepers or Three Percenters is the preference of all of them for the kinds of weapons House and Senate Democrats want to ban: modern sporting rifles like the various versions of the AR-15.

The proliferation of armed leftist groups is a relatively new phenomenon, with those involved with entities like the EFJBGC believing that a collective armed response to potential threats to LGBTQ+ or other marginalized citizens is required.

To be clear, as a nearly life-long gun owner, I fully support the right of any law abiding American to purchase firearms for self-defense, including concealed carry, where permitted by law.

I also understand the impulse felt by EFJBGC members to offer protection to local LGBTQ+ Texans who feel at risk of bodily harm or death by anti-LGBTQ+ elements. A history of police misconduct and violence against minority groups (on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, among others) is also a driving force behind the proliferation of groups like EFJBGC, the Latino Rifle Association, Yellow Peril Tactical, and many others. In that respect, they are the 21st century successors to the late 1960s-era Black Panther Party.

During the August 28 Anderson Distillery event, no shots were fired, and no one suffered lethal harm. I’m sure EFJGBC members feel their act of public deterrence against potentially armed or violent anti-LGBTQ activists was morally justified and successful. But what about the next time?

It seems all but inevitable that an armed, leftist “community defense” group will square off against a Proud Boy, Patriot Front, or similar white supremacist/insurrectionist element bent on terrorizing a particular community. What starts as a First Amendment-protected event with angry shouts from both sides will give way to someone firing the first shot, which will be followed by a full-on small unit firefight in an American community. And it will not simply be the respective “community defense” or militia elements that will be wounded and killed. Innocent people in the surrounding community will be injured and killed in the crossfire.

The theoretical urban firefight scenario outlined above will at some point become a tragic reality unless political leaders at the federal, state, and local levels take this threat seriously. In my view, it starts with eliminating violence-tolerant right-wing and/or white supremacist elements within federal, state, and local law enforcement organizations.

It’s extremely telling that a leaked 2018 FBI Counterterrorism Policy Directive and Policy Guide explicitly notes that domestic terrorism investigations involving “militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers and those in positions to check NCIC (National Crime Information Center) for warrants.”

That FBI guide was published in 2015 — six years before the attack on the Capitol inspired by Trump and carried out by his supporters, led by the very kind of Proud Boy and Oath Keeper elements that have been the subject of criminal prosecutions over the last two years.

Protecting the ability of my fellow Americans to associate freely and peacefully with those whom they chose will always be a core concern of mine. But we cannot continue to live in a society that tolerates the presence of people in law enforcement or the military who, based on their bigoted beliefs, either turn a blind eye to insurrectionist, white supremacist, or anti-LGBTQ+ violence or actively engage in or abet it. You cannot enforce the civil rights laws of the United States if you believe not everyone is entitled to those rights, which is why taking corrective action at the federal level first is a must.

Of note is the fact that existing Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employment suitability criteria do not include a ban on involvement with extremist organizations of any political stripe unless they involve “Knowing and willful engagement in acts or activities designed to overthrow the U.S. Government by force.”

In fact, the FBI’s published guidelines for prospective new Special Agent applicants makes no reference to membership in or support of a white supremacist or militia organization as being a disqualifying factor for employment. And the Defense Department has yet to update the Uniform Code of Military Justice UCMJ to make membership or support of such organizations a punishable offense. The fact that the current National Defense Authorization Act contains no statutory language mandating such a change is as shocking as it is shortsighted.

These are things Congress has the power to fix, including conditioning funding for state and local law enforcement organizations on the enactment and enforcement of measures designed to purge officers with known links to such violent extremist organizations. Clearly, the FBI has the data to help with that process.

On a human level, a failure to act as I’ve outlined could have lethal consequences, particularly for individuals targeted by white supremacist or other violent bigoted elements who believe they can terrorize Black, Latino, Asian, or LGTBQ+ Americans with little risk of local or state law enforcement organizations preempting them.

In the life of the nation as a whole, an outbreak of deadly factional confrontations could lead to a level of domestic violence not seen since the Civil War. A frightened public would, as happened after the 9/11 attacks, demand a strong “law and order” response from government at all levels. Massive civil liberties violations would follow in short order.

This dystopian future is not inevitable. But hoping that one midterm election and a small number of prosecutions of Capitol insurrectionist militia types will arrest America’s slide towards authoritarianism and vigilante violence is a form of magical thinking we cannot afford.

A country that weathered a civil war, two world wars, a multi-decade Cold War, and the threat of nuclear Armageddon is at risk not from a foreign invader, but from its own political inner demons. Excising those unholy political spirits is the great unfinished work of our time.

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