The human capacity to fail to see, or to deny the obvious, is sometimes remarkable. We see the world through a lens of our own constructing, consistent with reference points we’re familiar with, that are in our comfort zone, and we discount or disregard that which doesn’t fit with what we’ve schooled ourselves to believe. Much that we believe is reinforced by our friends, the groups we associate with, and these days, the social media feedback loop we live in. We trust these, and their perceptions and information. But in our comfort we miss realities which are clear to those outside our circle, outside the cluster we identify with, often enough outside our own experience.
This seems particularly relevant to radicals who oppose our current American government, such as State House Rep. David Eastman, a member of the Oath Keepers, the far-right anti-government militia group, and others like him.
The FBI describes them as a paramilitary organization, a “large but loosely organized collection of militias who believe that the federal government has been coopted by a shadowy conspiracy” dedicated to that end. Their founder, Elmer Stewart Rhodes, indicted for seditious conspiracy in January, has instructed members to form “citizen preservation” groups around the country, and be prepared, by their own authority, to declare martial law, and to scrap the U.S. Constitution, which he believes has been corrupted by misinterpretation authorizing government power. He has said the government is preparing to contain and control, and shoot, its citizens, but not to feed them. Like various posse comitatus groups that have formed throughout American history, he argues that the highest legitimate law enforcement authority is the county sheriff. During Trump’s presidency, Rhodes said that the administration fully supported him in the White House.
This is anarchy. It misinterprets people’s need to feel secure and protected, something unlikely under martial law enforced by gun-toting local authority figures taking the law into their own hands on whim. It’s also out of sync with the vast majority of Americans who accept the legitimacy of the government, even if they sometimes disagree with its policies.
To be sure, not all Americans accept today’s government. Over the last few years, polling by separate, independent organizations, widely reported, among them Morning Consult, Politico, and the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, has found that a quarter or more of Americans favor an authoritarian alternative to democracy, that they no longer take for granted that democracy is the best form of government. Morning Consult defined authoritarianism as “the desire to submit to some authority, aggression that is directed against whomever the authority says should be targeted and a desire to have everybody follow the norms and social conventions that the authority says should be followed.” Their poll and the others found that most who so believe are “right leaning” in their politics. That means that tens of millions of Americans appear ready to accept the demise of American democracy, perhaps even work toward that end or support those who do.
What these folks miss is that authoritarian governments don’t give rights and freedoms; they take them away.
The legendary ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov captured this reality succinctly in a recent letter reflecting on Russia’s gruesome persecution in Ukraine. Addressing the fear generated by today’s changing social mores and political upheavals, especially in Russia, Baryshnikov, who defected from Russia 50 years ago, noted that authoritarian leaders make people feel protected. But, he said, “it’s a false sense of security, because, of course, any day, the protected can easily become the persecuted.”
Embrace of authoritarianism is often accompanied by acceptance of conspiracy theories of one sort or another. A January 2021 poll found that 77% of Republican respondents believed there was widespread election fraud in 2020, despite numerous court findings that there wasn’t. The Kennedy assassination, the World Trade Center catastrophe, and the 1969 moon landing all have generated conspiracy beliefs. Psychologists suggest that one element in conspiracy belief is the sense that the believers are “in the know,” that they know things the rest of us don’t, and that they are smarter than the common crowd.
Groups like the Oath Keepers apparently believe that when the cataclysm comes, they’ll be the winners. Authoritarian sympathizers say they’re defending freedom, but when their favored authoritarian quashes their inevitable dissent, tells them where and when they cannot gather to protest, shuts down their news servers and jails their citizen preservationists, they’ll wonder where their freedom went.
Steve Haycox is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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