Sam Tanenhaus is writing a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. He is a former editor of the New York Times Book Review.
Internal assaults on American government usually come with the promise of greater freedom. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. He was referring to Shays’s Rebellion, an uprising of 4,000 Massachusetts citizens in protest of taxes imposed by the state’s governor to liquidate Revolutionary War debt. Seventy-five years later, the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, explaining another rebellion, said the South had no choice but to “take up arms to vindicate the political rights, the freedom, equality, and State sovereignty which were the heritage purchased by the blood of our revolutionary sires.”
To its participants and their emboldened intellectual allies, the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was another such “battle cry of freedom” - a patriotic exercise against tyranny. President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might deplore this as an “assault on our democracy,” but “what they mean by ‘our democracy’ is theiroligarchy,” the author and journalist Roger Kimball said in a September speech at Hillsdale College. The protest against them may have become unruly, but it was by no means an insurrection.
He may be right, though for reasons different from the one he gave. Militant protest, as Garry Wills wrote in “A Necessary Evil,” his history of “American distrust of government,” comes in different forms. At one end of the spectrum are insurrectionists, who “take arms against the government because it is too repressive.” At the opposite end are vigilantes, who “take arms to do the government’s work because the authorities are not repressive enough.” They become “vigilant,” Wills writes, in times when they believe “the government is too slow, indifferent, or lax.”
Vigilantism seems to be the defining strain of American conservatism today, embraced by both the mob and intellectuals. Kimball is one of many who, emancipated by former president Donald Trump, feel licensed to lead their own campaigns against the country as it becomes more egalitarian and inclusive.
In their minds, the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 was meant not to subvert democratic “traditions,” “procedures” and “norms” - the terms we hear so often - but rather to restore them through whatever means were necessary to stop a “stolen” election, “rigged” by the true enemies of “our democracy”: the election officials and vote counters, the judges in courts across the land, even Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr. So, too, the chilling words “Hang Mike Pence” were shouted in protest of the vice president’s refusal to “do the right thing,” as Trump recently said - which in this case meant decertifying the election won by Joe Biden.
This was the vigilante’s cry that the government has been hijacked to thwart the will of Trump and his supporters. Though they’re in the minority, there are many millions, nevertheless, for whom the government’s failure to do enough to look after their interests has made it the enemy.
For them, the battle cry of freedom has become, as it was for Jefferson Davis, a demand for repression. And only vigilantism, storming the citadel, will do the job.
In the months since Jan. 6, the appetite for vigilantism has been growing on the right - for instance, among those who celebrated the acquitted teenage shooter Kyle Rittenhouse, who in true vigilante form arrived on the scene in Kenosha, Wis., after driving 20 miles from his home in Illinois the day before to “help” authorities not doing enough to impose order during civil unrest there over a police shooting. After his acquittal, GOP lawmakers competed to honor Rittenhouse, making offers of internships. The most outspoken vigilante in the House of Representatives, Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., introduced a bill that would award Rittenhouse the Congressional Gold Medal.
This last captures the sinister tone of vigilantism in our current moment.
A striking example is Texas’s new antiabortion law, which, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor and others have warned, could lead to the rise of “citizen bounty hunters” who are invited to collect a check for turning in abortion providers or anyone helping a woman receive abortion services. Existing laws are, again, too lax and don’t do enough. It is up to citizens to fill the breach.
Vigilantes have become a threatening presence during the coronavirus pandemic as well. Anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers have tried to police their neighbors - sometimes violently - over their acceptance of mandates. In August, an Alabama man who calls himself the Vaccine Police led a group to a Missouri Walmart, where they berated pharmacy workers administering the coronavirus vaccine. “If they do not stand down immediately, then they could be executed,” he said, for “crimes against humanity.” In the same spirit, Tucker Carlson has exhorted his viewers to “call the police immediately” and “contact child protective services” if they see children wearing masks while playing.
(Some Americans are pushing back. The three Georgia vigilantes who chased down and killed Ahmaud Arbery were found guilty of murder.)
However anomalous vigilantism may seem, it has a long pedigree. Among the most frightening images on Jan. 6 were those drawn from the American past - the Confederate flag, the makeshift gallows set up outside the Capitol. Today most of us recoil from the idea of the lynch mob. We forget that for much of our history it was deemed an honorable form of justice, the code of the frontier and the segregated South. One of the most erudite legislators of the 20th century, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, a devoted reader of the classics, helped defeat an anti-lynching bill in the 1930s by pleading to his Senate colleagues that banning the practice would “destroy the White civilization of the South” and with it, perhaps, “the entire civilization of the United States.”
The virtue of vigilantism was a theme of the Yale political scientist Willmoore Kendall, “the philosopher extraordinaire of the lynch mob,” as the political theorist Murray Rothbard called him. A formative influence on conservatives in the 1950s and ‘60s (as well as the subject of two forthcoming biographies), Kendall wrote, in one memorable formulation, “One begins to suspect that the true American tradition is less that of our Fourth of July orations and our constitutional law textbooks, with their cluck-clucking over the so-called preferred freedoms, than, quite simply, that of riding somebody out of town on a rail.”
Kendall himself was continually at war with his Yale colleagues and delighted in provoking them.
The same appears true of today’s pro-Trump intellectuals. For them Trump is less a model leader than a “blunt instrument,” in Trump ally Stephen Bannon’s words, a useful cudgel in wars being waged in milieus - college campuses, newsrooms, social media platforms - where conservative writers and advocates feel outnumbered and disrespected by “woke” activists.
It is not surprising that they should find companionship in a movement that also attracts other outliers, militant groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters. “When Pelosi talks about ‘the people’s house,’ she doesn’t mean a house that welcomes riffraff like you and me,” Kimball said. Riffraff may seem a strange self-designation for a successful literary journalist; the editor of the New Criterion, a sophisticated arts journal; the publisher of Encounter Books; and a columnist for the Spectator, the British weekly.
While Kimball is an unabashed Trump enthusiast, other intellectual vigilantes prefer more disciplined and ideologically coherent strongmen, like Vladimir Putin, to be admired for safeguarding “his country’s prerogatives and its sovereignty,” as Christopher Caldwell says, or Viktor Orban, praiseworthy for remaking Hungary into the ideal of a “pro-family, socially conservative government,” in Rod Dreher’s words. Some influential Catholics, including Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule, invokeThomas Aquinas as the inspiration for a politics in which “the common good is secured.” That “good” means “political domination” enforced by “rulers.”
Whatever these writers think about Trump, most seem to agree that the far graver threat to the republic, or “regime,” comes from “the left” - a catchall term that now includes old-time Democrats like Biden. To the vigilante intellectual, no less than to the vigilante rioter, the upholders of the doddering system must go.
This was the argument in a much-discussed essay written not long after Jan. 6 by Glenn Ellmers, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, the foremost pro-Trump think tank.
“Most people living in the United States today - certainly more than half - are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term,” Ellmers wrote. Because of their mischief, “our norms are now hopelessly corrupt and need to be destroyed.” All true patriots must come together in their shared purpose. “It’s all hands on deck.”
The summons was to vigilante brains as well as muscle. One deckhand, also a leading Claremont presence - the founder of its Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence - is the lawyer and legal scholar John Eastman, the author of the memo whose tortured reasoning made the case for decertifying the electoral college vote, the document said to have provided the constitutional basis for the attack on Jan. 6.
The symbiosis of persuasion and violence didn’t start or end on Jan. 6. And what comes next will build on it. A thousand mini-assaults may well clear the path for what could easily be the constitutional crisis so narrowly averted in January.
Averting it a second time will not be easy for Biden and the Democrats. Their best rejoinder so far - that the political system is working - has met with strong skepticism, and not just from Trumpists. Progressives, too, are restive. They object to the many compromises the Democratic leadership has made and see in it a return to the politics of the late 20th century, the era in which Biden entered the Senate, a time when the Democratic Party was still dominated by Southern segregationists. Richard Russell had recently died, but others still were senior figures in American politics and needed to be courted and assuaged - or worked around though dealmaking and hard bargaining that often watered down and even neutered important legislation.
The memory of this bygone era hovered over the White House when Biden finally signed into law the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The pageantry on the South Lawn did not conceal the bitter differences, which soon resurfaced in debates over Biden’s next big bill. And yet the ceremony was nearly upstaged earlier in the day by a messier event, when a wizard of 21st-century political imagery, a long-haired and unshaven Bannon, clamorously gave himself up to the FBI on charges of contempt of Congress. Videographers and photographers crowded close, and the entire proceeding was live-streamed on the pro-Trump social media platform Gettr, ideal stagecraft in the age of virality. Bannon, too, had a message. The war against the “illegitimate Biden regime” will go on. That fight was the “signal,” he said. The rest was “all noise.” This was a reminder that Trumpism, so often described as backward-looking, may actually point toward the future.
The marriage of the mob and intellectuals will probably grow stronger should Republicans recapture majorities in the House or the Senate or both in 2022, as many now predict they will. While a House rowdy like Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio bluntly vows payback for the punishment dealt to Bannon, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the Harvard-educated Trumpist who is now the third-ranking House Republican, supplanting the exiled Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, is already working on a more sophisticated message. “In reality,” Stefanik explained on Twitter, “it is the Left that has been weaponizing the DOJ the ENTIRE TIME - from the false Russia Hoax to the Soviet-style prosecution of political opponents.”
The best-organized and most thought-out ideological project since Trump’s defeat has been the nationwide attempt to discredit elections, either through fanciful “recounts” in Arizona and Michigan or the drastic rewriting of election laws in 19 states so far. It is easy to laugh off the more bizarre efforts. But the goal, dead serious, is not merely to suppress turnout but to seize control of ballot-counting procedures and so dictate - or overturn - the results, especially in states like Georgia where even Republican election officials were slow, indifferent or lax in 2020 and did not do enough to “stop the steal.”
It is not surprising that our most consequential battles now turn on Election Day. Voting is the primary political act most of us make. It is, we often say, an almost sacred right of citizenship. But we forget how recent a phenomenon the universal franchise is. A full 100 years after Jefferson Davis’s side was defeated, the great majority of Black citizens in the South were restricted from voting. The change came with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Until then, not one presidential election held in the United States could be called fully free and fair. And this was the reality for many Americans alive today. Of the five most recent presidents, all but one was college age or older when the Voting Rights Act was passed (Barack Obama was 4).
The battle over its passage was epic and bitter. At the time it was being debated, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who in 1948 ran for president on the segregationist States’ Rights ticket, winning four states, called the bill “the most patently unconstitutional piece of legislation approved by the Congress since Reconstruction days.” The civil rights movement itself, said Thurmond, “was nothing more nor less than a war against society - in short, an insurrection.”
Even after the law was passed, Southerners and their Republican allies in the North repeatedly tried to weaken it. One activist in that campaign in the 1980s was a young Justice Department lawyer, John G. Roberts Jr., who at last succeeded in that mission when he was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court and led its Republican majority in dismantling key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.Southern states promptly wrote new election laws that reversed many of the gains Black voters had made, the consequence of “a radical act of judicial activism by five justices appointed to the Court on the basis of their stated belief in judicial restraint,” Ari Berman writes in his book “Give Us the Ballot,” which describes the long history of how “the voting rights revolution and counterrevolution have been intertwined.” To this day, conservatives support restrictions on voting, arguing that mail-in ballots and other adjustments have weakened the system and made “reforms” necessary.
We may be approaching a turning point in the way much of the public views elections. Some are beginning to see any election won by Democrats as inherently corrupt. Should the outcome be close and turn on a few states, as has been the case with many recent presidential contests, we can expect another crisis. Long before Jan. 6, back when Trump suggested that the 2016 election would be “rigged” against him, the Oath Keepers sent out a “call to action” to members, who included thousands of former police officers and military veterans - their leader used to be an Army paratrooper - to station themselves at polling sites across the country to “help prevent criminal vote fraud and attempted criminal voter intimidation on election day.”
Trump’s narrow electoral college victory forestalled an emergency that time. But the crisis came four years later and seems likely to be repeated in 2024, as the forces of protest come together to stop the latest “steal” and prevent another “illegitimate” victory from destroying the vigilantes’ democracy - which is not a democracy at all but their dream ideal of a greater, vanished America.
Originally published by The Washington Post.
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