The expanding cracks running across the surface of society’s veneer in the US have never been more apparent nor, in the past 150 years, have they ever plunged so deep. The diversity of a patchwork culture initially fueled by immigration implies that a certain disorder would become a permanent feature of a society stitched together from so many different threads. Thanks to its dynamic economy, the nation’s leaders developed the skills required to conduct a complex political and cultural balancing act. For most of the past century, they have avoided approaching a tipping point. There are signs today that that may no longer be the case.
Reporting on a survey of public opinion in the US, Giovanni Russonello appends a disturbing subtitle to an article that appeared last week in The New York Times: “Fifteen percent of Americans believe that ‘patriots may have to resort to violence’ to restore the country’s rightful order, the poll indicated.”
The Loneliness of Matt Gaetz
The Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core poll reveals that “15 percent of Americans say they think that the levers of power are controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.” It would be reasonable to object that that figure also means 85% think otherwise. In a democracy, where the majority is expected to rule, the fact that only one out of six or seven Americans believes utterly nonsensical theories should not be the problem. But that perception changes when Rusonello tells us that the same 15%, in a nation with more firearms than people, maintain that “’American patriots may have to resort to violence’ to depose the pedophiles and restore the country’s rightful order.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Resort to violence:
In US culture, the traditionally privileged solution to all pervasive problems, implying not just the right but the duty to eliminate ideas, beliefs, people and, in some cases (“the only good Indian is a dead Indian”) entire populations that fail to conform with the authentic values espoused by a group of citizens certain of their shared beliefs
The “only good Indian” quote has traditionally been attributed to a Civil War general, Philip Sheridan. The historian of language, Wolfgang Mieder, notes that even today, “it is used with surprising frequency in American literature and the mass media as well as in oral speech.” We could call it “the only good X” mentality. According to the historical circumstances, X may equal “Gook,” “Taliban,” “Arab,” “Negro.” That has, in some people’s eyes, proved useful to motivate soldiers in wartime by assuaging their conscience about killing. But, especially in a society built on diversity, the very idea should be absent from civil conversation.
Representative Matt Gaetz, a prominent Donald Trump supporter currently under investigation after being accused of sex trafficking and pedophilia, has been promoting themes dear to the QAnon believers, including the idea that the time has come to resort to violence. At a rally in Georgia, accompanied by loose-tongued firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene, Gaetz lambasted Silicon Valley companies which he accuses of censoring conservatives. He preached not just resistance but action: “Well, you know what? Silicon Valley can’t cancel this movement, or this rally, or this congressman. We have a Second Amendment in this country, and I think we have an obligation to use it.”
Playing the role of a high school history teacher, Gaetz then clarified what he meant: “The Second Amendment — this is a little history for all the fake news media — the Second Amendment is not about hunting, it’s not about recreation, it’s not about sports. The Second Amendment is about maintaining, within the citizenry, the ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government, if that becomes necessary.”
That could be called Gaetz’s attempt to replace fake news by fake history. When the Constitution mentions the eventual need for states in the 18th-century economy to deploy a “well-organized militia,” the only concern it expresses relates to policing. Historians have identified a particular focus on legitimizing citizen patrols to capture runaway slaves and especially to counter eventual slave insurrections. Gaetz sees guns as necessary for rebellion, whereas the Second Amendment posited their use to prevent rebellion. Today, every state has a plethora of well-organized and well-armed police presumably capable of dealing with rebellion. What they no longer have is the problem of slave insurrections.
Gaetz’s demagogy reveals how easy it is today to invoke and distort the reality of history in a nation where people are taught to believe that the only purpose of history is to inspire patriotic sentiment. And patriotic sentiment serves the purpose of identifying those who aren’t patriotic enough. Because the US is a forward-looking nation, most people consider the knowledge and understanding of history a waste of precious time. It can only distract from the nation’s mission to mold the world into the ideal represented by American exceptionalism.
The media and even the educational system appear to view history not as a drama putting in play complex cultural, political and economic forces, but as an endless series of isolated facts to be cited for anyone’s selfish political purpose. The Second Amendment has become a mere slogan. Even the Supreme Court in recent decades has aligned with that supposed reading of history that denies historical reality.
One former chief justice of the US Supreme Court, Warren Burger (appointed by Richard Nixon in 1969), dared to look history in the face and clearly explain the meaning of the Second Amendment. In 2012, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin observed “it was simply taken as a given in constitutional law that the Second Amendment did not give individuals a right to bear arms.” But the power of Burger’s reasoning was no match for the sloganeering promulgated by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Following Burger’s retirement in 1986, the majority on the Supreme Court fell in line with the NRA, turning individual gun ownership into a sanctified right. Toobin attributes the change to “the rise of the modern conservative movement in the ’70s and ’80s.” And now, thanks to Matt Gaetz, we have an idea of where this change in interpretation may be leading.
The last government to be overthrown on American soil dates back to 1776 when the Yankees dismissed British rule. On January 6 of this year, a mob incited by President Donald Trump made a vain attempt at maintaining what they considered the legitimate Trumpian order. The mob came close to physically assaulting members of Congress. Though it effectively amplified the chaos fomented by Trump’s celebration of political hooliganism, it had no chance of “restoring the country’s rightful order.”
A far more interesting and politically revealing attempt at the overthrow of US democracy took place in April 1933. Curiously — which is another way of saying “understandably” — most traces of this attempt have been erased from Americans’ active understanding of their own history.
A year after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election, a group of some of the most prominent bankers and industrialists in the US — fearful that the new president was undermining what they considered as their private economy — devised a very serious plot. These men had been following events in Europe. They openly admired and even abetted Hitler’s politics. Convinced that the hour of fascism’s global triumph had rung, they recruited celebrated Marine Corps General Smedley Butler to lead a force of 500,000 soldiers with the intention of deposing Roosevelt. Instead, Butler decided to expose the fascist conspiracy that became known as the Business Plot.
Butler later authored a truly instructive book on US imperial history, “War Is a Racket.” He describes how, as a soldier, he had become the puppet not of the national interest but of American business interests. The Business Plot is mentioned in no school curriculum. Butler himself has now been largely erased from America’s historical memory. More surprisingly (meaning “understandably”), the congressional investigation of the plot never revealed the identities of the plotters themselves. Doing so would have been deemed an intolerable injustice, since, as conservative Americans like to insist, they are the “makers” and not the “takers” in the US economy.
Today, the US business community is aligned behind the establishment, including the current Democratic president. Their loyalty is ensured, on condition that establishment Republicans prevent Biden’s nefarious plan to raise taxes on the wealthy, which they will be sure to do.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.