Packing Heat in America

A police officer reacts to the Highland Park mass shooting near Chicago on July 4th (Getty images)

W.J. Astore

Another mass shooting in America, this one during a July 4th parade, killing six and wounding dozens. I saw this blinding flash of the obvious at the New York Times today: “Why does the U.S. have so many mass shootings? Mostly because people have so many guns.” Well, that seems logical. I saw an interview on MSNBC where it was asked whether the shooter was a Trump supporter and whether he was a “loner.” To his credit, the expert being interviewed explained that, though the shooter posed with a Trump flag, it may have been meant ironically, and that he wasn’t a loner in the traditional sense as he was part of an active online community of bizarre mass shooting enthusiasts.

There’s always the tendency to dismiss these shooters as loners, as nutcases, and to politicize it as well by suggesting that Trump or some other figure was at least partially responsible. But America had plenty of mass shootings before Trump came along, and these guys are not all loners. Indeed, in some sense they’re a manifestation of a society obsessed with guns and violence, of settling scores and dominating the Other (or others) through killing, mainly with guns.

Speaking of killing with guns, is it really necessary to shoot an apparently unarmed Black man sixty times (!) after he fled a traffic stop? Here’s the story from CNN:

The city of Akron, Ohio, remains on edge one week after the fatal police shooting of 25-year-old Jayland Walker. A news conference held by city officials on Sunday — along with the release of 13 police body camera videos — has started to paint a fuller picture of the shooting, which police say happened when Walker, who is Black, fled an attempted traffic stop on June 27. Walker was unarmed at the time he was killed, Akron Police Chief Stephen Mylett said. Authorities said Walker suffered at least 60 wounds in the fatal shooting. The Mayor of Akron declared a state of emergency and issued a curfew for Monday night through this morning in order to “preserve peace” in the community. 

A “curfew” to preserve peace: Something tells me we’re going to see a lot more of these “curfews” in the U.S. in the coming years, enforced by heavily armed police with converted MRAPs and similar tank-like vehicles. It’s hard not to think that America’s overseas wars have come home to Main Street USA, not in the same form as Baghdad or Kabul, but close enough.

Americans tend to put a lot of faith in “good guys with guns.” Those “good guys” failed to act for more than an hour in Uvalde, Texas, a delay that led to more children being slaughtered. In Akron, Ohio, the “good guys” apparently fired more than 60 rounds at Jayland Walker, who apparently was unarmed at the time of the shooting (though apparently he had a gun in his car). I like this official statement by the police: “The decision to deploy lethal force as well as the number of shots fired is consistent with use of force protocols and officers’ training,” the Fraternal Order of Police Akron Lodge 7 said in a statement.

America is in the (pistol) grips of a massive social experiment: what happens to a society when it’s consistently betrayed by its leaders, when people are increasingly desperate and fearful, and where those same people are massively armed with readily-available guns, including military-grade firearms. A society that continues to advertise violence on its TV and cable shows, that continues to suggest that more guns are the answer to gun violence, where the Supreme Court of the land embraces the idea of open carry of loaded firearms as a fundamental Constitutional right. It seems a foregone conclusion that such an experiment can only lead to higher body counts across the country. And indeed there were many more deadly shootings this past weekend, as this article summarizes.

Welcome to “extreme life,” as Tom Engelhardt notes today at TomDispatch.com. And while his article focuses mainly on soaring temperatures and extreme weather due to climate change, he starts by noting how the Supreme Court struck down the New York law that restricted the carrying of concealed firearms. Yes, America today is “packing heat” in more ways than one. Rising temperatures, soaring gun sales, more and more mass shootings, increasing alienation and unease: these times aren’t just “interesting,” as the alleged Chinese curse goes, they truly are increasingly extreme.

And in extremity, people often make the worst of choices, turning to anyone who promises them relief, a measure of “peace,” even if it takes the form of a militarized curfew.

Trump, the Wall, and Ruling by Emergency Decree

Paul v. Hindenburg
As President of Weimar, Paul von Hindenburg ruled by emergency decree, becoming a proto-dictator.  Is America heading down that road?

W.J. Astore

In the Weimar Republic of Germany during the early 1930s, the President of that time, Paul von Hindenburg, ruled increasingly by emergency decree due to a hopelessly divided and ineffectual Reichstag (parliament or congress).  In 1932, for example, Hindenburg issued 66 emergency decrees while the Reichstag itself succeeded in passing only five laws.  Even before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Hindenburg had emerged, in a supposedly democratic Germany, as a fuhrer or dictator, issuing decrees in the name of getting things done.  A time-limited “emergency” executive power, in sum, became Weimar’s new normal, setting the stage for a much more malignant autocracy in the future.

As Donald Trump contemplates declaring a national emergency to enlarge America’s preexisting wall along the border with Mexico, Americans would do well to remember the Weimar example.  Ruling by emergency decree is the path to authoritarianism, and Congress, no matter how divided or ineffectual it is, should act to stop executive overreach before it finds itself neutered and irrelevant.

Of course, the U.S. Congress has already largely refused to exercise its “power of the purse” over the military as well as its power to declare (and control) America’s wars.  Whether America’s elected representatives have the collective guts to stop Trump’s potential usurpation of power remains to be seen.

One thing is certain.  Americans are growing accustomed to a divided, dysfunctional, even a shutdown, government.  And we’re growing accustomed to presidents acting like dictators, especially under circumstances couched as “wars” or other national emergencies (as determined by that same executive branch).  No matter your political party or allegiance (or lack thereof), this is not how democracy works — it’s how democracy dies.

What Is So Awful about Donald Trump?

Evolution of Trump
Flip-flopping is not the biggest concern…

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump’s faults are legion.  But which ones are truly awful?

A crass womanizer who brags about his penis.  But wait a minute.  Lyndon B. Johnson was vulgar and crude and crass and a womanizer – and LBJ was easily eclipsed as a womanizer by John F. Kennedy.

A bigot who attacks Mexican immigrants and Muslims among other “undesirables.” But wait a minute. Richard Nixon railed against the Blacks and the Jews, among other “enemies” of Nixon’s righteous “silent majority” of Americans.

An ignoramus who knows little of foreign policy.  But wait a minute.  Many presidential candidates have lacked foreign policy experience (Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, to cite two recent examples).

A posturing tough-guy who supports torture for America’s enemies and the murder of terrorists’ families.  But wait a minute.  The Bush/Cheney administration freely used torture (they just called it “enhanced interrogation techniques”), and the Obama administration freely uses drones to “take out” terrorists and whoever may be with them (including innocent family members).

A serial liar who can’t be taken at his word.  But wait a minute.  Name any president, other than Jimmy Carter, who prioritized truth-telling.

A bully who bludgeons his opponents into submission.  But wait a minute.  Just think of LBJ, Nixon, and Dick Cheney (yes, he was a Vice President, but still).  These men were all bullies.

A shameless showman who exploits the media while professing to hate it.  But wait a minute.  Nixon despised the media; the media colluded with Kennedy to hide his negative qualities; and Obama has cozied up to the corporate media even as he’s actively prosecuted whistleblowers.

Focusing on Trump’s many “awfuls” is not the best way to defeat him, since America’s presidents have hardly been choir boys.  Put simply, Trump’s prejudicial attitudes toward women, minorities, and other groups or peoples he doesn’t like don’t mark him as exceptional, nor does his record of flip-flops on issues, as the American people have come to expect that politicians are basically liars.

Where Trump is vulnerable, I believe, is his tyrannical qualities.  Trump’s past behavior suggests he sees himself as above the law.  Put differently, he sees himself as a law unto himself.  And if he wins the presidency I simply don’t believe he’ll honor his oath of office to the U.S. Constitution.

Remember during the Frost Interviews when Nixon said, If the president does it, that means it’s legal?  That’s Trump in a nutshell.  Recall during the Republican presidential debates when Trump said the U.S. military would obey his orders regardless of their legality under the U.S. Constitution.  Yes, he later recanted that dictatorial position, but his initial answer revealed his essential nature: I’m in charge, I’ll do what I want, everyone else has to obey me.

Here “Star Trek” fans may recall an episode from the original series called “Space Seed,” featuring Ricardo Montalban as Khan.  A tyrant from Earth’s past, Khan speaks of unifying humanity under a strong leader.  Spock’s reply is telling: “Unify, sir?  Like a team of animals under one whip?”

Khan then waxes about the wonders of one-man rule, eventually blurting out, “We offered the world order!”  The Donald, today’s version of Khan, offers to make America great again.

Trump has the makings of a tyrant.  His approach to the presidency is fundamentally undemocratic.  His statements and behavior suggest if he becomes president he’ll do what he wants and expect others to fall into line, even the U.S. military, which swears its oath to the U.S. Constitution and not to any one leader.  At a time when Congress has abdicated its responsibility to declare war or to check executive warmaking prerogatives, a tyrant like Trump is an especially dangerous prospect as president.

Because of this, Trump is truly an awful choice for president.

“American Fascism”: Accurate or Misleading?

Has an Iron Heel already come to the USA?
Is it already here in the USA?

recent article by John Pilger in the British Guardian speaks of a silent military coup that has effectively gained control of American policymaking. It features the following alarmist passage:

In 2008, while his liberal devotees dried their eyes, Obama accepted the entire Pentagon of his predecessor, George Bush: its wars and war crimes. As the constitution is replaced by an emerging police state, those who destroyed Iraq with shock and awe, piled up the rubble in Afghanistan and reduced Libya to a Hobbesian nightmare, are ascendant across the US administration … The historian Norman Pollack calls this “liberal fascism”: “For goose-steppers substitute the seemingly more innocuous militarisation of the total culture. And for the bombastic leader, we have the reformer manqué, blithely at work, planning and executing assassination, smiling all the while.” Every Tuesday the “humanitarian” Obama personally oversees a worldwide terror network of drones that “bugsplat” people, their rescuers and mourners. In the west’s comfort zones, the first black leader of the land of slavery still feels good, as if his very existence represents a social advance, regardless of his trail of blood. This obeisance to a symbol has all but destroyed the US anti-war movement — Obama’s singular achievement.

Strong words. Is America the land of “liberal fascism”?

Certainly, since the attacks of 9/11 the U.S. has become more authoritarian, more militarized, and less free (witness the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and the assassination of American citizens overseas by drones). The U.S. Supreme Court has empowered corporations and the government at the expense of individual citizens. Powerful banks and corporations reap the benefits of American productivity and of special tax breaks and incentives available only to them, even as average American citizens struggle desperately to keep their heads above water.

But to describe this as “fascism” is misleading. It’s also debilitating and demoralizing.

It’s misleading because fascism has a specific historical meaning. The best definition I’ve seen is from the historian Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism

For Paxton, fascism is:

A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

In formulating this definition, Paxton had Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in mind, but his definition is an excellent starting point in thinking about fascism.

What about it? Is the U.S. fascistic? Plainly, no. We don’t have a messiah-like dictator. Our justice system still works, however imperfectly. Our votes still count, even if our political speech often gets drowned out by moneyed interests.

It’s true that, in the name of “support our troops,” we grant the Pentagon brass and defense contractors too much leeway, and allow our Department of Defense to seek “global power” without reflecting that such ambitions are the stuff of totalitarian states. But let’s also recall that our troops (as well as our representatives) still swear an oath to the Constitution, not to a dictator or party.

It’s also true that, as a society, we are too violent, too attracted to violence (think of our TV/Cable shows, our video games, and our sports), and too willing to relinquish individual liberties in the name of protecting us from that violence and the fear generated by it. Yet Americans are also increasingly weary and skeptical of the use of military force, as recent events involving Syria have shown.

The point is not to despair, not to surrender to the demoralizing idea that American politics is an exercise in liberal fascism. No — the point is to exercise our rights, because that is the best way to retain them.

Authority always wants more authority. But as political actors, we deny by our actions the very idea of fascism. For in fascist societies, people are merely subjects, merely tools, in the service of the state.

Don’t be a tool. Be an actor. Speak up. Get involved. Work to make your imperfect republic a little more representative of the better angels of our nature. Because it’ll be your deeds that keep our country from falling prey to fear and violence and the authoritarian mindset they breed.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.  This article is also at Huffington Post.