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Patriots in name only

Jan 26,2023 - Last updated at Jan 26,2023

NEW YORK — In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”. But a recurring question of politics, especially relevant to America’s fraught union at the start of 2023, is who belongs in which category.

In the new Congress elected last November, radical right-wing Republicans have reaped significant gains by threatening Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become Speaker of the US House of Representatives. In exchange for their votes, members of the Freedom Caucus, a fervently pro-Donald Trump minority, have landed appointments to the most powerful House committees, where they will control the agenda for the next two years.

Americans already can anticipate what will unfold. Democrats control the Senate and the presidency, but the newly empowered Republican firebrands will not be looking to compromise. With no chance of Republican-sponsored legislation becoming law, the radicalised House’s only business will be to engage in pure partisan spectacle.

These Republican extremists, most of whom refused to condemn the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol, voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election, and still repeat Trump’s big lie about “rigged” elections, have previewed their agenda. They will conduct tendentious, conspiracy-theory-based investigations of President Joe Biden for corrupt and perhaps impeachable offenses. They will target public figures such as Anthony Fauci, the former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whom they will accuse of covering up the supposed coronavirus lab leak in Wuhan, China. And they will spin a chilling narrative about federal immigration policies that are flooding the country with migrants who bring crime and disease, and who rob deserving Americans of jobs and voting power.

None of these sensational assertions will withstand even the slightest scrutiny. But truth is beside the point. The objective is to manipulate public opinion and shape the political playing field for the 2024 presidential elections. As Jefferson presciently noted, “The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive.”

In this light, consider what today’s radical Republicans are alleging: Rigged elections, federal cover-ups involving the cause of COVID-19 and vaccine-based deaths and illnesses, and the “great replacement” of white America by migrants and other minorities. These claims are hardly trivial. Discontent in proportion to such grave charges would run very deep indeed. We already know it runs deep enough to kindle insurrection, so the question is: What comes next? More shootings by right-wing Republicans targeting perceived Democratic constituencies and politicians in their homes?

In today’s America, political violence is almost a certainty. If civil debate, legislative problem-solving, and the rest of the ordinary business of politics is abandoned, that leaves only extraordinary acts, such as disseminating lies potent enough to provoke a crisis or political emergency capable of motivating vigilantism and other extrajudicial action.

This prospect raises important questions about the nature and goals of the right-wing forces that are now effectively running the US House of Representatives. The conventional wisdom is that the Republican Party is in the grip of a populist resurgence. Some historians see a close parallel to the populist nationalism championed by President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, when fears of “white replacement” (by Mexicans, the Spanish, Native Americans, rebellious slaves, and abolitionists) stirred the “Young America” movement. Similar fears have spurred Trump’s MAGA movement.

But this new populist uprising also features a fear of the “deep state” that makes it even more ominous than its nineteenth-century precursor. Consider Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana, who previously resigned as Trump’s Secretary of the Interior amid an ethics scandal. He now claims that a government “deep state” is conspiring to “wipe out the American cowboy”. Zinke’s fearmongering is not an isolated incident. House Republicans recently established a “Select Subcommittee on the Weaponisation of the Federal Government”, a kind of House Un-American Activities Committee for the twenty-first century.

According to its founding resolution, the new subcommittee will investigate “how executive branch agencies collect, compile, analyse, use, or disseminate information about citizens of the United States, including any unconstitutional, illegal, or unethical activities committed against citizens of the United States”. It will also examine “how executive branch agencies work with, obtain information from, and provide information to the private sector, non-profit entities, or other government agencies to facilitate action against American citizens”.

In short, the subcommittee exists to investigate the main investigative and law-enforcement agencies, including the Department of Justice (including the FBI), the CIA, and the Department of Homeland Security. As its chairman, Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan, makes clear: “We have a duty to get into these agencies and look at how they have been weaponized to go against the very people they’re supposed to represent, how they’ve infringed on First Amendment liberties of the American people.” According to Jordan, “Your right to practice your faith, your right to assemble, right to petition the government, freedom of the press, freedom of speech. Every single one’s been attacked in the last two years. We just want it to stop.”

The rule of law rests on the proposition that the state alone has the power to make and enforce the law. The new populists are challenging that monopoly, both from within government (by assailing the “weaponisation” of federal law enforcement) and from without (by recasting the January 6 insurrectionists as patriots whose violent acts are protected by the rights to free speech and assembly).

Who are the patriots and who are the tyrants? The struggle to answer that question will determine whether America remains united under the rule of law or is sundered by internecine violence.


Richard K. Sherwin is professor Emeritus of Law at New York Law School. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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