“Their paranoid fear of a possible dystopic future prevents us from addressing our actual dystopic present. We can’t even begin to address 30,000 gun deaths that are actually in reality happening in this country every year because a few of us must remain vigilant against the rise of imaginary Hitler.” –Jon Stewart
Imagine you are Hitler. You are trying to be reincarnated as the person who could take over America the way you took over Germany. How would you do it? Who would you come back as? A general? A politician? A banker? A religious leader?
The lunatic fringe of the far-right gun nuts is attempting to hijack the gun control debate. Since Newtown, the American public has generally awakened to the fact that the Second Amendment line between individual rights and public safety needs to be redrawn. However, the gun nuts don’t want us to have that conversation at all. So they have retreated to their Alamo: a circle-jerk of egomaniacal crowing about how they need to save the Republic from tyranny. I realize that these people don’t represent the mainstream of conservative thought, but their footprint is growing, the cottage industry that fuels their ideology is pervasive, their role in this discourse is not insignificant, and they are too dangerous to be ignored. It only takes one armed messianic lunatic to change history.
Alex Jones claimed in his “debate” with Piers Morgan that “Hitler took the guns.” Hitler was evil, therefore everything Hitler did was evil. Hitler was a painter and a vegetarian.
In their little world, the Hitler flavor of reductio ad absurdum makes its own sense. But the statement is false. The myth that Hitler disarmed his own people can be traced back to opponents of a 1980s gun control campaign in Chicago, who tried to build political momentum against it in Skokie, Illinois, a Chicago suburb with a large Jewish population. Mother Jones reports on the reality of gun control in Germany between the World Wars:
As World War I drew to a close, the new Weimar Republic government banned nearly all private gun ownership to comply with the Treaty of Versailles and mandated that all guns and ammunition “be surrendered immediately.” The law was loosened in 1928, and gun permits were granted to citizens “of undoubted reliability” (in the law’s words) but not “persons who are itinerant like Gypsies.” In 1938, under Nazi rule, gun laws became significantly more relaxed. Rifle and shotgun possession were deregulated, and gun access for hunters, Nazi Party members, and government officials was expanded. The legal age to own a gun was lowered. Jews, however, were prohibited from owning firearms and other dangerous weapons.
Ironically, the segregation of guns in Germany–allowed for reliable Nazis and banned for others–reflects the NRA’s own history. In the 1960s, when the Black Panthers became stalwart gun enthusiasts, the NRA started advocating strict gun control laws–for the Black Panthers.
This begins to illuminate the real reasons for their gun enthusiasm and the inability to deal rationally with it. Deep down, it isn’t about protecting the nation from tyranny, it’s about protecting their own socio-political enclaves–rural, Christian, white and libertarian–from the perceived threat of decline and extinction. This fear is rooted in the destruction of the Confederacy. President Obama has catalyzed this paranoia in a way we haven’t seen since Civil Rights. This also explains why the first national Gun Appreciation Day is scheduled to coincide with Martin Luther King day and Obama’s Second Inauguration. The unsubtle symbolism is impossible to ignore as it passes a chilling message but one that they couldn’t overtly express in words.
Their idea of tyranny is a country in which whites are no longer dominant. But the historical reality is that absolute tyranny took root in Germany and Japan for economic, political and social reasons that would be virtually impossible to replicate in America. In Germany, in the 19th century, Bismarck had united the German-speaking countries into a whole nation with a kinetic power much larger than its geographic space. This set the stage for the final act of Europe’s age of empires just as the Industrial Revolution made possible the mass production of horrifying slaughter. After World War I, the political humiliation of the lost war and the Versailles treaty that sought to cripple Germany without addressing the root causes of its revanchism coupled with the economic shock of the Depression to create the political space for a charismatic leader to fill the void with an emergency agenda.
Japan’s road to tyranny began with American gunboats steaming into Tokyo Bay after centuries of total isolation. A country in which the most powerful weapon was a sword was forced to acquiesce to foreign trade while staring down the barrels of cannons. This shock led to a revolution known as the Meiji restoration. The ‘restoration’ was hijacked by the military. The Japanese military’s understanding of this brave new world that landed on their doorstep was that it was one of military empires. And so they decided to enter that game to win.
Both countries were largely culturally monolithic and both had a strong streak of traditionalism and obedience to authority. There are many social, political and historical reasons why the kind of absolute tyranny that infested Germany and Japan could never take root in America.
America has different languages, ethnicities and cultures that would be virtually impossible to cobble together into a single heel-clicking, head-nodding political mass. Throughout American history, Americans rally together when attacked by an outside power, but getting Americans to stick together for long is nearly impossible. The country rallied together after Pearl Harbor, but throughout WWII, FDR fought the Republicans on economic policy. After 9/11, the country came together, but quickly devolved into infighting about the wisdom of Bush’s foreign policy. Historical shock is not a social glue in American culture the way it is in more monolithic cultures.
Americans argue about everything constantly. Harmony is not an American value, but debate is. In spite of this near-constant discursive skirmishing, many institutions in America are incredibly strong. Banks, while undemocratic and authoritarian in their own way, would never allow their privileges to be subjugated to a fascist dictator. Churches would never submit their autonomy and freedom to proselytize. The military’s culture of serving the constitution above the politics of the moment is deeply ingrained. There is a reason that generals almost never seek or get elected to higher office in America.
As powerful as these institutions are, though, our democratic institutions are even more robust. Neither political party would ever submit to the authority of the other. The Democrats and the Republicans are the Hatfields and the McCoys of American political life. The dynamics between them may be infuriating, but if you take a big step back, they represent a historical pendulum that keeps the country from veering radically in any one direction. Removing or fundamentally subjugating that political pendulum is beyond the power of any individual.
The massive federal bureaucracy has constant infighting. Again, it is frustrating but it also serves to prevent the mass consolidation of authority. Checks and balances have eroded, warped and evolved over the years, but are still real. Because of the convoluted opening statements in the Affordable Care Act ruling, cable news initially reported that it had been struck down. For a moment, President Obama believed his landmark legislative achievement had been struck down. He then bear-hugged the staffer who told him the good news. In spite of decades of partisan court packing, the most powerful man in the world had no idea what the Supreme Court was going to do to his signature achievement. There is no one in America who could ever possibly compile the authority to undo that reality of the wages of power in America.
Finally, freedom of speech is extremely powerful in America. Americans are always arguing about something. Where the Germans of the Third Reich and the Japanese of Imperial Japan are characterized by saluting the flag in spite of harboring personal reservations, Americans take great pride in the heroism of flipping the bird at authority.
To the extent that tyranny is possible in America, it is only possible at the more localized level. A superintendent, a sheriff, a bishop could let their limited power go to their head, and rule their roost like Yertle the Turtle. But those people couldn’t rise to extraordinary power and then rule with an iron fist. Our system doesn’t allow it. And our system is extremely stable, for better or worse.
The real story of tyranny and progress in America is one of evolution rather than revolution. Paradoxically, there is a constant drip, drip of policies that promote a security state and income inequality, as well as greater social inclusion, whether it is women’s suffrage, civil rights, or gay marriage. Tyrannical type policies or actions may be systemic, but they are never above challenge. Even in situations when the government does, arguably, act like a Big Brother, guns don’t help the situation. One of the most authoritarian things the government has done in recent history is to help banks take foreclosed homes away from their owners. Some people have tried to fight back. Those who have taken the law into their own hands and shot at police were shot themselves, and were killed or arrested and sent to prison. On the other hand, through protest and civil disobedience, Occupy Wall Street has helped some families keep their foreclosed homes. When public and private institutions become pseudo-tyrannical, the exercise of First Amendment rights is the first, last and strongest line of defense. Taking up arms always inflames the situation and never ends well for the self-appointed hero. Besides, if these gun nuts ever did stage an attempt at a real revolution that threatened the US government, we all know how that would end.
It would take generations to change the system so much that absolute tyranny became possible. One thing the Nazis did understand, though, is that indoctrinating children into new norms is a way of solidifying ideology into the future. In the same way, the NRA’s plan to put armed police in every school has the power to indoctrinate a generation of children with the idea that a police state is normal. As they grow up and take over the country, the expansion of police authority could give someone the institutional power to take over that apparatus and then much more undemocratic authority.
The gun nuts’ refusal to allow a reasonable debate about what constitutes responsible gun freedom reflects their refusal to acknowledge political reality. The explosion of far right ‘patriot’ groups and hate groups since 2008 belies a strain in American culture that traces its roots to the Confederacy. With the Democrats’ 2008 and 2012 victories, they see their ideologies waning and fear their ‘kind’ is threatened with extinction. They fear the multiculturalism that reflects a healthier society but the decline of white dominance. The election of a liberal government, a black president, and a nationwide push for sensible gun control is causing them to become radicalized and agitated. When they scream that they need their guns because they have a right to kill tyrants and they pass around to each other images like this
it leads to a dark, but inescapable conclusion about what it is they are actually implying. They refuse to engage in civil discourse to push their agenda through peaceful engagement in our democracy. They instead choose to terrorize the discourse through threats of violence. When they speak of tyranny, they are in fact, railing against our democratic society for not bending to their childish will. The fact is, they are the petty tyrants who strive for national control. But they don’t understand the first thing about the culture they pretend to protect. Discourse is the currency of our democracy, not their bullets.