The American lunatic fringe rears its ugly head
Published October 15, 2020
It would be silly to pretend that the United States is not currently experiencing an extraordinary, and extraordinarily challenging, historical moment. The impact of a virulent global health pandemic on a nation that was already sharply divided along several major fault lines – ideological, economic, racial, religious – has been significant. Add to this roiling stew a hotly contested national election that is widely perceived to be one of the most important in decades, and one has a recipe for discord on a giant scale.
Here’s the deal though: Divided as we are and determined as the differing sides along the various fault lines are to prevail, the situation must not be allowed to devolve into chaos or violence. While there’s nothing wrong with advocates passionately espousing and defending their positions and no particular need to remain cheerful and cordial at all times while doing so, there are some lines that all must respect.
And Number One on this list is rejecting the promotion or tolerance of violence toward other human beings and respecting the established rules for societal decision-making. While it would be naïve to pretend that Americans have always lived up to such ideals, it is also true that there is something very important and distinctive in the American experience when it comes to such topics.
Despite all the nation’s many flaws, in almost 250 years, it has never experienced a national election that led to anything other than a smooth and lawful transfer of power – even during a time of civil war. And while there’s no denying the fact that political violence has often been visited on the nation (see the racist Wilmington coup d’etat of 1898), it’s also true that – at least since 1865 – it has been widely rejected as a legitimate tool by a broad cross section of the nation’s political and thought leaders, the major political parties and their members, and the leading private interest groups and their supporters.
Simply put: In America, we do our utmost to settle our disputes through the ballot box, with a properly constituted judiciary serving as the referee – not weapons.
Or, at least that’s been the overwhelming consensus.
Tragically, in the last few years, however, a growing number of Americans – the majority of them on the political far right – have started to openly reject this consensus.
Fueled by outlandish conspiracy theories left to fester and metastasize in the dark recesses of social media platforms, as well as out-in-the-open statements issued by the President of the United States, there has been a disturbing growth in the prevalence of groups that deny the legitimacy of federal and state governments and that speak openly of “nullification,” armed conflict and even of a “race war.”
The most recent and troubling example of this phenomenon came into sharp focus in recent days when it was announced that the FBI had foiled a plot by a group of at least 13 far right would-be terrorists to abduct and murder Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
And what’s been perhaps even more disturbing than the beliefs and actions of the fringe lunatics like those involved in the Michigan plot is the thinly veiled messages of tolerance, and even encouragement, that such troubled characters have repeatedly received from supposedly responsible conservative leaders.
Whether it’s the President sending a message of support and solidarity to a vile white supremacist organization, major political party leaders denouncing essential public health orders like mask requirements as “tyranny” or a Raleigh think tank holding an event last week to which it that it saw fit to attach the inaccurate and provocative label “Flipping North Carolina Blue: Exposing The Left’s Plan’s To Seize Power,” the fringe has received precious little in the way of discouragement as their beliefs and actions have grown more and more outrageous and dangerous.
Of course, the great tragedy in all of this is that the utter detachment from reality it represents. As the always insightful Charlotte-area journalist John Deem noted in a recent column skewering those who resist responsible public health directives:
"They protest the perceived tyranny they see in governors’ orders aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus and saving lives, as if we in 21st century America have the first clue of what true despotism actually feels like.
"They proclaim their victimhood to be the seed of a new civil rights movement, as if being told to put a piece of cloth on their faces is akin to someone being considered less human because of the color of his or her unmasked face, or gender, or sexual orientation.
"Their pronouncements imply that being prevented temporarily from eating in a restaurant or drinking at a bar during a pandemic is on par with Blacks facing the humiliation of a ‘Whites Only’ sign in a cafe window.”
The bottom line: If our nation accomplishes little else in months ahead, merely exposing those who would threaten our democracy with talk of armed insurrection for the delusional fools and conspiracy kooks they are would be a step in the right direction.