Which Side Are You On?

Photo Credit: Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images

Today many of my fellow Americans are wondering how we got to this place. Less than two weeks ago a sitting president, with the apparent aid of some Republican members of Congress, summoned a mob of perhaps more than a thousand of his supporters to Washington. D.C. and by his words and actions inspired many of them to assault the Capitol Building in an attempt to overturn the lawful result of the most scrutinized election in our nation’s history.

Many Americans believe that blame for this act of sedition and much of the violence and unrest we’ve experienced over the last four years falls at the feet of Donald Trump, but that is a short-sighted conclusion. What we witnessed on January 6, 2021, was only the latest battle in a long civil war for the soul of America that has been going on for well over a century.

As Stephen Marche recently wrote in The Globe And Mail, “There is a strong hope among American liberals and a portion of American conservatives that the storming of the Capitol represents the moment the fever breaks, the moment the American political insanity, fully revealed, finally begins to ebb… Forty-five percent of Republican voters support the assault on Washington.” 

Rush Limbaugh and his peers in the right-wing media bear considerable responsibility for last week’s insurrection, as do those who made the Limbaughs of our world possible when they killed the Fairness Doctrine, a longstanding FCC policy that required broadcasters to fairly present both sides of any issue to their audiences. When the rule was overturned in 1987, during the Reagan administration, right-wing propagandists like Limbaugh began entering mainstream American media, presenting a distorted, one-sided narrative that appealed to conspiracy theorists and far-right fringe elements of society.

The roots of today’s right-wing extremism can be found in the post-World War II reaction to FDR’s New Deal. Republicans and many wealthy business leaders hated any regulation of capitalism and the higher taxes they were forced to pay to fund popular New Deal programs that benefited working-class Americans. Opponents insisted that the New Deal reforms of the 1930s undermined liberty by redistributing tax revenues from working men to lazy people eager for a handout, and would, they insisted, bring socialism to America.

The socialism that wealthy enemies of the New Deal despised was not government control of the means of production that traditional Marxists espouse, but simply public policies that benefited all Americans and required the very rich to pay higher taxes to fund them. These uber-wealthy Americans, equivalent to the billionaire class today, have been using the same red-baiting tactic to divide and conquer the working-class since the end of Reconstruction, almost 150 years ago, but it’s not the only tool in their toolbox.

Whenever the socialism dog whistle loses its effectiveness, conservatives have another favorite means of dividing working people against ourselves: race. After the Supreme Court declared racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional in 1954, conservatives capitalized on the ideology of white supremacy by claiming that the federal government was redistributing the hard-earned tax dollars of white men to “lazy” Black people.

By the 1980s so-called “Movement Conservatives” were beginning to dominate the Republican Party, slashing business regulations and cutting social safety nets while pouring more and more revenue into military spending and enacting fiscal policies that redistributed money upward from working-class people to the very wealthy. At the same time, conservative talk radio began to dominate the airwaves, dividing working people through a twisted form of identity politics based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion that branded anyone who questioned the narrative as enemies of capitalism, and by extension, enemies of America.

From there it’s a relatively easy task to draw an unbroken line from events like the Weaver standoff at Ruby Ridge in 1992, which became a rallying point for white nationalists and neo-Nazis, to the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, that inspired Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, and many other acts of right-wing terrorism over the years.

In 2014, Cliven Bundy, a Nevada cattle rancher, owed the federal government more than $1 million in fees for grazing his cattle on public land. Bundy refused to recognize federal authority and the government impounded his animals, but officials backed down when Bundy and his supporters showed up armed to the teeth. Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) called Bundy and his militia “patriots”, but Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), called them “domestic terrorists” and warned, “We can’t have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it.”

On January 6, 2021, right-wing domestic terrorists assaulted the seat of our democracy, the Capitol, imagining themselves as protectors of American individualism in the face of a socialist government takeover. They killed a police officer and assaulted others. They ransacked offices and desecrated both public areas and the legislative chambers. They came prepared to take hostages and, worse, to execute elected officials. The full picture of what these terrorists did and intended to do is slowly trickling out. The picture is grim and should alarm reasonable Americans of every political stripe.

Less than forty-eight hours after the mob stormed the citadel of our American democracy, Rush Limbaugh was on the air pouring gasoline on the fire. “There’s a lot of people out there calling for the end of violence,” Rush Limbaugh said on his broadcast the next day. “I am glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual tea party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord, didn’t feel that way.”

Make no mistake, the riot at the Capitol was not just the work of Donald J. Trump. He bears responsibility for setting off this particular event, but as he stated in a 2017 press conference: “I didn’t come along and divide this country. This country was seriously divided before I got here.” As much as it pains me to say it, on that point Donald Trump and I agree. This country has been divided for as long as it has existed, and with each passing generation the division seems to only grow wider, and that that is no accident.

I’ve been watching the far right in this country become more militant, authoritarian, and aligned with the goals of fascism and white supremacy for decades, and trying to warn anyone willing to listen. That’s not to say that all Republican voters or even conservatives are Klansmen and neo-Nazis, but those elements do exist, and over the last few decades they have managed to infiltrate mainstream conservative politics. Today they appear to be solidifying their control of the Republican Party at almost every level of American government.

We’ve heard many calls for unity since the riot at the Capitol, mostly from Republican elected officials who see the writing on the wall and fear for their political futures, but now is not the time for unity. Not yet.

We cannot sweep this under the rug and allow those responsible for creating the powder keg of fascist anarchy and rebellion over the last few decades to escape without paying a price. We’ve been doing that since the Reconstruction era and each time we only end up kicking the can down the road, leaving future generations to face even worse crises. The worst among us – those willing to hold on to power, which they perceive as a birthright, at any price – will always return, willing to do anything, including domestic terrorism, to stay in control. 

As Stephen Marche of The Globe And Mail concludes, “Mr. Biden’s victory speech claimed that it was “a time to heal.” We can only hope that was empty rhetoric. The Republican Party, and its wide base of national support, does not believe in democracy. They’ve proved it consistently. They’re continuing to prove it even after the physical safety of their own members came under threat. There is every evidence to suggest that the moment American conservatives come to any power again they will use it to subvert the workings of legitimate government. It is not the time to heal.”

The time has come to choose. Do you stand with those who believe that all Americans have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of race, gender, national origin, religion, disability, or any of the many other labels used to divide us? Or do you stand with those on the far right who believe in white supremacy and holding on to power by any means, including terrorism and murder? That is the choice we face today. Which side are you on?