The American right has always been home to factions that demand “law and order,” while declaring themselves — and not the federal government — the arbiters of legality. The roots of this anarchic conservatism run deep into the foundation of the Republic. Andrew Jackson, who is hailed as a great democratizer by mainstream U.S. history, was a great champion of settlers who defied federal restrictions on their liberty to kill indigenous people and confiscate their lands. The (solid-red) South has, of course, always had a complicated relationship with the concept of federal sovereignty. And the Christian right, once it abandoned that whole “render unto Caesar” tripe, has insisted that God’s law comes before man’s (and the Constitution, as interpreted by the Christian right, is God’s law).
This tendency made itself felt during the Obama years through the armed standoff between right-wing militias and federal agents at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada. And it gained new institutional form through the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a group of active law-enforcement officials who believe the U.S. Constitution gives local government primacy over the state and federal governments, at least on the subject of firearm regulations.
All this is to say: Donald Trump did not import this tendency into the Republican Party. But by using the bully pulpit to encourage far-right groups’ violations of COVID-19 public-health restrictions, to preach conspiracies about Democratic plots to foment “invasions” of the U.S. by criminal migrants, and to contest the legitimacy of his defeat in the 2020 election, the president has helped grow the Republican Party’s “anti–rule of law” wing considerably.
In recent weeks, Republican elected officials, activists, and law-enforcement agents have made the contingency of their support for lawful government more widely felt.
Only 26 of 249 Republican members of Congress were willing to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election, when asked by the Washington Post this week. Meanwhile, at the president’s urging, 64 Republicans in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly sent a letter to the state’s congressional delegation urging them to disenfranchise their own constituents — and subvert democratic government in the United States — by voting to “reject the state’s Electoral College votes for Mr. Biden.”
One Pennsylvania Republican offered some insight into her colleagues’ motives in an interview with the New York Times:
Kim Ward, the Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania Senate, said the president had called her to declare there was fraud in the voting. But she said she had not been shown the letter to Congress, which was pulled together hastily, before its release.
Asked if she would have signed it, she indicated that the Republican base expected party leaders to back up Mr. Trump’s claims — or to face its wrath.
“If I would say to you, ‘I don’t want to do it,’” she said about signing the letter, “I’d get my house bombed tonight.”
Ward was almost certainly being hyperbolic. The primary threat constraining her colleagues’ behavior was that of primary challenges, not violence. But there’s reason to think that the latter threat is exerting some influence on elected officials’ behavior. After Michigan representative Cynthia A. Johnson criticized her Republican colleagues for inviting Rudy Giuliani to hold a hearing on spurious voter fraud allegations last week, Johnson found herself inundated with racist death threats.
Trump cannot claim full credit for the broader radicalization that many conservatives are undergoing across the United States. The traumas and tribulations of the COVID-19 pandemic seem to have been instrumental. For some paranoid, petty, small-government conservatives, the imposition of government lockdown orders was experienced as the confirmation of their darkest fears. In certain instances, these state orders really did threaten their livelihoods and personal property (while in others, it threatened their shallower “right” to enter public spaces without a mask in the middle of a public-health crisis).
In Politico, Ciara O’Rourke reports on an “Oath Keeper” named John Shirley who was elected constable of Hood County, Texas, in 2018. The Oath Keepers self-describe as a nonpartisan association of “tens of thousands of current and former military, police, and first responders who pledge to defend the Constitution and refuse to obey orders they consider unconstitutional.” In practice, they are nonpartisan only in the sense of having as much contempt for RINOs as they do for Democrats.
O’Rourke relays an instance earlier this year in which Shirley’s group curried favor with the locals:
The coronavirus pandemic had hobbled communities across the state and Governor Greg Abbott had ordered gyms, among other businesses, to shut down. Lift the Bar Fitness in Granbury followed that direction, at least for a while. By April, David Todd Hebert, who owns the gym with his wife, had grown impatient with what he considered an unconstitutional mandate from ”King Abbott.” They decided to reopen the gym even if it meant going to jail.
The gym announced on Facebook that members could finally come back even though Abbott’s executive order was still in effect. Someone commented that the police better “bring a lot of guns” if they were planning to stop them, Hood County News reported.
When Lift the Bar Fitness opened on April 28, about 10 Oath Keepers turned up “to make sure that we stayed open,” Hebert told me. They were friendly, he said, and they’d heard he was going to get arrested. They wanted to document any violations of his constitutional rights.
Notably, the local Oath Keepers’ commitment to protecting citizens’ civil liberties against law enforcement — even in cases where those citizens’ are running afoul of the law — is highly dependent on context:
Oath Keepers showed up to Black Lives Matter protests at the courthouse the following month. The events, held on June 6-7 in spite of some reported threats directed at one of the demonstration’s teenage organizers, were peaceful. But from their perch in the impressive limestone building that anchors the county’s charming downtown square, Shirley and two other constables asked Sheriff Roger Deeds whether the county had any riot shields, Deeds said.
It didn’t, perhaps because the county of about 60,000 people didn’t need them. But a couple weeks later the commissioners court accepted a donation of eight riot shields to be used by the sheriff’s office, Shirley and another constable, Chad Jordan.
Meanwhile, Shirley has spent his time in official office (1) calling for the execution of the Democratic mayor of Portland, (2) warning that if Democrats stole the election, there would be “open conflict,” and (3) after November 3, calling on patriots to rise up and fight against Bill Gates — the “master manipulator of the [election] heist” — and all his accomplices.
Shirley is not the only Republican public official who has expressed support for the nullification of public-health laws and presidential elections this year. In Michigan, Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf infamously defended a thwarted plot to kidnap Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer on the grounds that “a lot of people are angry with the governor, and they want her arrested,” and so perhaps they were merely planning to make a citizen’s arrest of the head of the state. Leaf remained in his position as an agent of law enforcement following his endorsement of a coup against the governor. And this week, he filed a federal lawsuit alleging mass voter fraud in his state.
Meanwhile, in Boise, Idaho, on Tuesday night, public-health officials had to cancel a meeting after hundreds of anti-mask protestors assembled outside their buildings and personal homes. (This week, hospital officials in Idaho warned that they may soon be forced to implement “crisis standards of care.”) Such protesters in Idaho and around the country enjoy the backing of a myriad of county sheriffs who have encouraged their constituents not to be “sheep” by following public-health laws.
Put all of these developments together — Republican lawmakers finding it politically untenable to affirm the legitimacy of elections that Democrats win, conservative activists lording the threat of violence over adversarial officeholders, a growing body of acting law-enforcement agents who consider themselves the final arbiters of constitutional interpretation, and the broader conversion of nearly all U.S. police officers to the Republican Party — and it’s hard not to wholly dismiss fears about the long-term governability of this Republic.