Right-wing “uncivil disobedience” distorts American revolutionary traditions and unleashes authoritarian terror

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Political leaders and pundits during the grueling and chaotically lawless years of Donald Trump’s presidency persistently reminded Americans that ours is a nation of laws, not people, which means our system was designed in a way such that we govern, even are governed, by the rule of law, not by the edicts or arbitrary or capricious claims of power of those in political office.

Of course, this insistent reminder was more an expression of the desperate hope of restoring the rule of law against Trump’s blatant disregard for both the political norms and the laws that hold civil society together. It was, no doubt, ridiculous to hear Donald Trump refer to himself as a president of “law and order”. But then we must recognize that “law and order” is the code for its authoritarian repression, which is what we have experienced for four years as it trampled on our laws and our system of checks and balances.

Yet while Trump’s authoritarian lawlessness certainly inspires a desire to respect and return to the rule of law, we must recognize that important traditions and moments of important social development, indeed progress, throughout our nation’s history have been rooted in a necessary defiance of the law, most powerfully characterized by acts of civil disobedience.

Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, famously wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has the moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws ”.

If we never recognized the injustice of our laws, then women would not vote, people would still be enslaved, children would continue to work in factories and so on. We’ve had some pretty unfair laws and we probably still have them. Therefore enhancing the rule of law is not an enhancement of the laws themselves, but a sort of social process.

It is important to understand this distinction as we look around us today and see such an unbridled defiance of the law.

A Maryland man kills his brother, a doctor, for administering the COVID-19 vaccine to patients, claiming his brother is killing them.

Thousands of people storm the Capitol on January 6, committing violence, even killing, police officers.

A man threatened with death a Michigan representative who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Electoral officials across the country have been terrified, receiving death threats, for conducting free and fair elections.

In short, the Trump presidency and its utter disregard for democracy and the rule of law have given masses of Americans the license not only to defy the law, but to take the law into their own hands.

Indeed, Texas lawmakers, in their recent bill de facto banning abortion, took law enforcement out of state power and placed it in the hands of individual citizens, effectively legitimizing the vigilantism we have. seen so predominantly across the country.

Individuals feel empowered to play the roles of judge, jury and, indeed, executioner, as we have seen in the case of the Maryland man he killed who is his doctor brother. And remember when members of a Michigan militia were caught planning the kidnapping, trial and execution of Governor Gretchen Whitmer because they weren’t happy with his COVID-19 restrictions aimed at protecting public health?

And let’s not forget the three white men on trial for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse who went to Kenosha, becoming a white law and order agent and killing three people during a Black Lives Matter protest. .

These verdicts will tell a lot about how far our political and legal leaders will go to undermine the rule of law by allowing people to take the law into their own hands, to impose their own distorted moral codes on others, to the point of killing people. others.

These are acts of uncivil disobedience and absolutely distort the principles of civil disobedience that have so powerfully brought about the historic social transformation.

Civil disobedience, practiced and theorized perhaps most famously by figures such as Henry David Thoreua, Mahtma Gandhi, and King, has historically meant challenging what protesters viewed as unjust laws; but it does not mean taking the law in hand and completely refusing to recognize it.

King, he recalls, wrote his famous letter while he was in prison. Thoreau wrote in his famous essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (often referred to as “Civil Disobedience”), “Under a government that imprisons anyone unjustly, the true place of the just is also a prison ».

The point is that these figures had at least enough respect for the rule of law to recognize that they had broken it and that they had to go to prison and face the consequences for breaking the law.

If enough people went to jail, thus expressing their disagreement with the law, then this would be the process that would lead to change.

They have not simply tried hypocritically to impose their will on others or to terrorize others in order to command them with fear and the strength to carry out their will.

Our nation finds itself abandoned to the terrorists not controlled by the Republican leaders and, in fact, encouraged by them.

Thoreau, perhaps, went too far when he wrote: “I am not responsible for the smooth running of the company’s machinery. I’m not the son of the engineer. “

It seems to me that there is an element of Thoreau’s thinking here that is incredibly dangerous for democracy. Democracy requires that people learn to lose and respect the functioning of the system, even to make it work.

I think of Al Gore certifying the 2000 elections, which may very well have been stolen from him, doing what Trump was unable to do: making sure democracy worked.

We are not witnessing acts of revolutionary revolt. What we are seeing is the rise of terrorism and authoritarianism.

If the killers of Rittenhouse or Arbery are acquitted, they will unleash more.

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