Guns, insurrection and the persistence of Trumpism in Republican identity
Two big issues dominate the congressional agenda right now. On the gun issue, it looks unlikely that Congress will do much about what more than 70 percent of Americans believe is a serious national crisis — gun violence.
On the Jan. 6 insurrection issue, the opposite could happen. Congress could overreact to a long-ago event that many Americans do not see as a continuing national crisis. Two thirds of Americans accept the outcome of the 2020 election as legitimate.
Both reactions can be traced to the same cause: extreme partisanship.
Opposition to gun controls has become a defining issue for Republicans. Rep. Chris Jacobs (R-N.Y.) was pressured by his fellow Republicans into dropping his re-election campaign because he supports an assault weapons ban.
If you want to run for office as a Republican, you are expected to endorse the view that the 2020 election was fraudulent, that Donald Trump was the real winner and that the violent insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, was not a threat to democracy but a legitimate political protest. To most voters, however, Jan. 6 is not a high priority. The issue is resolved: Joe Biden is president.
The United States enjoyed peaceful transitions of power for over 225 years — until 2020, when Trump claimed to be the victim of a stolen election. He called his supporters to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, to protest the ceremonial confirmation of the electoral vote result. “Be there, will be wild!” Trump promised his followers.
Hundreds came and stormed Congress, following Trump’s direction to “Stop the Steal.” The House investigating committee called it a “coup attempt.” One week before his term expired, President Trump was impeached for “incitement of insurrection.” The Senate voted 57 to 43 to convict Trump, ten votes short of the two-thirds majority required by the Constitution.
Last week’s congressional hearing felt like the third impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Of course, Trump is no longer president. He can’t be removed from office.
The most dramatic outcome of the current investigation would be to uncover evidence that Trump committed a crime. That would make it impossible for him to run for president in 2024, which he gives every indication he is preparing to do.
In the 2020 election, voters rejected Trump but not necessarily Trumpism. Republicans did well in congressional elections, gaining 13 House seats and holding Democrats to a tie in the Senate. Illegal immigration was Trump’s signature issue (“Build the wall”). Trump brought the Radical Right to power, largely by defining a hard conservative line on culture war issues like immigration. How’s this for pure culture war politics? Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) blamed the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting on a “transsexual leftist illegal alien.”
Gun rights have become central to conservative identity politics. Mark Joslyn and his colleagues at the University of Kansas have found that “the correlation between owning a gun and presidential vote choice increased markedly from 1972 to 2012.”
In his address to the nation on June 2, President Biden called for tough measures to curb gun violence: banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines; expanding background checks for gun buyers; removing legal immunity for gun manufacturers; requiring safe storage of firearms.
While the House has approved most of those measures, they are unlikely to get through the Senate because of the filibuster. A bipartisan group of senators is working on a far weaker compromise deal on guns. Biden’s role in the Senate negotiations? “He’s irrelevant,” a Senate Republican aide told the Washington Post. The president of the United States is called irrelevant!
Why are conservatives so attracted to guns? The answer appears to be ideological. Many in the Radical Right see guns as their ultimate defense against a tyrannical and abusive federal government. The question came up some years ago when I appeared on an Australian television show called “Planet America,” a title that captures the alien nature of the U.S. to non-Americans. I explained that guns represent individual freedom — something Americans value more than any other people in the world. If you are forced to give up your gun, you become less free.
I have been to gun shows and talked to gun owners. Often, they defend gun ownership as the ultimate guarantee of individual rights. Some of them told me, “If Jews in Europe had had guns, there would have been no Holocaust.” The idea that guns are the ultimate guarantee of liberty, I explained to my Australian hosts, is a uniquely American notion.
Total devotion to individual freedom is a marker for the Radical Right. Donald Trump brought them to power, and they are determined to get it back — if not with Trump, then with someone who has Trump’s conservative culture war values but not his ugly personal baggage. Trumpism without Trump.
Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).
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