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Guns? Yes. Masks? No. And Gestapo in Portland.

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Photo of officers in full camo uniform and wearing gas masks

The pathologies afflicting the U.S. body politic today have deep roots in the history and underlying structure of the country.

This is the 15th installment of Organizing Upgrade’s “2020: This Is Not a Drill” column. You can find the full collection, along with all related “This Is Not a Drill Live” video conversations here.

Only in the U.S.A. does a large section of the population think owning an assault weapon is a sacred right, but wearing a mask in a pandemic is a restriction on liberty.

It’s no accident that – besides the Coronavirus – the QAnon conspiracy theory is spreading among the disdain-for-facts-and-science sector of the U.S. people. According to QAnon, a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles rule the world and are only prevented from consolidating total control by the heroic efforts of Donald Trump.

Trump re-tweets QAnon fantasies alongside his standard lie that more testing is the reason for the rise of COVID-19 cases. Still, 30% of Americans think the President is honest. Another 10% don’t agree but approve of his performance in office anyway.

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Meanwhile in the real world, COVID-19 cases and deaths are rising and hospitals in southern and western states are overwhelmed and short of protective equipment. Millions across the U.S may be just weeks away from food insecurity and homelessness when crucial federal benefits and numerous state and local eviction moratoria are set to run out beginning at the end of this month.

The administration’s response is to demand billions of dollars be cut from COVID-19 testing allocations, stonewall renewal of the unemployment and other benefits, and pledge to take the gestapo tactics being used by camouflaged federal agents in Portland to Chicago, Detroit and other large cities.  That’s Trumpism with all its COVID-19 denialist, authoritarian and racist flags flying.

It is also simultaneously a Trump re-election tactic (and signal of what to expect if he loses November 3) and the desperate agenda of an empire in decline.

How did we get this point? What are prospects of preventing further descent into death-cult territory? Can we assemble enough force to push the country in a totally opposite direction?

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It’s not new

The pathologies afflicting the U.S. body politic today may be shocking in the shameless way they are expressed, but their existence should be no surprise. They have deep roots in the history and underlying structure of the country.

Take the worship of individual gun ownership as a sacred right. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ meticulously researched book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment spotlights the reality behind this fetish: Gun love in this country has always been bound up with white Europeans’ drive to take and keep control of land and labor in North America. In the process of genocide, enslavement and the enforcement of Jim Crow, gun wielding by individual whites was a mainstay of, and thoroughly intertwined with, the violence inflicted by armies, militias, slave patrols and police.

Indian-killing militias, for example, were often collections of individually armed whites “deputized” by colonial or state authorities. Likewise, organized slave patrols often grew out of measures undertaken by informal groups of white enslavers. And in the Jim Crow era, the boundary between the “work” of police, the Klan, or armed lynch mobs was all but non-existent.

Further, the “sacred right” of individual whites became embedded in a broader culture that defined freedom overwhelmingly in terms of defending the liberty of each individual white male to do whatever he pleased without reference to any common good. The material basis for this was the immense amount of stolen Indian land made available to whites searching for “economic opportunity”; the system of white supremacy which forced African Americans and other peoples of color to perform the most difficult and dangerous work necessary for capitalist profit; and the relations of patriarchy which pervaded U.S (and most other) societies in the 19th century.

The resulting extreme individualism of U.S., (white) culture was noted early in the nation’s history by the keen-eyed Alexis de Tocqueville. He observed a “selfishness” that led “each citizen to isolate himself from his fellows” and which sapped the “virtues of public life.” The very phrase typifying this ideology – “free white and 21” – originated about the same time (1828). It went into the law books in 1898, when Louisiana put forward its racist grandfather clause (allowing whites to vote while excluding Blacks) and the judge ruled that this was simply a way of maintaining the “right of manhood,” deserved of all men “free, white, and twenty-one.”

Conspiracy theories, and their connection to racist and reactionary movements, also have a long history in America: the Salem Witch trials; 19th and 20th century movements believing that Masons, “Papists” or Jews were secretly infiltrating the government; McCarthyite witch-hunts justified by claims of an international communist conspiracy.

Administrations that don’t give a damn about public health and use gestapo tactics are no aberration either. For Andrew Jackson (Trump has hung his picture in his office), ethnic cleansing was the preferred and practiced solution to the “Indian Question.” Woodrow Wilson, foreshadowing Trump, acted like the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic would just disappear.

New fuel: An empire in decline

Today’s explosion of social pathologies is fueled by an additional factor. Added to settler colonial racism and extreme individualism is the fact that the U.S. settler state, which for 50-some years dominated the globe, has reached the stage of imperial decline. It is exhibiting the same traits that have accompanied previous empires in the time before their fall:

Leadership decadence? Check. It’s become a mainstream trope to compare Trump’s golfing during the pandemic with Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

Loss of the ability to project an image of invulnerability? Check. World leaders and the global public know the U.S. still has immense military power, but seeing Washington’s worst-in-the-world response to COVID-19 and its general incompetence has made the U.S. a global laughingstock.

Inability to provide even the most basic public services? Check. The pandemic has revealed the massive holes – and racial disparities – in every field of public provision from health care to education and transportation to worker safety. Even before the pandemic hit, more than 60 million people in the U.S. did not have access to safe drinking water.

Rise of mass-based movements seeking to “restore lost glory”? Check. That’s what Make (white) America Great Again is all about.

This last phenomenon is especially important. The home bases of empires in decline have historically been far more prone to produce reactionary chauvinist upsurges than progressive and internationalist insurgencies. Populations who have been shielded from the worst violence and abuse of imperial elites and fed a steady diet of “you are superior to the foreign barbarians” have proved fertile soil for authoritarianism and backwardness. When mass-based emancipatory projects have arisen, they have tended to be rooted among peoples outside the “mother country” who have suffered under an imperial yoke and see a chance to break free.

This empire’s gravediggers are inside the gates

For the declining empire we are in battle with today, this precedent may not hold.

An enslaved African American workforce within the U.S. itself was central to the development of U.S. capitalism. This unique history set a pattern for the treatment of peoples racialized as Asians or Latinx who also have played key roles within the “home country” labor force. The fights for racial justice which flow from this necessarily intersect with the struggles of all U.S. workers and affect the thinking and action of everyone in the country with democratic sentiments.

The result is that there is a large (and growing!) portion of the U.S. population that is treated as “outsiders” to the “real America”, providing a big incentive to rebel; yet this constituency is positioned inside of U.S. borders and is in fact central to key sectors of the country’s economic structure. Further, because of racial and national oppression that transcends borders, many in this sector have an organic connection to a global majority that has suffered under the same imperial yoke. (Hence the term popular on the left in the 1960s and for some time after – the “Third World Within.”)

The combination translates into a sector with immense potential social power, including the capacity to morally and politically influence people, especially youth, of all racial backgrounds.

The clout, breadth and depth of the still-evolving uprising to defend Black lives – the largest mass movement in U.S history – gives us a glimpse of this power in action. The uprising challenges the forces of reaction – those gathered under the banner of Trumpism – on the core point used to galvanize their social base, anti-Blackness, and the overall reinforcement of racism. And rather than narrow anyone’s political focus, in spotlighting police murders that are integral to guarding disparities across the color line in every aspect of U.S. life, it pushes people toward a vision that critiques every aspect of an unjust social system.

No surprise then that the platform of the most well-positioned an organized force in this huge and diverse movement – the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) – is a comprehensive agenda for radical change.

Topple racism’s command post

Turning potential power into actual power, though, is far from simple.

The toxic mix of valuing gun ownership over protecting public health, conspiracism, and reactionary movements glued together by white supremacy and national chauvinism are too deeply rooted to be ended any time soon. The process of changing minds, and more importantly of changing the socio-economic and political structures that underlie such pathologies, will take decades even if social justice movements acquire much more influence than we have today. Certainly, they will persist – in Trumpist or some other form – long after this November.

But whether the command post of racism and reaction occupies the White House and has the power to deploy federal agents to occupy U.S. cities makes a huge difference in how this long-term battle will unfold. And that issue is one that can be decided in the next five months.

An electoral defeat of Donald Trump – combined with successful defense of that result in the courts, legislatures, and streets – will strip away a big chunk of the Trumpist Right’s current power. Accomplishing this is both urgent and possible. And victory will give us far more favorable circumstances for the next stage of the fight against Trumpism, and the even longer one to end the system that produces it.

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