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“The Lesser Of Ben Carson’s Two Gun Policy Evils”: In Many Respects, He’s A Lot Scarier Than Trump Or Cruz

So this morning I expressed not just concern but some actual fear over Dr. Ben Carson’s recently announced conviction that the Second Amendment was necessary to prevent “tyranny,” mostly because Dr. Carson’s definition of “tyranny” seems to include the kind of things readers of this blog support routinely.

As it happens, over at the Plum Line Paul Waldman takes a closer look at a second Carson point-of-view on guns: the idea that he or anyone else on the scene of a gun massacre might well stop or prevent it if armed heavily enough.

Was it unspeakably insulting to the victims of the Oregon shooting and their families to suggest that they were killed or injured because they didn’t have the physical courage and quick thinking that a hero like Carson would have displayed had he been in their shoes? Of course. And is it an absurd fantasy that in the instant he was confronted by a gunman, Carson would in the space of seconds organize a bunch of terrified strangers to mount an assault on someone ready to kill them? You bet it is.

But this fantasy is nothing unusual at all. In fact, it lies at the heart of much of the efforts Republicans have made at the behest of the National Rifle Association in recent years to change state laws on guns. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” says the NRA, and Republicans believe it, too. So they push for laws to allow guns to be brought into as many places as possible — schools, government buildings, churches, anywhere and everywhere. They advocate “stand your ground” laws that encourage people to use guns to settle arguments. They seek both open-carry and concealed-carry laws on a “shall issue” basis (meaning the government presumes that you should get the license unless it can prove you fall into certain categories of offenders) to put guns in as many hands as possible.

All of this is driven by the fantasy of the gun owner as action hero.

Carson’s argument that the way to stop gun violence is by more guns is, as Waldman notes, pretty much the default position of Republicans these days. That’s true whether or not they also, like Carson, go on to embrace the additional argument that guns are needed to remind liberals there’s only so much Big Government that good patriotic Americans should be expected to accept no matter what voters or judges say.

Put the two arguments together and you see the hopelessness of any “compromise” over gun regulation. You also see how many people look at Ben Carson’s stirring biography and observe his mild-mannered habits of speech and really don’t listen to what the man is saying. In many respects he’s a lot scarier than Trump or Cruz or any of the rest of the GOP presidential field.


By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly October 8, 2015

October 9, 2015 Posted by | Ben Carson, Gun Control, Gun Violence | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Ignoring The Real While Fighting The Imaginary”: The Dangers Of The Right Wing Panic Machine

It should’ve been the shot heard around the world. Chances are, you didn’t hear it.

An ominous sort of history was made last week near Austin, Texas, but it seems to have largely escaped notice. There was some media coverage, yes, but less than, say, Lindsay Lohan’s latest stint in rehab, certainly less than you’d think for something whose ramifications will likely shadow us for years.

On May 2, you see, a group called Defense Distributed, led by law student and self-described anarchist Cody Wilson, accomplished what was apparently the first successful firing of a gun “printed” entirely by a 3-D printer. According to Forbes reporter Andy Greenberg, who witnessed the test, the gun is made almost entirely of plastic, the only metal in it being the nail that served as a firing pin and the bullet it fired.

A 3-D printer, for the benefit of those who remember when the mimeograph machine was the cutting edge of duplication technology, is a device that can download computer blueprints and use them to manufacture complex physical objects right on your desktop.

The one Defense Distributed used is said to have cost $8,000. Amazon has one listed for $1,299.

So we now have technology, largely unregulated, with the potential to turn every desktop into an armory. Forbes reports that, in just two days, 100,000 blueprints were downloaded.

Hold that thought as you ponder another recent headline. It seems one Adam Kokesh, an Iraq War veteran and activist, is organizing an armed march on Washington for Independence Day. Participants — he claims 2,500 so far — with loaded rifles slung across their backs plan to march into the nation’s capital to protest the “tyranny” of the federal government.

While D.C. residents are allowed to have registered firearms on their property, they are not allowed to carry them in public. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has said marchers will be met at the border and if they break that law, “we’ll take action.”

Kokesh, apparently delusional, promises to turn back peacefully if confronted, but says it is his hope the city will suspend the law for him and even provide his group a police escort.

You will not be surprised to learn that, by “tyranny,” Kokesh means the duly elected (not a hanging chad in sight) president of the United States going about his job. Thing is, if you don’t like the way he does his job, you get a chance every four years to make a change. People in North Korea would doubtless love to live under that kind of “tyranny.”

Because it isn’t. Kokesh’s march is just the latest product of the great American panic machine, the mechanism by which the extreme right works itself into spasms of apoplectic terror over threats that don’t exist.

“We’re going to be under Sharia law!”

Except, we’re not.

“We’ve become a socialist country!”

Except we haven’t.

“There’s a War on Christmas!”

Except there isn’t.

“They’re trying to take our guns away!”

Except that it is now theoretically possible for a mental patient to manufacture his own gun in the comfort of his aluminum foil-lined basement. That’s a sobering development with far reaching implications barely considered, much less addressed, by lawmakers though this technology has existed for over a decade. Since Wilson’s test, there’s been a flurry of calls for legislation. On Friday, the federal government ordered Wilson to remove the blueprints from his website. All of which is the very epitome of locking the garage after the Hyundai has been hotwired.

It’s a pity some of the energy that has gone into fighting imaginary tyranny did not go into pondering this real and eminently predictable threat. But, then, we are unserious people in a very serious age.

And therein lies the danger of the panic machine. We spend so much time fighting threats that do not exist, we are left ill-prepared for the ones that do.

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr.,  The National Memo, May 12, 2013

May 14, 2013 Posted by | Guns | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“None Dare Call It Treason”: Combining Extremist Language About Opponents With Violent Language About Political Options

As Brother Benen notes this morning, the National Rifle Association’s new president, James Porter of Birmingham, Alabama, likes to talk about the importance of the Second Amendment as a way to ensure the American people will be able to “resist tyranny”–i.e., shoot and kill law enforcement officers, members of the U.S. armed services, and presumably anyone else (you know, like their neighbors) who might disagree with their definition of their essential “liberties”–at some undefined point in the future. And while I’ve not yet seen evidence of him calling Barack Obama a “tyrant” (though he has called him a “fake president”) I’d be shocked if it doesn’t exist.

So let’s put it this way: Porter seems to be highly representative of the amazingly common type of contemporary “conservatives” who combine extremist language about their political opponents with violent language about their political options–who in effect point their guns at “liberals” while making it known they and they alone will decide what “liberties” to surrender, democracy or laws be damned.

It makes it worse that Porter is one of the old boys who thinks it ha-larious to refer to the American Civil War as the “war of northern aggression” (as “we” put it “down south,” he said to a New York crowd recently). Since that war, whatever else it represented, was without question an armed revolution against the government of the United States, you have to wonder if the Confederacy–or as it was commonly referred to in the north for many decades, “the Rebellion”–is Porter’s model for defense of oneself against “tyranny” (you may recall that John Wilkes Booth shouted “Sic semper tyrannus“–“thus always to tyrants”) after shooting Lincoln.

Am I perhaps being unfair to these people in suggesting that they are behaving like America-haters and are flirting with treason? I don’t think so. Porter and those like him could dispel this sort of suspicion instantly, any time they wanted, by just saying: “Let’s be clear: the kind of ‘tyranny’ we are arming ourselves to forestall is something entirely different from anything Americans have experienced since we won our independence–a regime engaged in the active suppression of any sort of dissent, and the closure of any peaceful means for the redress of grievances. We’re not talking about the current administration, or either major political party, as presently representing a threat of tyranny.”

I’m not holding my breath for any statements like that to emerge from the NRA, or indeed, from the contemporary conservative movement. It’s ironic that people who almost certainly think of themselves as patriots–perhaps as super-patriots–are deliberately courting the impression that loyalty to their country is strictly contingent on the maintenance of laws and policies they favor, to be achieved if not by ballots then by bullets. Republican politicians should be repudiating such people instead of celebrating them, accepting their money and support, and even adopting their seditious rhetoric.


By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, May 6, 2013

May 9, 2013 Posted by | Democracy | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Elephant Doesn’t Exist”: Guns And The Tyranny Of Extreme Rhetoric

Let’s say you’re making lunch in the kitchen while your kids play in the living room. When you come in with their mid-day meal, the place is a disaster. You look at them. They look at you. And before you know it they’re blurting out something like “the elephant did it!”

Now, I suppose there’s something to be said for that argument. It takes a quick wit. Or at least a keen sense of mammalogy. But it’s got one fundamental flaw: There is no elephant. And you know that’s true no matter how hard they argue otherwise.

These days, some on the right have seized on an invisible elephant all their own. They’ve named him Tyranny, and to hear them tell it, he’s big, he’s scary, and he’s tearing up the place. The problem, of course, is that he doesn’t exist—but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to convince the rest of us that he does.

Their latest effort came in the form of a Scott Rasmussen poll that found “65 percent See Gun Rights As Protection Against Tyranny.” If it’s true, that’s quite a finding. It means most of us believe that our government may descend into tyranny and that guns are the right way to protect ourselves from that eventuality.

Of course, there’s good reason to doubt Rasmussen: His polls reliably lean to the right. But for the sake of argument let’s take his findings on their face. How should we reconcile them with the great many other polls that suggest broadening support for gun control? The 55 percent in a CNN/Time poll who say gun controls should be tightened. The 58 percent in an ABC/Washington Post poll who back an assault weapons ban. The 63 percent in a CBS/New York Times poll who support banning high capacity magazines. The 78 percent in the same poll who favor creating a database to track all gun sales in the United States.

If you take the Rasmussen poll on the one hand and all the other polls on the other, it can only mean that there are many millions of us who somehow believe both that Americans need guns to protect ourselves from a government that may turn tyrannical and that we should make it harder for Americans to get guns. This is a, ahem, nuance that Rasmussen fails to address.

And then of course, there’s this: According to a recent Pew survey, only 33 percent of Americans have a gun in their home at all. If so many of us really think that tyranny looms and that guns are our protection but so few of us actually own them…well, we must be a pretty self-destructive lot.

As it happens, there was another poll in the field at around the same time as Rasmussen’s that was about the same issue, and conducted by a similarly conservative pollster—Wenzel Strategies (the pollster for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, among others). Wenzel asked respondents whether they believed the Second Amendment “exists to allow Americans to have small arms for hunting and self-protection” or “to give Americans the ability to defend themselves against government if it becomes tyrannical?” The results? Forty-seven percent said it’s just for hunting and self-protection. A whopping 8 percent said it’s just to defend against tyranny. And 40 percent said all of the above.

In other words, two polls that can be relied on to skew right, but on the question of tyranny and guns, Rasmussen’s big majority turns into Wenzel’s minority. And a less partisan researcher would presumably find that support is actually significantly lower than is suggested in both.

None of this, however, put the brakes on the Rasmussen poll among the conservative press and punditry. Breitbart, NewsMax, FreedomWorks, etc. all quickly linked to or posted stories like the one Katie Pavlich authored at reporting that “an overwhelming majority of Americans believe the Second Amendment and gun rights are necessary to protect against tyranny.”

Look, I don’t put any more stock in Wenzel than I do Rasmussen. In my view, they both poll in the service of ideology rather than in an effort to uncover actual attitudes and beliefs. (Wenzel used his findings, for example, to suggest that we are more at risk of tyrannical takeover precisely because we don’t think it’s going to happen. Sigh.) And I have no doubt that there are those who actually believe that tyranny is in the offing. But the fact is, most of us, regardless of our political or ideological stripe, don’t believe that. We know the difference between our government and that of other countries in world, between Saddam Hussein and John Boehner. The former subjected Iraqis to years of death squads and oppression. That’s a tyrant. The latter’s subjected Americans to years of weepy incompetence. That’s irritating.

That doesn’t make the tyrannists’ rhetoric any less insidious, however. In asking us to conceive of an America that is profoundly different from the one in which we actually live they seek to conform our public policy to threats that exist only in some kind of make-believe place. When they are successful, the mainstreaming of lunatic ideas (like: We live under the threat of tyranny) makes possible ever more extreme policies (like: We all must have the right to semi-automatic weapons). And when we let that happen, nightmares of a very different kind than those conjured up by the ideologues really do come true.

When you take the invisible elephant out of your living room, you can clearly see what caused the mess (your kids.) And when you take the false threat of tyranny out of the equation, the case against assault weapons is pretty clear too (we don’t need them).

The elephant doesn’t exist. And it’s time for us to say so.


By: Anson Kaye, U. S. News and World Report, January 24, 2013

January 25, 2013 Posted by | Guns | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Is Donald Trump A Demagogue?: He Might Aspire To Be One—But He Doesn’t Have The Chops

Unless you live under a rock, you know Donald Trump is thinking about running for president. His sensational public endeavors—pushing the White House to release President Obama’s long-form birth certificate and, most recently, questioning the authenticity of the president’s academic record—have met with astonishment, outrage, and dismay. A recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover featured a photo of Trump in mid-rant with the one-word headline, “Seriously?” Journalists, commentators, and even Jerry Seinfeld (who recently canceled an appearance at a Trump fundraiser) have taken to calling Trump a demagogue.

In recent decades, this powerful term, traditionally a scalpel for taking apart dangerous leaders, has become blunt and ineffectual through overuse. I’ve been thinking and writing about demagogues for a decade. I’ve been watching with a mix of bemusement and concern as Trump strains to elevate himself into an actual political figure, rather than the ego tornado he’s been for decades. But one of the lessons of history is that, while it’s easy to underestimate demagogues, it’s also easy to overestimate them. For the time being, I’ve concluded that Trump is not a demagogue. He lacks both the common connection and the lawlessness of classic demagogues, whether Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez today or, in the past, figures ranging from Benito Mussolini to George Wallace to Joseph McCarthy. Instead, call him a quasi-demagogue: a political figure with the desire, but not the chops, to manipulate the masses.

Demagogues are part of the natural life cycle of democracy. So much so that the Founding Fathers designed our various checks and balances and circuit-breakers in part from their mortal terror that a predatory mass leader—a demagogue—would convert popular adulation into American tyranny. James Madison, for instance, explained that “provisions against the measures of an interested majority,”such as an independent judiciary, were required to control “the followers of different Demagogues.” This doesn’t mean, however, that demagogues haven’t popped up throughout the country’s history.

During my years studying and watching demagogues, the one lesson that has stuck with me is this: Many politicians could become demagogues if they wanted to. They could choose the gross emotional appeal, the naked ambition, and the cunning blend of vulgarity and artistry that is the true demagogue’s métier. They don’t because most of them are governed by an ethic of shame. Where others blush and quail, the demagogue happily blusters ahead—crossing boundaries, coloring outside lines, toppling walls.

Demagogues often look most ridiculous to the people they’re most uninterested in impressing. When the colorful, autocratic Louisiana Governor Huey Long was sworn into the U.S. Senate in 1931, it was precisely his clownishness that gave him such political amplitude. He prompted a firestorm of controversy when he met a German naval commander paying an official call in a pair of green silk pajamas and a bathrobe. One scholar writes, “[T]he lesson he learned from the incident was less the importance of diplomatic niceties than the value of buffoonery in winning national publicity.” With these techniques, Long soon attracted more attention from the press than his 99 Senatorial colleagues combined. He would have challenged FDR for president in 1936, had he not been assassinated by the son of a political opponent in 1935.

You might think that Trump’s own clownishness puts him in the class of a Huey Long. But let’s take a closer look. As I argued in my book Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies, a true demagogue meets four tests. First, he presents himself as a man of the people, rather than the elites. Second, he strikes a very strong, even overpowering emotional connection with the people. Third, he uses this connection for his own political benefit. Fourth, he threatens or breaks established rules of governance. This fourth test is the most important, distinguishing a demagogue like Huey Long (who routinely used the National Guard to intimidate or brutalize political opponents, for instance) from populists like William Jennings Bryan (who, as rambunctious as he may have been, tended to play by the rules).

For Trump, let’s take the four tests in turn. With his Theater of the Absurd hairdo and his massively knotted silk ties, his Manhattan address and his glitzy brand, Trump is hardly a man of the people. True, he’s employing incautious bluster as a proxy for common appeal. “Authenticity” has become the coin of today’s reality-television realm, and there is a mass appeal to his straight-talkin’ persona—this is why his recent use of the “f bomb” plays to his curious political strengths, even while appalling elites. But for Trump to swap his fancy persona for that of a commoner would require him to blow up the brand he’s spent decades building, a task for which he is probably not constitutionally capable.

Second, Trump does not have the broad emotional appeal to the masses that marks the classic demagogue. Over the last decades, Trump has enjoyed billions of dollars of both paid and earned media exposure. He couldn’t be better-known by the American people. Yet he is consistently polling under 20 percent right now among Republicans and right-leaning independents (a recent CNN poll has him at only 14 percent), giving him a base of well under one in ten among the general voting population. The emotional surge for Trump among the very hard-core Tea Party right should certainly be noted. But it’s more likely this brushfire halts at a particular firebreak: the general American public’s hostility and suspicion to the Tea Partiers.

On the third test, it’s very unclear whether Trump is interested in actual political power, or just in increasing his personal brand and wealth. Even now, we can’t tell whether he will run—and keep running, after the glitz of the initial launch wears off—for president. Even if he gets into the race, will he slog through the hard work of an 18-month campaign, including getting on the ballot in all 50 states, participating in debates, developing policy positions? And, if he drops out, will he really have an interest in putting his shoulder to a real political end? Time will tell, but the initial signs are that this is mostly about Trumpery rather than government.

The most important test is the fourth—that demagogues, unlike populists, bend or break the rules. Trump clearly has no inhibition about lying for political benefit. But real demagogues go much further. Look at Joseph McCarthy, who used his selected issue of anti-communism to demolish people’s personal and professional lives. It’s hard to imagine that Trump really wants to encourage threatening behavior. But, if he ever started to ask his followers to test boundaries of lawfulness, to “challenge authority,” our hackles should quickly rise.

None of this means Trump isn’t worth taking seriously. To the contrary: Where Trump is succeeding in his demagogic appeals, he’s also illuminating shadowy corners of the American public. And we have to take a hard look at how this is happening. Demagogues, like nightshade, have always flourished in dark places of extreme economic or social distress. The 1920s were the last great era of American demagoguery, when Huey Long and the Detroit “radio priest” Father Coughlin rallied millions of terrified Americans against elites. It’s been no surprise that the 2010s, a time of similar distress, have fostered divisive figures from Sarah Palin to Glenn Beck to Trump.

The lesson here is that today’s restless, upset public needs reassurance—and vigorous economic policy that addresses their concerns. But we also need the media to exercise some discretion. In today’s fragmented, 24-7 echo chamber, where 500,000 nightly viewers qualify you as a pundit and one persistent blogger can take over a news cycle, the media has more responsibility for steering the ship of state toward calmer waters. Trump—as quasi-demagogue—is a creation largely of the media. The real conspiracy isn’t Trump’s mania du jour; it’s hundreds of news editors, assignment editors, reporters, and bloggers whom he’s playing like fiddles.

More broadly, though, history shows that the only real antidote to demagogues is an alert, vigilant civic culture. The ancient Athenians, exhausted by a series of vicious demagogues, passed a law exiling anyone who “proposed a measure contrary to democratic principles.” We probably don’t need to go so far, though some watching Trump today doubtless wouldn’t mind moving him to Canada. America, after all, is the land of the civic mores the visiting Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville chronicled and admired. And we almost always eventually turn on demagogues. The stars of Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, and David Duke all rose for a time, but, when they fell, they crashed hard.

We can never be complacent about our constitutionalism, and the Trump phenomenon bears careful watching, lest the little fires he’s clearly capable of starting spread into a larger conflagration. But, in general, Americans have shown they’ve got what it takes to nip even quasi-demagogues in the bud. Take note of Palin and Beck’s recent fates: Under heavy fire from the public for their own excesses (a persecution complex in Palin’s case, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in Beck’s), they both are retreating to the sidelines.

We’re early in Trump’s political career, so I offer these judgments cautiously, but my suspicion is that Trump, too, will burn out, like a hot fuse on a cold rocket. This may already have started. When President Obama took the stage last week in his stunner of a press conference to take on Trump’s birther attacks, he declared, “We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.” A hilarious tweet I received shortly after said that carnival barkers were protesting that the comparison with Trump was giving them a bad name. And, of course, the president easily made Trump look both inane and irrelevant when the coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death interrupted “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

There’s also a final thing Trump himself should remember, before he goes farther down what is likely a dead-end road to demagoguery: History remembers Joseph Welch’s famous question to McCarthy—“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”—as well as it remembers McCarthy himself. Trump has shown he doesn’t take criticism well, sending an angry retort to Vanity Fair and appearing openly thin-skinned after jokes were made at his expense at the White House Correspondents Dinner. He will likely realize soon, if he hasn’t already, that his brand, not to mention his ego, will not sustain the sort of historical thrashing that will inevitably follow any furthering of his demagogic aspirations. Indeed, in the end, The Donald’s self-love might just be his own best friend.

By: Michael Signer, The New Republic, May 7, 2011

May 7, 2011 Posted by | Bigotry, Birthers, Constitution, Democracy, Donald Trump, Economy, Elections, Ideologues, Ideology, Journalists, Politics, Populism, President Obama, Press, Public, Pundits, Republicans, Right Wing, States, Tea Party, Voters | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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