Images of the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings are seared into our collective memory. We will never forget the dismantling of monuments to the confederacy, street art extending to the horizon, and lawmakers and countless others kneeling in solidarity with the protesters. The backlash has been severe—snipers deployed against protesters in Washington, armed mobs threatening peaceful demonstrations, and untrained militias fanning out to defend statues. The former set of images, which tend to depict several things at once—diversity, struggle, triumph—do not share a unifying visual theme. But nearly all of the counter-protests have one thing in common: firearms.
For most Americans, the prevalence of guns among the overwhelmingly white forces of this backlash have validated the key argument of the Black Lives Matter movement. Polls show that an overwhelming majority see it as a peaceful campaign against state-sanctioned forms of violence. But the counter-protesters have revealed a deeper pathology. The flaunting of firearms is an attempt by reactionary whites to assert their position atop America’s racial hierarchy.
I grew up in an NRA family. My grandfather taught me to hunt, and how to handle a firearm. In those days, the majority of gun purchases were for hunting or sport. Today, more than two-thirds of buyers cite “protection” as their reason, even as violent crime has fallen dramatically. This is no accident. For years, Americans have been conditioned to fear their neighbors. Weapons manufacturers bear much of the blame for this, with marketing campaigns that prey on paranoia, bigotry, and the promise to restore lost manhood.
The real onus, however, lies with leaders who fan those fears for partisan gain. For three and a half years, the man at the center of this has been the president of the United States. He approvingly retweeted a video of a St. Louis couple pointing weapons at protesters. He described heavily armed right-wing militamen as “very good people.” He called for the “liberation” of states with Democratic governors, while speaking to racial-justice protesters in dehumanizing language. In perhaps the most absurd example, he has claimed that he always carries a gun.
One problem with such incitements is that they can only be dialed up. Twenty years ago, when NRA President Charlton Heston said, “I’ll give you my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands,” he was waving a muzzle-loading musket in the air. The updated version of that is a gang of insurrectionists riding in armored vehicles and brandishing grenade launchers. For the zealot, there is no room for moderation. Today, that gun-wielding zealot is almost always white.
In some ways, this is a logical endpoint of a long-standing conflict between diverse liberalism and the forces of reaction. Through decades of progress and setback, those fighting for equality have attempted to drive symbols of white supremacy—deployed to remind minorities of their place in the hierarchy—underground. The noose, the white hood, and now the Confederate battle emblem all carry the stigma of racism in the American mainstream. But the gun as totem—omnipresent, and protected by a radical judicial doctrine—will be much harder to dislodge.
Since at least the Civil War, America has racialized its approach to firearms. The Ku Klux Klan was founded, in part, to ensure the disarmament of newly freed southern black citizens. In California, open carry is illegal today not because of some triumph of progressive politics, but because the Black Panther Party in the 1960s dared carry their weapons in public. Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan (R-CA) signed legislation ensuring that could never happen again. When black protesters in Georgia carried the kind of firearms that are mainstays at backlash protests, Fox News invited a Republican senator on air to stoke panic about lawless marauders. Yet fanatics on the right are routinely given free rein to express their paranoia—even derail democracy itself—at the point of a gun. In the case of armed militias who shut down the Michigan legislature, they were encouraged by the president himself.
In a political culture mired in paranoia and grievance, whites are allowed to indulge their fears in ways unimaginable for others. We do not have to guess what might happen if a non-white person indiscriminately waved a gun like we see in countless videos from counter-protests. In a Cleveland park not far from where I live, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with a toy pistol when police arrived to investigate. They killed him within two seconds.
To be sure, extremist elements exist on the left. But instead of elevating them, as President Trump has those on the right, the Democratic Party banishes to the fringes any group that espouses violence. In the south, Democrats once deployed terror tactics to suppress the rights of black citizens. That horrific legacy has undergone a complete political realignment—its inheritor is today’s Republican Party. Indeed, it was the politics of inclusion, and the signing of the Civil Rights Act, that caused Democratic President Lyndon Johnson to remark, “We have lost the South for a generation.”
For the party of Donald Trump, nothing could be more terrifying than an emerging political order that embraces inclusion. Consider how vastly different the two parties’ leaders look. Over 62 percent of Democrats in Congress are minorities and women, a number that continues to climb. For Republicans, that figure is below 10 percent. Will Hurd, the GOP’s last remaining African American representative, chose not to run for reelection this year, offering this parting advice to fellow party members: “Don’t be a racist.”
Fear of the “other” has become the lifeblood of today’s Republican Party. With dwindling popular support, and the inevitable loss of any demographic advantage, Republicans are waging a rear-guard action. Their only chance to maintain power requires undermining democracy itself, as we saw in anti-lockdown protests and during the recent election debacles in Georgia and Kentucky, where officials slashed the number of polling places and lines to vote in black communities stretched for hours.
We are at an inflection point in American life. Many worry that gerrymandering, voter suppression, and intimidation at the point of a gun will lead to a collapse of our democratic institutions. I do not share that fear. Eventually, voter suppression and gerrymandering will fail, as Americans express their outrage. Stoking paranoia may buy time by radicalizing some voters and demoralizing others, but it will alienate far more that it attracts. Contrast the diversity on display at Black Lives Matter rallies with the nearly universal whiteness of the anti-shutdown protests. Their tactics of intimidation, with the gun as its main instrument, may bully some into submission. But in time, this too will fail. The only thing left will be the false bravado of costumed militiamen, who mask their insecurities with the largest rifles money can buy.
Ken Harbaugh is a former Navy pilot and nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives. Follow him on Twitter at @Team_Harbaugh.