Over the last few months I have attended a number of Black Lives Matter demonstrations. These have also attracted counter-demonstrators, ranging from perfectly normal folks to the downright bizarre. One fellow, for example, stands atop a concrete curbside bench along Carson Street addressing the world non-stop through a hand-held amplifier. He holds an American flag and wears, from the top down, a classic Plains Indian headdress, a buckskin shirt, red nylons with garter and heels, and the bottom half of a Victoria’s Secret bikini.
Other costumed counter-demonstrators include men decked out in tactical military gear and armed with everything from knives and pistols to assault rifles. They belong to self-styled militia groups, or at least that’s the impression their matching, martial outfits convey. They don’t carry signs, so their objectives aren’t clear, although they consistently stand with the counter protesters against Black Lives Matter.
I did overhear a conversation between a demonstrator and one of these militia types, who had apparently been asked why he was there. He said he was protecting everyone’s—both demonstrators and counter demonstrators—first amendment rights. No one from Black Lives Matter asked him to do that, and it’s unlikely he received a direct invitation from the counter demonstrators. But there he was.
Here’s a basic fact. Anyone who assumes for themselves the power to protect your rights also assumes for themselves the power to take them away. As a society, we give these powers to law enforcement officers, under the condition that they are applied professionally, objectively, and fairly. But if we accept—or worse normalize—the usurpation of power by self-imagined protectors and allow their army-man fantasies a foot in the door—then we’re in real danger.
In normal times, we might not be unduly concerned. Armed militias have been around for a long time, and there really aren’t that many of them. But we are not in normal times. We are two months away from an election unlike any in our nation’s history. Voters will be attempting to cast ballots, by mail or in person, while their lives are being turned upside down by the health, emotional, and economic impacts of COVID-19. Meanwhile, our own government—the Trump administration—is doing everything it can to monkey-wrench the process and cast doubt over the outcome, should Trump lose. In fact, the President has said that by definition the election will have been rigged if he doesn’t win.
These are also fragile times. COVID-19 has exposed the inequality of our health system, which is in turn a reflection of our unequal society. Somehow, this system and the society it mirrors will have to absorb additional millions of cases beyond the six million we already have, without collapsing. It will have to absorb one thousand deaths per day for as far as we can see, piled atop the 180,000 people already dead.
And our political system has never been more vulnerable. Until now, the prospect of the losing presidential candidate simply refusing to accept the results of an election was unthinkable. There are no laws and procedures to address this eventuality, because no one ever thought it would happen.
If President Trump comes out on the short end in November, won’t acknowledge his loss, and refuses to leave office, who’s going to make him? William Barr, the President’s attorney general? Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley, who served the President as a prop in his infamous Lafayette Park photo op? John Ratcliffe, Trump’s handpicked Director of National Intelligence, who just decided Democrats in Congress weren’t worthy of intelligence briefings? The US Senate? The Supreme Court?
Should Trump lose, the country will spend the rest of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 paralyzed by an avalanche of lawsuits attacking every aspect of the election—registration, ballots, the vote count itself. There will not be time, given the President’s talent for manipulating the legal system, to resolve these lawsuits by Inauguration Day. If he decides to sit tight, which he will, and pleads for his day in court—which will by design never come—who from the above list will hold him to account, let alone make him leave?
There will be months of uncertainty, and a vacuum the armed, self-appointed guardians will gladly fill. No one should be confused about which side they will be on, or how easily they will assume their duty to reverse an election their president tells them was improper. They will be there with their helmets, fatigues, and weapons to convert Trump’s abstract legal arguments into reality, and impose them on the rest of us. The danger is clear, and it is closer to being present than we think.