Discover more from Letters from an American
May 8, 2023 (Monday)
The man authorities have identified as the shooter who murdered eight people and wounded at least seven others at a mall in Allen, Texas, on Saturday, Mauricio Garcia, appears to have been a white supremacist. He sported Nazi tattoos and wore a patch on his vest that said “RWDS,” which stands for “Right Wing Death Squad.” (Hispanic-Americans often identify as white, and as scholar of white power movements Kathleen Belew noted on Twitter, today’s militant right holds together largely because of their interest “in hurting vulnerable communities, antisemitism, anti-Islam, anti-trans, misogynist violence.”)
A search by Aric Toler of the Netherlands-based investigative journalism group Bellingcat turned up what appears to be Garcia’s social media account on an unmoderated Russian site. In his postings, he wrote: “A lot of the stuff going on in f*cking clown world. You better believe their wouldn’t be we’ll convert your children drag queen story hour loser’s running around loose. No [Jewish-controlled government] communist or liberal fake news media under Hitlers watch”.
Garcia had been dismissed from the Army for mental-health reasons three months after entering the service, but the reference to “drag queen story hour losers” reflects the relationship between the rhetoric of the modern-day Republican Party and his self-declared membership in a RWDS.
Beginning in the 1980s, Republican leaders found voters to support their “supply-side” economics, which cut taxes and regulations to concentrate wealth so investors could bolster growth, by turning their base against “liberals.” Calling those who opposed their policies “socialists” out to rig the system to redistribute wealth to minorities and women, they began the process of forging a base that considered itself the only real Americans. That process continued over the decades as right-wing media reinforced the idea. Still, though, leaders focused on their economic policies, especially tax cuts, and emphasized culture wars primarily to turn out voters.
Trump turned that formula on its head, playing directly to the base. He offered its members the anti-Black, anti-immigrant, and antiabortion measures it craved, in exchange for utter commitment to his leadership. His drive for authoritarianism dovetailed with a religious movement to create a new ideology for the Republican Party, one that explicitly rejects democracy.
That argument, articulated most clearly by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, is that the secular principles of liberal democracy—equality before the law, free speech, freedom to go to church or not, academic inquiry, a free press, immigration, companies that can make decisions based on markets rather than morality—destroy virtue by tearing down the sexual and religious guardrails of traditional society. In order to bring that virtue back, right-wing thinkers argue, the government must defend religion and self-sacrifice (although it’s hard to miss that they’re looking for other people to make those sacrifices, not themselves).
Last week, on May 4 and 5, the Conservative Political Action Conference met in Budapest for the second time, and once again, Orbán delivered the keynote address. The theme was the uniting of the radical right across national boundaries. “Come back, Mr President,” Orbán said of Trump’s 2024 presidential bid. “Make America great again and bring us peace.” Orbán claimed his suppression of LGBTQ+ rights, academic freedom, and the media is a model for the world.
Plenty of the people there from the U.S. seemed to agree. “Hungary,” Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) said, “is a beacon.”
In a recorded message, Trump said conservatives were “freedom-loving patriots” who are “fighting against barbarians.” “We believe in tradition, the rule of law, freedom of speech and a God-given dignity of every human life. These are ideas that bind together our movement,” he said. He called for the audience to “stand together to defend our borders, our Judeo-Christian values, our identity and our way of life.”
While conference organizers were celebrating Hungary as the only truly free country in Europe, they were taking advantage of Hungary’s suppression of the media to permit only hand-picked journalists to cover the event. Failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake said that “truth-tellers and peacemakers” were being destroyed by “fake news,” as they call every journalist who criticizes them.
Jacob Heilbrunn of the National Interest was one of those barred from the conference. He watched from his hotel room and wrote in Politico, “Throughout, the idea was clear: Liberalism is synonymous with tyranny.”
This ideology is behind the right-wing attacks on immigrants, LGBTQ Americans, the media, reproductive rights, and education. Florida, led by governor Ron DeSantis, has been out front on these issues, but other Republican-dominated states are following suit. Eager to stay at the head of the “movement,” Trump recently claimed that universities are “dominated by marxist maniacs & lunatics” and vowed to bring them under control of the radical right. “He will impose real standards on American colleges and universities,” his website says, “to include defending the American tradition and Western civilization.”
That formulation is also what enables the very people who are taking away others’ rights to claim that they are the ones being persecuted. The reference to right-wing death squads on Garcia’s vest refers to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose goons murdered thousands of political opponents, often by tossing them from helicopters. Since the 2016 Trump campaign, modern right-wing activists in the U.S. wear T-shirts offering “free helicopter rides,” and saying “Pinochet did nothing wrong.”
These ideas are embraced only by a minority in the United States, but that minority is working hard to cement its power by gaming the system. Election lawyer Marc Elias recently warned that “we cannot out-organize voter suppression” and that the myth that we can “minimizes the real world effects of repeated, targeted suppression laws. It shifts the burden from the suppressors to the voters. It suggests that victims of voter suppression simply need to be better ‘organized.’”
He notes that Ohio, Arkansas, South Dakota, Idaho, and Florida have all passed voter suppression laws this year and that the new laws put in place after 2020 have worked. Minority and youth voting have dropped significantly. Since 2008, Black voting in states dominated by Democrats has increased by 1.8 points; in Republican-dominated states it has dropped by four points. In Georgia, Black participation rates dropped from 47.8% to 43.2% between 2018 and 2022. Hispanic participation dropped from 27.6% to 25.1%, and the youth vote dropped from 33% to 26%.
Voter suppression is not “campaign tactics,” Elias warns. It is “the illegal and immoral deprivation of constitutional rights.”