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The Real Sickness in America

The most tragic irony of all: the religious right professes brotherly love but looks to a prophet of hate and instruments of death for its salvation.

Published onJun 08, 2022
The Real Sickness in America

Photograph by Tim Mudd.

What vile alchemy has enabled many Americans, with Texans in the vanguard, to conjoin a stated belief in God with a total commitment to a serial liar and a reliance on instruments of death? Even when children are murdered in the nation’s schools, the same kind of assault weapons used to kill them remain in stores, highly coveted, the best—the only!—way to defeat the deep state, the Soros cabals, the immigrants and Blacks, and the anti-Christian “socialists” bent on crushing our freedoms. So desperate are the fears of these righteous defenders that they often consider lethal measures to combat them. Hence they will be called lethalists, a neologism that reflects both their truest faith and their deepest fears.

The supposed evil now that requires extreme measures is not Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, or Mao’s China. The evil is difference. The evil is the future. The evil, as often as not, is other Americans.

“If there is still an American exceptionalism, it is to tolerate its schools being regularly transformed into shooting ranges, sticky with blood,” reads an editorial in the French paper Le Monde. “America is killing itself, and the Republican party is looking elsewhere.”

Despite their alleged fealty to the Constitution, the founding document that lethalists enshrine and claim to be “original,” they rejoice in the shredding of longstanding precedents in order to enforce their parochial views. Decades of thoughtful, settled Second Amendment rulings have crumbled like eighteenth-century parchment, transforming an obligation to the community into the sanctification of each individual’s right to brandish automatic weapons and flaunt their capacity to kill. Rather than act to ban or seize the assault rifles that can kill schoolchildren and innocent Americans trying to intervene, the lethalists post photos of themselves, their spouses, and their own indoctrinated offspring bearing the same kind of weapon—trigger fingers impatiently on pause, more a warning than a precaution—until they, too, will have to fight off the battalions of replacement Americans who will violate their suburban lawns.

Absent the vigilance of these warriors parading about in combat gear, the socialists (rarely differentiated from “the communists”) must surely undermine freedom, that once ringing word that now pings arrhythmically when pronounced by the rich, the bigoted, the brainwashed, and the selfish. The staccato barking of their weapons on firing ranges reinforces their hatred and soothes their fears. When the imagined socialists come for them, in tandem with their dark-skinned legions, these bearers of arms, like the minutemen of yore, will win the day. From their four-bedroom bastions they will rain down fire and death; drained swimming pools will become ammo depots; poolside bars will be barricades for the brave. From their weaponized pickup trucks and dark-tinted SUVs, dressed up in camo like their drivers, they will take the fight to the enemy, MAGA banners swirling defiantly in the wind. Only a level of credulity that can believe the lies of the biggest conman in American history can likewise accommodate the martial fantasy that the lethalists might prevail over American soldiers or Marines. The words nasty, brutish, and short would find modern currency in describing their lives if they faced true warriors.

The authentic warriors of Ukraine have the sense to know that their effective resistance relies ultimately on modern rockets, missiles, artillery, helicopters, and sophisticated electronic intelligence. Armed only with the rugged Kalashnikovs that their infantrymen revere, the soldiers of Ukraine would have no chance, even against an inept Russian army that now relies on battering their cities and trenches with long-range artillery. Still, no one can doubt that the blundering Russians, oyster-eyed and unfazed about the mass slaughter they inflict, are a real enemy.

So how does the enemy of Ukraine compare to the enemy of lethalist Americans?

One would assume that their lives, their property, and their values are at risk. But the truth is that they want other Americans to adhere to those same values, and they see difference as a menace justifying extreme reactions. That menace, constantly put before them by the demagogues of the far right, fuels their passion for weapons of war.

Might a person have a rational need of a firearm to protect his family and home? Yes, in some cases. It is difficult to imagine, however, an occasion when he would need an assault rifle. A rifle, by the way, that is more lethal than those used by American forces to defeat two fascist superpowers in World War II. Sometimes, though, the lethalist thinks he requires two assault rifles, or, as noted, one for every member of the family, held up proudly in photos as if they were tennis rackets used to win neighborhood laurels on the gated community court. He might seek two-drum magazines filled with a hundred rounds, and then convert to rapid fire. But how many instances do we have of households being under attack from marauders carrying equivalent weaponry? An ordinary AR-15 magazine holds thirty rounds. How likely is it that a home invader and a home defender will each fire more than six rounds, the standard capacity for a revolver? Finding statistics that clearly document the use of firearms in self defense is difficult, and the frequency of such use is often exaggerated. Yet surely if blazing gun battles between homeowners and miscreants actually occur, we would hear something about them.

Assault rifles, Uzis, and like instruments of rapid-fire lethality are sometimes used in gang-related crimes, or against police, sometimes by people who are mentally ill. While the presence of these weapons demands that police must surely be prepared to respond in kind, what of the home owner or renter, whose chances of being burglarized (not a violent crime) are .31% and of facing an armed robber, .074%. A shotgun, revolver, or, conceivably, a semiautomatic handgun may be necessary in these rare instances. But an assault rifle with large magazines? The actual risk—like the alleged dangers triggering lethalists’ preparation to fight against America itself—must be greatly magnified, for without these menacing fictions the deeper needs to possess such weapons cannot be met.

But . . . surely the values of the lethalist are under threat. Gays, trans people, people of color, all these “replacements” will not share his values. Gender rights advocates and “pedophiles” seek to corrupt his children. When Black people and their supporters protest, and, yes, sometimes riot, he is first among Americans who, sometimes with cause, condemn the rioters for their acts. But while most Americans condemn white nationalists for the murder of Black citizens, do the lethalists condemn them equally, especially given the number of Black deaths in the South Carolina and Buffalo mass shootings? How many lethalists chastise the former president and call for accountability for the national disaster of January 6? Indeed, how many of them were there, or claim that those who were there are heroes?

They want to pray at football games and in public schools, and they would have those prayers be featured at publicly funded events so they can honor their idea of God. They want all who are present to honor what they honor or to publicly but quietly acquiesce. Spiritual belief calls for the utmost sincerity as well as mutual respect, but it matters not to the lethalist that those who do not share his beliefs must bracket their own. Can he and his family pray wherever and whenever they choose, in private, or even in the middle of Central Park or at the Dairy Queen near the square? Can his children pause and pray on the way to class? Of course. But that is not enough. What he cannot abide is difference, a fact of existence but one he abhors. For other people not to believe as he does is an affront to God and, therefore, to America, destined at its White inception, he believes, to be a Christian nation. And Christians of a darker hue may not be excused, for they are the source of the great replacement.

Since 2016, many Americans, like the malignant man who gained the presidency that year with a minority of popular support, have decided that being mean is necessary to secure the good. Even the highest good. How long this pent-up meanness has festered, I do not know for sure. Its antecedents include the Klan, McCarthyites, John Birchers, even the aptly named Know Nothing Party of pre-Civil War days. It has never been absent from American life. The Birchers, especially, detested the federal government, but they remained on the fringe like a marginal religious sect, relying on flimsy, artless pamphlets and the propagation of conspiracy theories.

A much more marketable package for denigrating the federal government arrived in the person of former movie star Ronald Wilson Reagan. In his first inaugural address in 1981, he told the nation that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Next came “supply-side” economics, the now recurring fairy tale that the economy will skip along briskly if taxes on the rich are reduced, thus freeing them to invest for the overall welfare of the nation. The result was an assault on the funding and purpose of government at all levels, ultimately framed by the tautology that, because government is a “problem,” it makes no sense to fund it so that it might actually function appropriately. Unsurprisingly, this fostered as much dysfunction as possible. Those who believed this self-fulfilling nonsense went into government service with the mission of making government not work. From Newt Gingrich to Ron Paul to the current wizard of gridlock, Mitch McConnell, they have transformed Congress into a carnival show complete with barkers and mirrored hallways that reflect the foolishness but lead to nothing at all. The Republican theory of government, especially since the election of Barack Obama, is to do only what serves the wealthy and their retrograde causes or do nothing at all.

After almost two generations of Republican politicians’ portraying government as a burden at best and an insidious challenge to freedom and prosperity at worst, millions of Americans now see government as the enemy. That is, unless the far right is in power; in that event, government offers up propaganda and outright lies, waves Old Glory while saluting the MAGA cap, and enriches its supporters while screwing everyday Americans, including the working class and rural MAGA voters who get nothing but raw meat for their resentments while the rich get all the loot.

Donald Trump was—is—the incarnation of hatred and resentment, an ignorant brute whose antediluvian cunning has vaulted him far past the slimy bogs and dark, smelly environs that other slithering creatures inhabit. Even more pernicious than his cunning is the ease with which his screaming rallygoers absorb his unexampled meanness and cruelty through a kind of debased osmosis, gleefully possessed by the foulness he exudes. Blind to his manifold defects, they come to believe that it is good to be mean. Or, more likely, it feels good to be mean. Mean as hell. Cruelly, spitefully, selfishly mean. Like the man himself. It is necessary to be mean for the good of the country. How else can the immigrants be put in their place? How else can the Democratic Party and its socialist agenda be held in check? How else can the liberal books be banned, the gender claims be silenced? And how else can America remain a Christian nation. This last is the most tragic irony of all: The religious right professes brotherly love but looks to a prophet of hate for its salvation.

Still, if it is essential to be mean, you must show it. Rude, racist, and incendiary attacks can only go so far. If you are mean and you really mean it, you need the most lethal weapon you can find. You might not need it for any other reason. You might not even think you need it for any other reason. But you need it to show what a true badass you are. You are justified, at war with what you imagine to be evil itself—righteously empowered to be the worst you can be. Donald Trump drummed up the threat, and then it was only a matter of his being himself, the most irredeemable public figure in American history, to model the pervasive meanness seized upon by his minions. Chosen by God regardless of his flaws, the story goes, in order to resurrect a pious, patriotic nation, he preens before crowds as they applaud his inhumanity. No, that’s not quite right. They applaud in him the worst part of humanity that he has unleashed in them. And how does it feel? It feels good.

This is triumphalism driven by hate. At its worst, it fuels the demonic urge to hang Mike Pence, to long for Obama’s violent demise, and to murder the octogenarian Nancy Pelosi. For now, the courts are on the side of the guns. Even the California law prohibiting the sale of assault rifles to buyers under 21 was overturned by two Trump appointees on May 11—thirteen days before the murder of nineteen children in Uvalde. From the opinion:

“America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army,” Judge Ryan D. Nelson, an appointee of President Trump, wrote for the appeals court. “Today we reaffirm that our Constitution still protects the right that enabled their sacrifice: the right of young adults to keep and bear arms.” The would-be minutemen of today win another round. It is as if the courts have heeded the words of Marty Daniel, founder of the company that makes the rifle used by the Uvalde murderer. Daniel made a video in 2016 to promote his weapons. In the video he is teaching a boy how to aim:

“There are two types of people in the world, good people and evil people,” Daniel says. “And just in case evil people get in charge, good people need to have the ability to fight back.”

One wonders—do the lethalists ever consider that such pathological hatred and reverence for weapons that kill is also shared by the mostly young men who murder children in our schools? These young killers, some young enough to be called boys, are by now following a hellish script of vindictive, performative murder, one written in the blood of hundreds of innocents torn apart by high-velocity rounds that, on impact, tear, twist, and vaporize so much human tissue that parents, themselves broken and deeply wounded forever, can only identify their murdered children, if at all, by the blood-soaked remnants of the clothes they wore to school.

And then it is the lethalists who say, often to those same parents, we hold you and your child in our hopes and prayers; what a sick person he was, the one who killed your child, sick, sick, sick; if only someone, someone with a gun, could have stopped him. And then to themselves, the lethalists aver that such is the price of freedom. They sleep well knowing that the fate of the nation rests with them, they are prepared, they are badasses, and they are mean as hell. It is not the lethal rifles, the ones with the military descriptor—assault—that are the problem, no those are fully justified. It is the sickness.

In this, they are correct.


John Willingham is an essayist, novelist, and occasional historian whose work has appeared in Southwest Review, History News Network, San Antonio Express-News and other publicationsHis comprehensive paper on slavery and the Texas Revolution will appear in the spring issue of Southwestern Historical Quarterly. His four books on public university honors programs were cited by The New York Times.

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