EJ Dionne keeps missing the point on guns
I like reading the Post’s EJ Dionne as much as anyone, but his habit of stopping short, shy of fully saying what needs saying, is unfortunate.
Maybe even bad.
A liberal observer of his esteem and stature – for 30 years, he’s filed a regular column for the Post – should be free to accuse the GOP of choosing white-power violence over liberal multiracial democracy. He won’t, though.
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I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a generational thing. I do know, however, that Dionne, 70, won’t put anti-Black racism at the center of American politics even when he knows (and we know he knows) that anti-Black racism is at the center. It’s as if he believes doing so would be offensive to white people.
As if offending white people were counterproductive.
His latest piece is a response to Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and a few other Republican presidential hopefuls playing to their audience at last weekend’s annual convention of the National Rifle Association. While Dionne understands the party’s embrace of gun politics is the same as its rejection of democratic politics, he dances around white power’s role in it.
I mean, he’s not wrong in saying the Republicans are “now wholly owned by the gun lobby.” He’s not wrong in saying the NRA (which he considers a stand-in for “the gun lobby”) used to be a responsible group advocating not only for the Second Amendment rights but for public-safety reforms. (As Dionne said, the NRA helped write federal laws banning machine guns.)
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But he’s not right in saying that, because the NRA used to be sensible, that “radical opposition to sensible gun laws is not embedded in the American character.” He wrote that “it’s the product of an ideology that overtook a less dogmatic form of conservatism and seized control of a political party,” starting in the late 1970s. At that point, Dionne said, the NRA became “engulfed by extreme ideologues.” At that point, he said, “our country, including the Supreme Court, embarked on a dangerous new path.”
He knows the new dangerous path was about more than gun rights. It was a backlash – totally embedded in the American character, because it arose from a new white majority – against political gains made in the wake of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965). A blowhard couldn’t get attention in the early 1960s when stumping for Barry Goldwater. But by the late 1970s, when backlash politics had transformed the larger culture, that same blowhard looked like a leader. By 1980, Ronald Reagan was president.
Dionne is right. “Gun absolutists don’t trust democracy because they know they’re losing.” But he’s wrong in leaving it there. It’s not that they distrust democracy on account of an extreme ideological takeover the GOP. They distrust democracy, because democracy has become liberal and multiracial.
It’s no longer anti-Black, as it used to be.
What’s frustrating is he knows this. We know he knows – hence, the coded language: “For roughly four decades, American conservatism has identified firearms as a marker of a manly rejection of urban cosmopolitanism and gun ownership as a right more important than any other,” he wrote.
It’s left to us to translate what he won’t say. By “firearms,” he means “white.” By “manly rejection,” he means “white men.” By “manly rejection of urban cosmopolitanism,” he means white men and their politics rejecting Black politics – ie, nonwhite politics, generally, the politics of liberal multiracial democracy. By “more important than any other,” he means white men and their politics are more important than all the above. Why not say this?
Why not spell it out in plain English?
Worse is when Dionne garbles an “old Maoist slogan” to cast “the gun rights movement” in an affirmative light. “All liberty grows out of the barrel of a gun,” he said, so “when Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told a White House rally before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, ‘Let’s have trial by combat,’ he was speaking for a sentiment that runs deep in the gun rights movement.”
Actually, it wasn’t “liberty.” What grew out of the barrel of a gun, according to Mao Zedong, was political power. When rendered that way, it’s clear that “the sentiment that runs deep in the gun rights movement” is not liberty by way of noble combat. It’s tyranny by way of cynical political violence. “The gun rights movement” doesn’t want to break free. It wants to break freedom. Mao’s Chinese Party shares a lot with Trump’s Republican Party.
We’d all be better off with people like EJ Dionne saying as much.
Like I said, I don’t know why, but I suspect it’s generational. To those like Dionne, of the baby boom generation, there’s something risky about fully saying what needs saying. I’d guess that risk is offending white people, who are needed to turn America away from the GOP’s instinctual militarism.
But white people are no more monolithic than other racial groups in America. And liberal multiracial democracy needs only some of them, not all of them, to end the story of four decades of white backlash politics. Better to risk offending a few to gain a few than risk nothing to gain none.
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