One of the arguments we're hearing in the current debate about gun control is what might be called the anti-anti-tyranny argument. Coming from liberals, it's a little rich.
Some gun-rights supporters say the Second Amendment's purpose is not merely to protect the right to hunt or defend yourself, but to guard against oppression. "The purpose of having citizens armed with paramilitary weapons," writes Kevin Williamson in National Review, "is to allow them to engage in paramilitary actions." Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano likewise argues that the Second Amendment protects "your right to shoot tyrants if they take over the government."
The history of the founding and the language of the rest of the Bill of Rights suggests they have a point. (Though not the whole point. One reason the founders wanted people to be armed is so they could put down insurrections, not just start them.)
But many progressives say this is just plain nuts. To Charles Blow of The New York Times, the rise of "so-called patriot groups" who think such things is evidence of "paranoia by people who have lost their grip on the reins of power, and reality." To Josh Horwitz of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, it's part of a dangerously radical "insurrectionist" movement. To Eric Boehlert of Media Matters, the idea that Americans might need weapons to fight a "war with the government" is one of conservatives' "paranoid fantasies."
Paul Waldman of the American Prospect agrees. In a piece for CNN on how "The NRA's Paranoid Fantasy Flouts Democracy," he says the conservative media encourage listeners to view the Obama administration as "the very definition of dictatorship. … [M]any would say that their 'right' to own any and every kind of firearm they please is the only thing that guarantees that tyranny won't come to the United States. Well, guess what: They're wrong."
No doubt the gun-rights group has a fringe element, exemplified by those who think the Sandy Hook massacre was orchestrated as part of a plot to disarm America. But it's worth pausing to ask: Is it really so outrageous to believe the government of the United States is capable of tyranny?
Not to Naomi Wolf, it isn't. Back in 2007, the author and political activist wrote an essay on "Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps." She noted that the leaders of a recent military coup in Thailand had followed certain clear procedures—and she insisted the Bush administration was following those very same procedures. "Beneath our very noses, George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society," Wolf warned. "It is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable."
The essay was widely circulated, and its popularity led Wolf to expand it into a book, titled The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. (That young patriot presumably is the good kind of patriot—not the kind who joins "so-called patriot groups.")
Wolf had lots of company. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann dedicated a "special comment" to calling Bush a fascist: "You're a fascist!" he bellowed in his usual understated style. "Get them to print you a T-shirt with 'fascist' on it!"
Not everyone was so emphatic. Robert Paxton, a history professor at Columbia and the author of The Anatomy of Fascism, conceded during Bush's first term that "Obviously, the … administration is not a fully fascist regime with a single party, an end to elections and the setting aside of rule of law." But, he continued, "you can make up a list of similarities and differences." How very nuanced.
This sort of talk continued even after Bush left office. In a 2009 piece for the Los Angeles Times, columnist Tim Rutten called for a citizen commission to investigate the administration. "Just how close to the brink of executive tyranny did the United States come in the panic that swept George W. Bush's administration after 9/11?" he asked. "The answer, it now seems clear, is that we came far closer than even staunch critics of the White House believed."
These are not basement conspiracy theorists scribbling in the dark corners of the Internet. They are famous and highly regarded thinkers speaking from respected institutional platforms. And their views were echoed by countless thousands of lesser-known liberals sporting "Bushitler" protest signs and bumper stickers.
All of which permits only two possible conclusions. The first is that progressives knew even then, deep down, they were peddling wildly implausible paranoid fantasies—just as they accuse right-wing "insurrectionists" of doing now. If so, then they should admit as much.
The second possibility? Many progressives genuinely believed, only a few years ago, that the United States really did stand in the dusky shadow of a totalitarian nightmare. Yet now they insist that Americans who want to arm against that eventuality are paranoid nut jobs. That might be politically convenient—but it doesn't make much sense.