Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is misusing a regularly scheduled political rally to frighten his base and gin up support for his troubled administration. Flinging scare-mongering language, the Democratic governor has portrayed a grassroots lobbying effort against gun restrictions as a potential source of "violent extremism" and declared a state of emergency.
It's a cheap attempt to build support by delegitimizing opposition to his policies. On the way to declaring a state of emergency, Northam breathlessly warned:
Credible intelligence gathered by Virginia's law enforcement agencies indicates that tens of thousands of advocates plan to converge on Capitol Square for events culminating on January 20, 2020. Available information suggests that a substantial number of these demonstrators are expected to come from outside the Commonwealth, may be armed, and have as their purpose not peaceful assembly but violence, rioting, and insurrection.
The "events culminating on January 20, 2020" consist of the Virginia Civil Defense League's (VCDL) annual lobby day, in which it gathers at Capitol Square, like many other organizations (the Virginia Nurses Association has four lobby days planned for the end of January and beginning of February) do. In the case, the organization is advocating for self-defense rights and against restrictions on the same.
Images of the VCDL's peaceful 2017 rally are on display at the organization's website. This is a normal, regularly scheduled gathering intended to influence public policy.
But the governor warns that this year's event features "white nationalist rhetoric and plans by out-of-state militia groups to attend." He links the gathering to "events that occurred in Charlottesville," as if a gathering by opponents of his policies must inevitably descend into violence launched by fringe-dwellers.
Will fringe racists and right-wing radicals attend today's rally? Almost certainly. Back when anti-war protests were a thing (remember them?) an even more predictable feature than Susan Sarandon on the stage were clusters of far-left types wandering through the crowd trying to convince attendees that a desire for peace implies a workers' revolution and liquidating the bourgeoisie. Radicals frequently court recruits by piggybacking their causes on mainstream ones. In and of itself, that doesn't reflect on the mainstream cause.
In fact, one of the groups joining the rally is Antifascists of the Seven Hills, an anti-capitalist group which opposes gun restrictions because "gun control serves to weaken our defense positions." They don't want to leave any racist presence at the rally unopposed by other pro-gun voices.
"In considering how to deter their recruitment and nullify their ability to harm folks lobbying or otherwise going about their business, we recognized that the VCDL was drawing lines in the sand on optics, and trying to distance themselves from other issues and symbols like the Confederate battle flag," the group notes on its Facebook page.
Whatever your opinion of antifa (I've been a critic), it's clear that this isn't the unalloyed white nationalist gathering that Northam describes.
No, whether you agree or disagree with it, the rally's message is certainly mainstream. Even as VCDL warns that "proposed bills will turn many semi-automatic firearm owners into felons," 86 of Virginia's 95 counties had passed measures declaring themselves sanctuaries for self-defense rights, as of the end of December.
"They suggest that the counties might not enforce new state laws limiting gun rights," the Wall Street Journal reports of the sanctuary jurisdictions.
To a large extent, that's a reflection of the state's version of the national urban-rural divide, which has too many politicians favoring one side while vilifying and punishing the other. In Virginia, support for Northam and the Democratic legislative majority is concentrated in the state's urban crescent, while the sanctuary counties are in rural and exurban areas that even a Democratic county chairman accused his party of treating with "malevolent neglect."
With an immediate post-election victory push for gun restrictions, state Democrats play to the prejudices of their urban-to-suburban base with legislation that sticks it to the rural areas where such laws are largely unpopular.
Playing the same game a year after news reports that, years ago, he dressed in blackface, Northam seeks revived credibility among urban, progressive voters by pushing his party's gun control proposals. And then he doubles down by smearing his opponents as bent on "violence, rioting, and insurrection."
But what about that "credible intelligence" Northam claims was gathered by law enforcement agencies? Maybe it exists, but governments have a long history of feeding the public's fears to delegitimize opponents and justify extraordinary actions.
"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary," H. L. Mencken mused decades ago.
"It had become clear, to me at least, that the repeated evocations of terror by the political class were not a response to any specific threat or concern but a cynical attempt to turn terror into a permanent danger that required permanent vigilance enforced by unquestionable authority," Edward Snowden wrote in 2019's Permanent Record of his growing awareness of what lay behind the surveillance state.
Northam's alleged "credible intelligence" that this year's iteration of an annual political gathering is poised to erupt in an orgy of racism and violence gives him fodder for proclaiming a state of emergency over a normal expression of political dissent. In doing so, Northam makes it clear that he represents only his supporters, that he considers opponents' political views beyond the pale, and that he's prepared to use extraordinary means in order to get his way.
Northam isn't the only offender in this regard. Treating opponents as abnormal, subject to special sanction, and even as enemies of the people is an increasingly popular tactic for America's political class. It's also incredibly dangerous for the health of the political system.
People who are treated by government officials as enemies to be crushed would be foolish to submit to the authority of those officials. To do so is to bare their throats to a predator. If politicians are going to smear their opponents as illegitimate, they should be prepared to receive the same treatment in return.