Open Carry Marches and Stories of Tyranny

On July 4th a pro-gun group is planning an "open carry" march on Washington. This means that marchers will assemble in the capital bearing unconcealed loaded weapons. Organizers of the event have claimed there will be at least 10,000 people participating in this march, but turnout could be significantly lower, or perhaps higher. The right to freedoms of assembly and speech were designed specifically to protect minorities with unpopular views, so the organizers of this march will be exercising their constitutional rights.

The march itself is not a very big deal. It will probably come and go with some media attention and disappointing numbers. However, the language being used by the organizers is sufficiently troubling, and intriguing, that it deserves some attention. The march is being organized by Adam Kokesh a radio host and Libertarian activist. Kokesh provides a full description of the march on a Facebook page promoting the event, but some of the language he uses is striking. "We will march with rifles loaded & slung across our backs to put the government on notice that we will not be intimidated & cower in submission to tyranny."

It is no longer surprising that some on the far right are deluded into thinking that the U.S. is a tyranny seeking to take away their guns, property and way of life, but the persistence of this language, and the extent to which it continues to resonate with a segment of the population is something that should not be disregarded. Kokesh, like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and other public figures associated with these political positions are entrepreneurs of anger, who profit by channeling popular discontent, concern and fear into public expressions of rage against the government. Their motives, while far from noble are nonetheless easy to understand.

The motives, politics and concerns of the participants in these events are more significant, but are often overlooked or ignored. Participants in the open carry march unlike Kokesh, are not going to be hucksters seeking to enrich themselves by drumming up discontent. The crowd will probably be made up partially of right-wing ideologues, but also of people who are easily drawn in by the extremist and angry rhetoric of Kokesh and others because of larger issues such as economic displacement, fear about the future and a loss of political power. These feelings can be a toxic brew that lead to right-wing extremism, but the people themselves are, in many cases, hurting, often for reasons that are not of their own making.

Recent elections, as well as legislative advances on issues such as marriage equality in several states suggest that these people are currently on the losing side of the political debate. It is good that what have become the voices of extremism and intolerance are not winning, but it also creates more problems for the people themselves. As losers in both the political and economic realm, they are more prone to appeals such as Kokesh's.

The Obama presidency has been a great flowering for these right-wing populist opportunists who have rightly viewed the president as a metaphor for the new America. While many are excited about this new America, as evidenced by Obama's two relatively easy election victories, some are uncomfortable with the changes Obama supports, and in some respects, symbolizes.

The language of tyranny, freedom, oppression and the like which one hears so much on the far right today demonstrates this. Participants in this open carry march are being prodded into action by calls to fight against creeping, or perhaps more immediate, threats of tyranny in the U.S. Fighting against tyranny in the U.S. is a good and noble cause, but significantly less so when, like today, there is no actual threat of tyranny coming to the U.S. By building disagreements over policy into a story of freedom versus tyranny, manipulators like Kokesh make their supporters feel more important, as if they are motivated by a noble cause not just political and economic frustration.

People who are suffering economically and feeling that their government is not responsive are susceptible to narratives that present them as the heroes, the true patriots and the defenders of America, despite how far-fetched this might seem to most Americans. These people also need assistance, a responsive government and an economy that offers them a place, a role and an opportunity to earn a decent living. For President Obama this means that he must, unlike his predecessor, not just govern with an eye towards the people who elected him, but that he needs to address the needs and concerns of all Americans. This will be very difficult politically, but also on a human level, as it is probably easier and more satisfying to ignore critics that are obnoxious, but also powerless. However, to do that would be to indirectly continue to lend credence to the appeals of those profiting from discontent and economic suffering.