Arms and the Right
Richard Feldman's Ricochet, an insider account of how conservatives have used the Second Amendment to clobber liberals on gun control and more, is evidence of what this schizophrenia means on the most down-to-earth political level. Ricochet is long--too long--on details about the inner workings of the NRA, the purges, the plots and the Machiavellian maneuvers of executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. Still, it has its moments. The most relevant concerns a campaign Feldman helped engineer in New Jersey in July 1990 to punish then-Governor Tom Florio, a Democrat, for pushing through a ban on assault weapons a few months earlier. When Florio announced a major tax increase to plug a deficit in the state budget, a Pat Buchanan-style "pitchfork rebellion"--led by a letter carrier named John Budzash and a title searcher named Pat Ralston--erupted across the middle of the state. Feldman, eager for revenge and experienced as a field operative when it came to populist campaigns of this type, sprang into action. Working behind the scenes, he established contact with Hands Across New Jersey, as the tax protesters called themselves, funneling them money, advising on strategy and grooming their press releases. "But unlike what I'd helped produce for the NRA, we had to give the Hands documents a rough edge," he recalls. "I always made sure to misspell at least one word, 'frivilous' or 'wastefull.'" The group's biggest PR coup was distributing thousands of rolls of "Flush Florio" toilet paper to protest the governor's proposal to slap a 7 percent sales tax on such items, a tactic that frightened the state's Democratic establishment to the core. Senator Bill Bradley did his best to duck the controversy but barely squeaked through to re-election, while Florio lost to Republican Christine Todd Whitman three years later. It was an example of the sort of right-wing populism that would continue to build throughout the 1990s, crippling the Clinton Administration and paving the way for the Bush/Cheney coup d'état in December 2000.
Hands Across New Jersey could not have done it without the NRA, and the NRA could not have done it without the Second Amendment. On the surface, tax hikes and gun control would seem to have as little to do with each other as horticulture and professional wrestling. But eighteenth-century civic republicanism, the ideology bound up with an individualist reading of the Second Amendment, provided the necessary link by portraying both as the products of overweening government. In the face of such "tyranny," the message to protesters was plain: take down those muskets, so to speak, and sally forth to meet the redcoats. Don't think, don't analyze, don't engage in any of the other sober measures needed to sort out the fiscal mess. Just turn the clock back to the eighteenth century, pack your musket with "Flush Florio" wadding and fire away! Needless to say, atavistic protests like these were sadly irrelevant in terms of the financial pressures that, in a politically fragmented, traffic-bound state like New Jersey, were growing ever more acute. Yes, the protesters succeeded in throwing out some bums (and ushering in even worse ones). But with the current governor, Democrat Jon Corzine, now struggling to resolve a 10 percent budget gap, the crisis has only deepened.
After the disaster of the Bush years, it would seem that the right-wing populism embodied by Hands Across New Jersey has burned itself out. But given the collapse of the liberal-collectivist reading of the Second Amendment and the Supreme Court's likely embrace of an individual right, it could conceivably gain a new lease on life--just as the country is grappling with a major recession, the worst housing crisis since the 1930s and a wave of municipal bankruptcies, all problems that call for a collective government response. But an incoherent Constitution dating from the days of the French monarchy, the Venetian republic and the Holy Roman Empire is now sending an increasingly strong message that firm and concerted action of this sort is the very definition of tyranny and must be resisted to the hilt. Once again, Americans must take aim--at themselves! Tushnet's question concerning "how we understand ourselves as Americans" thus becomes somewhat easier to answer: Americans are people at the mercy of eighteenth-century attitudes they don't know how to escape.