Republicans talked a lot about tyranny during the years President Barack Obama was in power. They talked about being “constitutional conservatives,” about being “patriots,” about being loyal to the flag, and to God.
We don’t hear much about tyranny these days, not even when faced with it. When agents of the state break the law, infringe on civil liberties, violate property rights, and act with impunity, you’d think Republicans, of all people, would be outraged. Not so.
The latest abomination came early this morning when Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency in charge of executing immigration law, entered the property of an upstate New York dairy farmer to detain a Guatemalan. The farmer said the man had proper documentation. Along with his wife, the Guatemalan had been working with ICE to arrange asylum for their four children and a baby on the way.
Didn’t matter. ICE agents roughed up the man in front of his kids as they waited for the bus. They took the farmer’s phone as he recorded the incident. They even handcuffed the farmer and threatened arrest. They never produced a warrant. The farmer said: "I told them you can't come in here without a warrant. They can't take someone and throw them up against the wall because of the color of their skin."
True, they can’t. But they can.
Long ago, in a land far away, a strongman dictator of an old banana republic once summed up what’s happening now in the US with one memorable expression: “For my friends, anything,” he said. “For my enemies, the law.”
“The law” as he understood it can tell the difference between friend and enemy. “The law” as he understood it does not seek justice, or any ideal, only power. The difference between those who have power and those who don’t, the difference between friend and enemy, has often in American history been a matter of one’s skin.
If you are on the winning side, it can be hard to see the problem. Everything seems quite normal, hardly an injustice. You might even think those seeking justice are merely complaining, or worse, trying to take something away. Given that much of our history has been battles over power based on skin color, it’s understandable that some of us still see those who are demanding life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as grabbing for power. As the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen helpfully illustrated: “Privilege is real,” he said. “But being a white man shouldn’t disqualify me.”
A lot of Republicans probably felt disqualified by the mere presence of America’s first black president. If power is a matter of friend and enemy, and if friend and enemy are a matter of one’s skin color, then it stands to reason that once an African American became the most powerful human being in the world, many white citizens felt diminished, weakened, as if something had been taken away. It’s not hard to understand, in such a context, why the Republicans talked so much about tyranny.
Tribalism explains why many white citizens can’t see what happening in this country to immigrants who merely want what most of them take for granted: freedom, justice, opportunity, and a decent quality of life. They can’t see that there really is tyranny in this world, that the federal government they all feared during the Obama years is perpetrating a real reign of terror. Republicans are quick to describe the feds as “jack-booted thugs” when they attempt to collect land-use fees from scofflaw cattle ranchers, but they don’t see anything wrong with authorities storming private property to humiliate a man in front of his kids before disappearing him.
Liberals don’t like to use the word “tyranny,” I suspect because that’s what the Republicans did to Obama. But let’s name this evil for what it is.
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