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Texas state Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-27) speaks during the "Texans Rally For Our Voting Rights" event at the Texas Capitol Building on May 8, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo: Gary Miller/Getty Images)

This Republican Party of Anti-Democratic Vigilantes Is an Existential Threat

If the Democrats are not able to pass both a substantial Democratic "infrastructure" bill and a very substantial voting rights bill, it is quite likely that the entire country will soon be Texas.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

The recent passage of Texas bill SR 1, and its peremptory validation by the Supreme Court's far-right conservative majority, has generated widespread and justified horror and outrage. As many have explained much better than I could ever do, the law is doubly despicable. It institutes a "fetal heartbeat" limit on abortion that virtually abolishes all legal abortion in the state and that radically overthrows approximately fifty years of settled jurisprudence following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. And it cynically seeks to get around jurisprudential constraints by empowering private citizens rather than state officials to enforce the criminal law, and establishing draconian civil penalties to be paid to these vigilant citizens upon criminal convictions of "offenders" in court.

The outsourcing of the power to police the personal, medical decisions of women regarding their bodies to private citizens is a particularly egregious abdication of public authority.

"Vigilantism" is the way many critics have described the law's consequence, and rightly so. 

President Biden has declared that it creates "a vigilante system," encouraging private citizens to "go out" in search of "offenders," and the moral and financial satisfaction that the apprehension and punishment of such "offenders" will bring them. Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in what The Nation properly calls a "defiant dissent," put it even more sharply: "In effect, the Texas Legislature has deputized the State's citizens as bounty hunters, offering them cash prizes for civilly prosecuting their neighbors' medical procedures."

Justice Sotomayor concisely explains what a great many commentators have explained at much greater length: that the law represents a deliberate effort to encourage cruelty and inspire fear, turning virtually any effort to obtain abortion services into a risky, costly, and potentially dangerous crime, and palpably assaulting the life chances, and the very freedom, of millions of women.

The law is reactionary and cruel. And is a foretaste of things to come throughout the country if Republicans have their way.

In this respect, it is a perfect expression of Trumpism, for which, as Adam Serwer has provocatively argued, "The Cruelty Is The Point."

But it is also a perfect expression of Trumpism in another way: the general attack on the rule of law, and the fair and impartial enforcement of the law by public authorities, that is the hallmark of constitutional democracy, and the promotion, in its stead, of a kind of informal mob rule.

The outsourcing of the power to police the personal, medical decisions of women regarding their bodies to private citizens is a particularly egregious abdication of public authority.

But it is of a piece with the long-standing far-right Republican invocation of "Second Amendment solutions" brought into the mainstream of public discourse by Trump himself, who encouraged his crowds to beat up protesters; likened his supporters to the revolutionary "Minutemen" who took up arms against a tyrannical state at Lexington and Concord; encouraged his supporters in Virginia, Wisconsin, and especially Michigan to defend themselves against the evil depredations Democratic Governors scrambling to respond seriously to the COVID-19 epidemic in the Spring of 2020; and embraced Kyle Rittenhouse after he shot to death a Black Lives Matter protester in Kenosha Wisconsin in September 2020. This dimension of Trumpism was not hard to discern from the beginning. Back in 2019, the New Republic ran a terrific piece by Alexander Hurst on "The Vigilante President," neatly summed up in this caption: "As impeachment and the 2020 election loom, Trump's hard-core supporters are poised to unleash a wave of violence against their enemies."

This vigilantism came to a head with the violent January 6 insurrection, also incited by Trump,  along with his group of enablers, including Congressmen Mo Brooks and Louie Gohmert. But it has hardly ended. Trump has eulogized Ashli Babbit, the insurrectionist killed by a Capitol police officer in the line of duty, describing her as a "patriot," treating her death as a crime of the "deep state," and indeed issuing threats against the Capitol police. His rhetoric is regularly echoed by far-right Republican House members like Madison Cawthorne, Lauren Boebert, Matt Getz, and Marjorie Taylor Greene. Many on the far right have gone so far as to extol the Taliban for its violent attacks on liberalism. 

Meanwhile the Department of Homeland Security has recently issued numerous public statements about the growing danger of attacks by "violent domestic extremists," and police and Homeland Security officials are preparing for violence in advance a planned September 18 "Justice for J" rally in the Capitol being organized by far-right MAGA groups.

The promotion of citizen bounty hunters and citizen militias quite clearly involves the explicit promotion of violence as a perverse form of civic virtue.

But this vigilantism takes other, less explicitly violent forms, as well.

Reporting on the recent and much-discussed Republican efforts to legislatively restrict democracy in the name of "election security, a recent New York Times piece declares that "G.O.P. Seeks to Empower Poll Watchers, Raising Intimidation Worries." As the Brennan Center reports, these moves, undertaken after the November 2020 election and in service to the "Big Lie" that Trump really won, are designed to allow partisan poll watchers to be much more assertive, and intrusive, in their efforts to "monitor" voters. They are also designed to disallow election officials to restrain such monitoring when it becomes disruptive. While purportedly seeking to ensure voter fairness at the polls, such measures are clearly of a piece with a wide range of intimidation tactics explicitly encouraged by Trump in November 2020. These tactics target voters but also election officials, who are subjected to defiance, confrontation, and even what Reuters has recently called "Trump-inspired death threats." The point: to delegitimize the very idea of non-partisan or professional election administration, and to encourage right-wing activists to increasingly take the law into their own hands in their "enforcement" of election law.

The so-called "election audits" being promoted by Trumpist activists, most notoriously in Arizona, serve a similar purpose. They involve the turning over of publicly-owned election machines, and data, to private—and unprofessional—organizations like Cyber Ninjas, and the relentless questioning of the work of election officials and of professional auditors by these partisan hacks that even some Republicans have described as "clowns." As Kaleigh Rogers  has put it in FiveThirtyEight, "What's Happening In Arizona Is Not Really An Audit Or A Recount. It's A Partisan Inquisition." Indeed, beyond the effort to delegitimize all electoral processes that do not serve Republican interests, such audits also serve to spread disinformation, about constitutional democracy, the plurality of opinion, and the actual results of elections as determined by legitimate election officials and courts. While many Republican election officials and elected leaders themselves, in Arizona, Georgia, and elsewhere, have come out against these efforts for going too far, Republican leaders in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are now pushing similar audits.

The very idea that it is possible for public institutions to organize fair and non-partisan elections is thus being subjected to concerted attack, and in its place a vicious Schmittean politics of "friends" and "enemies" is being promoted and enacted.

While Cyber Ninja CEO Doug Logan is no self-appointed, bounty-hunting Protector of Fetuses,  much less an armed "Patriot" or "Proud Boy," he serves a similar function, as a private individual exercising public functions in partisan and authoritarian ways. He, and his colleagues, and all of those legislators, lawyers, and journalists inspired by his work, are electoral vigilantes.

It is tempting to link this vigilantism to the broader forms of privatization of public functions often critiqued under the heading of "neoliberalism"—from the privatization of social service delivery and imprisonment to the outsourcing of military functions to private military contractors and other mercenary groups.  There is no question that it is both a symptom and a contributor to what Wendy Brown has called "Undoing the Demos" in her important book of that name. There is also no question that a deeper and more robust practice of democratic politics would counter all of these tendencies.

At the same time, while the affinities and connections are surely real, I think it is a mistake to stretch the concept of "neoliberalism" to cover the forms of vigilantism I am discussing. 

One reason is historical: the genealogy of this vigilantism extends much farther back in time, and really is not reducible to the kind of "logics" and "rationalities" associated with "flexible capitalism." As I have argued elsewhere, this vigilantism is a particularly noxious strain of a "civic republicanism" whose roots go back to the American Revolution. This tradition, continued by so-called "Vigilance Committees" organized in the U.S. South in the antebellum period to intimidate Blacks and abolitionists and to apprehend escaped slaves, and by self-appointed anti-immigrant and racist organizations such as the "revived" KKK of the early 20th century, has very deep roots, linked to America's "exceptional" forms of freedom and white supremacy.

The second reason is political: because this vigilantism poses a much more serious, and indeed violent, threat to both individual freedom and a more democratic public life than most of those things covered under the description of "neoliberalism." To put this another way: the critique of "neoliberalism" centers on policy changes and structural transformations that can be instituted by the pursuit and achievement of political power through democratic means. And the opponents of these changes can be challenged, and with difficulty defeated or at least held at bay, by such democratic means. But the vigilantism that has largely taken over the Republican party ideologically and materially contests, and indeed attacks, these very means. And it threatens—to the point of bodily harm—the political activists, and the public officials they promote (think "The Squad"), who are most determined to pursue change by democratic means.

To be concrete: while Jamie Dimon, Jeff Bezos, and Lawrence Summers (and Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer?) may be political adversaries of the left, Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz and the guys planning next week's "Justice for 'J'" rally are enemies of everyone who believes in democracy.

Or to put it in other terms: when the amazing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hid in her office on January 6, in reasonable fear for her life, she knew the difference between Marjorie Taylor Greene and the other gun-toting Republicans in Congress, and the insurrectionists they had incited, and Congressman Jason Crow, a centrist Democrat and former Army Ranger who might not support Medicare for All but surely supports constitutional democracy, and was willing to defend all of his colleagues on the floor of the House until the police arrived.

In the same way, the front line defenders of reproductive freedom in Texas may not be members of DSA. But they are likely to be the only thing that stands between vulnerable and poor women seeking abortions and the bounty-hunting Republican vigilantes, inside the Texas statehouse and out, who present a clear and present danger.

These differences matter analytically. More important, they matter politically.

The U.S. remains in the middle of a COVID-19 crisis that is also a profound political crisis. The Democrats won the 2020 election.  But only barely. The contest for the future of democracy continues. And 2022 is likely to be a perfect storm of Democratic losses. And if Kevin McCarthy and his Republican mob retake control of the House, there is no telling what they might attempt to do in the name of their reactionary politics.

John Nichols has it exactly right in his current Nation piece: "Texas is the New Republican Template." And the situation is dire.

And if the Democrats are not able to pass both a substantial Democratic "infrastructure" bill and a very substantial voting rights bill, it is quite likely that the entire country will soon be Texas.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: "Democracy in Dark Times"(1998); "The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline" (2003), and "Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion" (1994).

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