Americans understand “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” That concept, embedded within the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, is cherished no more dearly any place on Earth than it is in the United States. Some choose to peaceably assemble, though, and some choose to attack.
America may be experiencing a unique moment in its history, as two parallel power struggles play out on the streets and televisions everywhere. One of these contests – involving those who seek freedom from onerous stay-at-home orders regarding COVID -19 – is not a struggle between the usual left and right political protagonists but between government and the people. The other – which initially spilled into the streets to register affront to the unjust murder of a black man in Minneapolis – is being hijacked into a classic war between the political haves and have nots. This latter group, composed mostly of radical left-wing malcontents known as Antifa, is using the needless and heartless murder of George Floyd as an opportunity to lash out at those whose power they covet for themselves.
It was no mere coincidence that on Saturday, May 30, both the president and Attorney General William Barr in separate addresses made virtually identical assertions. Reading a statement for the press and the public, Barr stated a claim that he would not have made without definite knowledge. After all, this is not a man given to wild, public speculation about anyone’s motivations:
“Unfortunately, with the rioting that is occurring in many of our cities around the country, the voices of peaceful protests are being hijacked by violent radical elements. In many places, it appears the violence is planned, organized, and driven by far-left extremist groups and anarchic groups using Antifa-like tactics.”
On the same day, the president delivered a speech in Florida, after having witnessed the historic launch of a manned mission to the International Space Station. Space was not the only thing on Trump’s mind, however. He addressed the killing of George Floyd and the mayhem that has swept the country in its wake:
“The memory of George Floyd is being dishonored by rioters, looters, and anarchists. The violence and vandalism are being led by Antifa and other radical left-wing groups who are terrorizing the innocent, destroying jobs, hurting business, and burning down buildings.”
There are two seemingly small, but perhaps quite significant, details to note about the attorney general’s comments. In the first place, Barr delivered his remarks from the Justice Department in what was a previously unscheduled press conference. He took no questions. The second point to note is that the AG was not merely throwing out vague utterances of disapproval. Rather, he concluded his statement by pointing out: “It is a federal crime to cross state lines or to use interstate facilities to incite or participate in violent rioting, and we will enforce those laws.”
These two details suggest that the DOJ has obtained compelling evidence that radical organizations are indeed moving behind the scenes to organize or otherwise coordinate civil unrest across two, three, or several states.
Contrast the radical leftist street thugs with those who protested the Coronavirus lockdowns, though. Two battles being fought alongside one another. Two blocs of resistance using two vastly different methods and striving to achieve two very different outcomes.
What are the distinctions? To answer that question, we should perhaps begin with the words of Thomas Jefferson, who is widely attributed as saying: “When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” As true as those words may be, there is no record of Jefferson having ever uttered them, though he once wrote something along a similar vein:
“Some are whigs, liberals, democrats, call them what you please. Others are tories, serviles, aristocrats, &c. The latter fear the people, and wish to transfer all power to the higher classes of society; the former consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent.”
It is worth noting that Jefferson was describing liberals in the classical sense – a label that in no way belongs to the modern American left. Still, the general concept is reflected in today’s parallel power struggles. While the mostly radical left-wing groups lash out at what they call the establishment, they are not seeking to transfer power to the people but to themselves. In fact, they both distrust and fear the people, wishing to replace our system of constitutional republicanism with a radically progressive, authoritarian state in which individual liberty is considered a dangerous threat to the collective good.
By contrast, the mostly conservative protesters who have taken to the streets peacefully, even though heavily armed – from the Tea Party protests to the anti-lockdown demonstrations – have an entirely different agenda. Those protests are not anti-government, as many have surmised, but a warning to the government not to infringe upon individual rights and liberties.
In today’s upside-down world, then, one can draw a parallel between modern conservatives and Jefferson’s “whigs, liberals, democrats.” They take to the streets to remind the government who really holds power. Left-wing groups such as Antifa burn, loot, and commit acts of violence in a petulant fit of rage against a ruling class they wish to supplant – but they have no intention of allowing the people to share power with them, were they to attain it.
At the end of the day, the government – federal, state, and local – has thus far proven itself mostly powerless in the face of either set of protesters. The results, though, are inevitable: the radical left will fail because it has nothing more to offer than rage and because the riots it incites will achieve only a more forceful response from the authorities until they fizzle and fade. The right will succeed because, without violence, it has shown that its compliance with government mandates has a limit. Jefferson was on the right track even though the political labels of his day are no longer relevant: One side fears the people while the other understands that, ultimately, only the people are capable of making the wisest decisions for themselves.
Read more from Graham J. Noble.