Politics

From Richmond to the Senate Chambers, Minority Rule Rules

The demonstration this weekend wasn’t peaceful, and the Senate trial isn’t fair.

Side-by-side photos of a man wearing a helmet and a camo bandana, and Mitch McConnell.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images and Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

On Monday, Kellyanne Conway responded to a reporter’s question about why the president’s public schedule of events included no function to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr., on a holiday designated to honor him. Conway decided to answer this question by claiming that Dr. King would have hated impeachment: “The president … agrees with many of the things that Dr. Martin Luther King stood for and agreed with for many years, including unity and equality,” she said. “He’s not the one trying to tear the country apart through an impeachment process and a lack of substance that really is very shameful at this point.”

If this claim—that really it’s the impeachment process that’s tearing this nation apart—sounds familiar, it’s because it was also the lament of GOP House members as impeachment unfolded there. Yes, the day before the president’s impeachment trial opens in the Senate, and on the selfsame day Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced rules that will, he hopes, preclude the calling of witnesses, hearing of evidence, and any other indicia of a “trial” in the Senate trial, the GOP has fallen perfectly in line behind the “stop tearing the country apart” argument as its impeachment defense. It’s the new authoritarian’s lament.

“This is a sad day for America,” intoned Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson, as the House debated the articles of impeachment in December, before calling for a moment of silence to memorialize the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump. As Michelle Goldberg noted at the time, “On the surface it seems strange, this constant trumpeting of a vote total that is more than two million less than the total received by Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. Trump didn’t just lose the popular vote—he lost it by a greater margin than any successful presidential candidate in American history. … But as I watched impeachment unfold, it seemed like something more than that—an assertion of whom Republicans think this country belongs to.” The Republican howls about an unruly minority of socialists and protesters who seek the removal of this president misconstrue the fact that a majority of Americans do not agree to be governed by diktat. A new CNN poll shows that 51 percent of Americans want Trump removed from office, 74 percent of them are closely watching impeachment coverage, and 69 percent want to hear witness testimony. In other words, the majority of America does not consent to authoritarian Senate procedures and rules, and it is not some small faction of illiberal Democrats who are tearing the country apart, as Conway suggests. The majority of Americans are not willing to submit to autocracy, though we will turn to the Senate Tuesday to see if the majority of Americans’ wishes are to be trammeled by Senate Republicans. Spoiler alert: It seems all but inevitable that they will be, which tells you a good deal about how the Senate represents American voters.

If you would like to see another example of what minority rule feels like, kindly turn your attention to the 22,000 people who showed up in Richmond, Virginia, for what is now being described in the media as a “peaceful” march and a triumph of peaceable assembly. Armed with assault-style weapons and body armor, militia members were seen wearing masks and carrying semi-automatic rifles outside the seat of government. The biggest star of the rally—identified by the Washington Post as Brandon Lewis—brandished his .50-caliber Barrett M82A1 rifle, as passersby expressed admiration. “This sends a strong visual message,” Lewis, cradling the firearm and decked out in a helmet and bulletproof vest, told the Post. “The government is not above us. They are us.” The Washington Post clocked another protester wearing full-body camo, with a bulletproof vest, a handgun and an AR-15–style assault rifle. The protesters were overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly dedicated to a vision of “peace” that looks like this. They were there to refuse to abide by any democratically passed gun control measures, and they stood outside the state capitol chanting First Amendment–protected threats to oust Virginia’s democratically elected governor. More than 100 counties, cities, and towns in Virginia have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries and vowed to oppose any new “unconstitutional restrictions” on guns, presumably following the lead of one of Monday’s speakers, a county sheriff who last month promised to “deputize” gun owners if lawmakers continue to push gun control measures. This nullification will be attempted despite the fact that the great majority of Virginia voters actually favor Democratic proposals to limit gun access, a Washington Post–Schar School poll found in October.

Todd Gilbert, the Republican Leader of the Virginia House of Delegates, issued a statement on Jan. 10 after the decision was taken to declare a temporary state of emergency, banning all weapons from the Capitol grounds from Friday at 5 p.m. until Tuesday at 5 p.m. Gilbert’s statement deplored that action as “disgusting and wrong.” The same Todd Gilbert reversed himself on Sunday, issuing a statement opposing protesters who would spread “white supremacist garbage,” hate, civil unrest, or violence, after multiple white supremacists and Nazis were arrested and it became clear that there was at least a possibility of violence at the march. The threat of violence is only as serious as your most recent FBI briefing, it seems. That doesn’t make for a peaceful demonstration—it puts you at the mercy of the armed marchers.

But because there was no violence in the end, we are told, the rally was “peaceful.” As Jim Geraghty at National Review noted smugly, the threatened violence never occurred, which means that the media panic (and apparently that of Todd Gilbert) was overblown. The march was apparently peaceful, he writes, because “perhaps the hateful types decided to stay away.”

Perhaps there were violent people who decided to stay away from Richmond on Monday. But there were also nonviolent people who decided they needed to stay away from Richmond on Monday. As Garrett Epps notes, those who stayed away included many other groups who had equally compelling First Amendment statements to offer:

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence had also planned to assemble and petition for gun-control legislation—as it had done in peaceful competition with gun-rights groups in previous years. This year, because of the threats of armed violence surrounding the gun-rights march, that gun-control demonstration had to be canceled. The delegate from Manassas, Lee Carter, the South’s only socialist legislator, went into hiding because of death threats. Carter had not, in fact, sponsored an anti-gun measure, but gun-rights groups spread disinformation on the internet that he had done so; his life—and his ability to function as a legislator—was endangered.

Pages from the Legislature’s page program were told to stay home. Many legislators asked their staffs to stay away or work from home. The rally forced officials to reschedule the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day vigil for the first time in 28 years. New Virginia Majority—one of the largest progressive groups in the commonwealth—postponed its annual MLK Day of Action due to threats from armed racist groups and because “we cannot protect our people from individuals committed to acts of violence.” Mothers Demand Action stayed off the streets and held phone-banking events, and it almost goes without saying that virtually all people of color stayed home. And so a “peaceful” march, as fêted in the media and fêted by those who seek to blur the line between First Amendment speech and Second Amendment threats, will now include in its definition mass marches in which participants are armed with assault weapons, many of whom were also wearing masks. (Only one person in a mask was arrested Monday despite the fact that hundreds were masked. She was unarmed.)

The fact that nobody was harmed or worse, as occurred in Charlottesville, is likely because those who would have come to the capital to support the gun measures largely stayed home, out of fear. As Epps concluded correctly, “One group’s politics canceled those of others.” This was not a free and open exchange of ideas. It was a display of lethal military power—power restrained so long as nobody provoked it. Only one side believes that marching through city streets brandishing weapons of war is peaceful. And not only did these marchers win the public square this week—they also won the media narrative that such marches are peaceable First Amendment displays. But they are only peaceful displays so long as those who might oppose the guns rights marchers or white supremacists or Nazis stay home. Just as money counts as First Amendment free speech because it can swallow other speech, so too are guns, because they can terrorize other speech.

The minority who carried guns in Richmond overran the majority because of their lethal power. The minority that controls the Senate in D.C. seeks to overrun the majority because of electoral power. This is not liberal democracy at work. It is authoritarianism calling itself the will of the majority, but effectuated by minority power alone.

Support This Work

Help us cover the central question: “Who counts?” Your Slate Plus membership will fund our work on voting, immigration, gerrymandering, and more through 2020.