On a cold day in April 155 years ago, a Union Army general sought to cheer his defeated Confederate counterpart. With the war over, he said, “Brave men may become good friends.”
“You are mistaken, sir,” the other man said. “There is a rancor in our hearts which you little dream of. We hate you, sir.”
Maybe it began then, in the resentment of those beaten men, their bitterness toward a government that had, for the first time (but not the last), forced upon them a change they did not want. Maybe it was first planted there, in the soil of Appomattox, this bizarre idea that America’s government is America’s enemy.
Eighty-nine years earlier, Thomas Jefferson had written that governments, are “instituted among Men” to secure the rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And white people enthusiastically agreed. But that was before “Men” came to include black men. When it did, when it later came to include Muslims, Jews and even homosexuals, many white people began to feel cheated. The resentment planted at Appomattox blossomed through the years, watered and tended by Supreme Court rulings affirming civil rights, by Nixon, Southern strategizing, by Reagan, calling government a problem, by Obama, acting like he was the president just because he was elected and by Trump, implicitly promising to free white men and women from the tyranny of democracy.
That’s how you wind up with the nationwide spectacle of recent days: people, mostly white, some carrying guns, some wearing MAGA hats, some waving Confederate flags and anti-Semitic signs, blocking traffic, honking horns, yowling at the sheer gall of government to try to keep them alive in a deadly pandemic. One man told a news camera that stay-at-home orders meant to slow the spread of infection were a hardship because they kept him from buying grass seed. A woman pointed to her graying roots.
Nobody knows the trouble they’ve seen. Except maybe Trump. He tweeted at them to “LIBERATE” Virginia, Michigan and Minnesota, states that are not, in fact, under foreign occupation, but governed by duly elected leaders who take the pandemic too seriously for the far right. Again: the tyranny of democracy.
So an actual president of the United States is actually calling for insurrection. Meantime, some of us would rather risk death than accede to a government that denies their God-given rights to seed their lawns and dye their hair. If they endangered only themselves, one might be tempted to let them have at it. But any governor who caves in to this truculent minority over the advice of medical professionals, endangers all 330 million of us.
That this must even be said is appalling. But it must, because some of us remain incensed at the idea they might be forced to do a thing, even if that thing is necessary to save lives. They hate government that much, and never mind that in a democracy, government is us. This is not (yet) a new Civil War, but make no mistake: The failure to recognize that simple truth is an existential menace. Indeed, 27 years before Appomattox, a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln warned that, while no foreign power could threaten America, America could, by “wild and furious passions,” be a threat to itself. “As a nation of freemen,” he warned, “we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
For some of us, apparently, suicide is the better option. One hears in them the ghostly echo of that bitter rebel, who hated the government for imposing its will on him.
Of course, they’ll have to stay alive to hate.