August 28, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The Republicans’ paramilitary wing reemerges in Jacksonville
Democracy has betrayed “patriots.” Political murder is their recourse.
A 21-year-old white supremacist whose name I won’t use walked into a Dollar Store in Jacksonville, Florida, over the weekend. He shot three Black people to pieces because they were Black, according to Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters. He shot himself to death before police arrived. He left behind a cache of writings explaining his “ideology of hate,” Waters said.
He was armed with a semiautomatic rifle (AR-15) and a semiautomatic pistol (Glock). He had bought them legally, though he’d been involved in a “domestic violence incident” in 2016 and had been “involuntarily committed for a 72-hour mental health examination the following year,” the AP reported. Most of the reporting I have seen used the term “racially motivated” to describe the shooting. The AP was the exception.
Racism was the cause.
The shooter appears to have acted alone, but only in the sense that no one else, according to authorities, was involved in shooting three Black people to pieces at a Dollar Store in Jacksonville over the weekend. Otherwise, he wasn’t alone. “Lone wolves,” as they are called, are never truly independent.
Before starting, the shooter “texted his father and told him to break into his room and check his computer,” the Associated Press reported. “There, the father found a suicide note, a will and racist writings from his son. The family notified authorities, but by then the shooting had already begun, the sheriff said. Officials say there were writings to his family, federal law enforcement and at least one media outlet. At least one of the guns had swastikas painted on it. Sheriff Waters said that the shooter made clear in his writings that he hated Black people.”
He appears to have acted alone, but only in the sense that no one else, according to authorities, was involved in shooting three Black people to pieces at a Dollar Store in Jacksonville over the weekend. Otherwise, he wasn’t alone. “Lone wolves,” as they are called, are never truly independent. They are part of complex and informal social networks of like-minded “patriots” who believe that nonwhite people are actively disowning “law-abiding citizens” of their American birthright.
These networks feature lots of talking about “the problem” – referred to these days as “the Great Replacement” – and lots of talking about what’s going to happen if the problem is not solved. Most of the people involved in such talk are just talking for the sake of looking tough among their peers. But on occasion someone comes along, typically a young man, who figures out that that’s all these people are willing to do, talk-talk-talk, and that he’s the only one with the guts to act.
That’s why talking about violence is nearly as bad as acting violently. In the right setting, among the right people, at the right time, with the right catalyst, all the talk – all the lying and propaganda, to be specific – creates a context that rationalizes political murder. Prominent Republican figures who have influence on these complex social networks know what they are doing, and they know why they are doing it. Democracy often doesn’t work for them. Violence often does.
The Jacksonville massacre is a reminder that the Republican Party, like many other political parties around the world, has a paramilitary wing that’s standing back and standing by in case things don’t work for the party democratically. This faction is typically neither formal nor organized. (It’s usually invisible to the naked eye.) But when the time is right, it comes to the surface, as it did on January 6, 2021, when Donald Trump led an attempted overthrow of the United States government after it was clear that he lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden.
But the J6 insurrection is only the most obvious expression of violence from the Republicans’ paramilitary wing. As I said, it’s subliminal. It emerges typically in the form of shooting massacres – or the slaughter of what I call “outpeople,” who these paramilitaries believe are trying to disown “law-abiding citizens” of their American birthright. It happened in Charleston and Buffalo (Black people), in El Paso and Uvalde (Hispanics) and in Pittsburgh (Jews). It happened again in Jacksonville (again, Black people). Democracy has, since 2008, betrayed “patriots” (when it produced a Black president.) Political murder is their recourse.
Again, paramilitaries don’t act alone. Republican leaders have, over the last few decades, incorporated into their thinking a distinctly insurrectionist interpretation of government, the law and the US Constitution. As a result, and since democracy’s betrayal, in 2008, Republican legislators have accelerated the deregulation of firearms, pushing guns into every quarter, knowing that they can rely on “lone wolves” to offer the threat of violence to keep “outpeople” in check.
Prominent Republican figures talk-talk-talk about political violence, knowing that in the right setting, among the right people, at the right time, all the talk could rationalize even something as overt as civil war. After Trump was arrested for the fourth time last week, Sarah Palin warned of it. “Do you want us to be in a civil war?” said the former governor of Alaska. “Because that’s what’s going to happen. We’re not going to keep putting up with this. I like that you suggested that we need to get angry. We do need to rise up and take our country back.”
Civil war could happen. That would take a large-scale, organized and expensive effort. But you could say that civil war is happening. It’s small-scale, cheap and lone wolf-style. And GOP leaders want it to stay that way. They can’t win a civil war that involves military conflict. They can win – indeed, they may be winning – a civil war that’s limited to paramilitary conflict. We will see more shooting massacres like Jacksonville’s long after the last J6 insurgent has been prosecuted.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.