April 18, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Why won’t Post columnist EJ Dionne say what needs saying?
It's probably a generational thing.
I like reading the Post’s EJ Dionne, but his habit of stopping short of saying what needs saying is unfortunate, maybe even bad.
A liberal commentator of high esteem – for 30 years, he’s filed a regular column for the Post – he should be free to accuse the Republican Party of choosing anger and white-power violence over decency and liberal multiracial democracy. He won’t, though.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. I do know that Dionne, 70, won’t put anti-Black racism at the center of American politics even when he knows (even when we know he knows) that anti-Black racism is the center. It’s as if he believes doing so would offend white people.
His latest piece is a response to Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and other GOP presidential hopefuls playing to their audience at last weekend’s annual convention of the National Rifle Association. While Dionne understands the party’s embrace of gun politics is the same as its rejection of democratic politics, he dances around white power’s role.
He’s not wrong in saying the Republicans are “now wholly owned by the gun lobby.” He’s not wrong in saying the NRA (a stand-in for “the gun lobby”) used to be a responsible group advocating not only for Second Amendment rights but for public-safety reforms. (As Dionne said, the NRA helped write a law banning the sale and use of machine guns.)
But he’s not right in saying that, because the NRA used to be sensible, that “radical opposition to sensible gun laws is not embedded in the American character.” He said “it’s the product of an ideology that overtook a less dogmatic form of conservatism and seized control of a political party,” starting in the late 1970s. At that point, he said, the NRA became “engulfed by extreme ideologues.” At that point, “our country, including the Supreme Court, embarked on a dangerous new path.”
He knows that this “new dangerous path” was about more than gun rights. He knows it was a backlash – meaning it was totally embedded in the American character, because it arose from a white majority – against political gains made in the wake of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965). A blowhard couldn’t get attention in the early 1960s when stumping for Barry Goldwater. But by the late 1970s, when backlash politics had transformed the larger culture, that same blowhard looked like a leader. By 1980, Ronald Reagan was president.
Dionne is right. “Gun absolutists don’t trust democracy because they know they’re losing.” But he’s wrong in leaving it there. It’s not that they distrust democracy on account of a hostile takeover the GOP. They distrust democracy, because it’s multiracial. It’s no longer anti-Black.
What’s frustrating is that Dionne knows this. We know he knows this. His use of coded language is the evidence: “For roughly four decades,” Dionne wrote in this latest, “American conservatism has identified firearms as a marker of a manly rejection of urban cosmopolitanism and gun ownership as a right more important than any other.”
OK, let’s translate.
By “firearms,” he means “white.” By “manly rejection,” he means “white men.” By “manly rejection of urban cosmopolitanism,” he means white men and their politics rejecting Black politics – which is nonwhite politics or the politics of liberal multiracial democracy, generally. By “more important than any other,” he means white men and their politics are more important than all the above. Why not say this?
Worse is when Dionne garbles what he calls a variation of an “old Maoist slogan” for the purpose of casting “the gun rights movement” in an affirmative light. “All liberty grows out of the barrel of a gun,” he said, so “when Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told a White House rally before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, ‘Let’s have trial by combat,’ he was speaking for a sentiment that runs deep in the gun rights movement.”
Actually, it wasn’t “liberty.”
What grew out of the barrel of a gun, according to Mao Zedong, was political power. Rendered that way, it’s clear that “the sentiment that runs deep in the gun rights movement” is not liberty by way of noble combat. It’s tyranny by way of cold political violence. “The gun rights movement” doesn’t want to break free. It wants to break freedom.
Mao’s Chinese Party shares a lot with Trump’s Republican Party.
We’d be better off with the EJ Dionnes of the world saying so.
I don’t know why, but I suspect it’s generational. To the baby boom generation, there’s something risky about saying what needs saying. I’d guess that the risk is offending white people, those needed to turn America away from the Republican Party’s instinctive militarism.
But white people aren’t as monolithic as they seem. And liberal multiracial democracy needs only some, not all, to write the last chapter of the story of four decades of white-power backlash. Better to risk offending some to gain some than risk nothing to gain none.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.