Political Animal


January 16, 2013 5:17 PM “Tyranny” Explained

By Ed Kilgore

The Plum Line’s Greg Sargent reports this afternoon on a conversation with former Solicitor General Charles Fried, who served during Ronald Reagan’s second term. Fried abundantly mocks the idea that the current president’s executive orders making various adjustments to federal policies related to gun violence represent some sort of unconstitutional “gun grab” or reflect a growing “tyranny.”

“These are either standard exercises of presidential power, or even more benignly, standard examples of the power of the president to exhort the public or state officials to be aware of certain problems and to address them,” Charles Fried, who was Reagan’s solicitor general during his second term, told me today.
Fried noted that some of the provisions are merely “use of the bully pulpit.” What he means is that provisions such as “launch a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign” and “challenge the private sector to develop innovative technologies” to promote gun safety merely constitute the use of presidential stature to advocate. “If that’s an impeachable offense, then the president has just lost his first amendment rights,” Fried said.

That’s all true and provides much-needed refutations of the loose talk we’ve been hearing all day from conservatives.

But no one should expect Fried to make many converts among the tyranny-shouters. He is, after all, talking about current constitutional interpretations of presidential powers, and is limiting himself to the subject at hand. Those crying “tyranny,” however, are typically doing neither.

The case against Obama’s right to do or propose what he is doing or proposing is not based on Supreme Court precedents or any careful analysis of presidential powers. It’s based on a radical belief in the Second Amendment as unconditional, and as the supreme constitutional guarantee that ensures all the others. So any gun regulations, existing or potential, are suspect as “tyrannical” in that they limit the ability of “law-abiding Americans” to stockpile weapons against the day when “patriots” decide being law-abiding is no longer acceptable.

Those shouting epithets at Obama over his executive orders and legislative proposals are not, moreover, focusing strictly on gun issues. Many have been claiming from practically the day of his inauguration that his policy agenda (even, perhaps especially, elements recently embraced by Republicans like a health insurance purchasing mandate) represent gross and intolerable violations of American liberties. They are prisoners of their anti-Obama rhetoric, and/or champions of the radical ideology of “constitutional conservatism,” which defends as permanent and inalienable rights to all sorts of things like unlimited exploitation of natural resources, “fair” (i.e., low and regressive) taxes, freedom from non-discrimination laws, and zygote personhood.

To those so ideologically afflicted, nothing this particular president could propose, especially on this subject so close to their self-proclaimed right of armed resistance to policies they dislike, could be less than “tyrannical.” It’s kind of important to recognize that distinction between people arguing against gun control from the perspective of the Constitution and political system we have, and those claiming authority for the very different Constitution and political system they want.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • efgoldman on January 16, 2013 5:42 PM:

    I've got a feeling that the Secret Service is going to be very busy, these next couple years.

  • Shane Taylor on January 16, 2013 6:10 PM:

    They are doing exactly what Justice Robert Jackson warned against. Having mistaken anarchy for liberty, they are converting the Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.

  • SecularAnimist on January 16, 2013 6:16 PM:

    Let's stop pretending that the NRA and its bought-and-paid-for stooges in Congress are "ideologues" -- "radical" or otherwise.

    The NRA is a lobbying and political pressure organization for the gun manufacturing corporations. Its interests are commercial, not ideological. Its only "ideology" is to sell more guns and to thereby increase the profits of the corporations whose profit interests it represents.

    The so-called "radical ideology" is nothing more or less than fake, phony, cynical, trumped-up bullshit with which to bamboozle gullible, ignorant people. There's no reason for liberals to do the NRA the favor of pretending that it's anything else.

  • c u n d gulag on January 16, 2013 6:25 PM:

    When they're holding guns, their 2nd Amendment right trumps our 1st Amendment rights.

    Who looks down the barrel of a gun, and when told to STFU and sit down, doesn't do so?

    A barrage of words, doesn't come close to the damage that a barrage of bullets can do.
    At least, not when someone is holding a gun in the vicinity.

    There's a reason the Founding Fathers put guns in the 2nd Amendment, and didn't make it the 1st.

    They kind of figured that "well regulated militias" would be, you know... 'well regulated,' or something - and not every idiot in the country could have a gun, enforcing his 2nd Amendment rights through fear and intimidation, over the 1st Amendment rights of people who want to object to his/her doing so.

  • Mitch on January 16, 2013 6:36 PM:

    For modern American "conservatives" the definitions of relevance are as follows:

    Tyranny: Anything that we (conservatives) happen to disagree with. Whether or not we ever agreed with it in the past, or even if it was our ides. So ACA is mostly based on old GOP ideas ... doesn't matter, Dems did it so it is tyranny. Reagan favored reasonable gun control measures and occasional tax increases ... doesn't matter. If Dems do it, it's tyranny.

    Treason: Any action/idea/proposal that disagrees with us (conservatives). Disagree with warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, Gitmo, the War in Iraq, corporate handouts, trickle-down economics, Evangelical theocracy or anything that a Republican says, and you are un-American, guilty of treason.

    If anyone can find evidence that my definitions are incorrect, please let me know. As far as I can tell, this is exactly what conservatives think (if 'think' isn;t to strong of a word).

  • Shelly on January 16, 2013 7:38 PM:

    The conservatives have boxed themselves in, having pressed the Supreme Court to pronounce upon the meaning of the Second Amendment. Now that the Supremes have come down in favor of the personal defense rationale, that's what we are all stuck with, at least in terms of legal justifications for regulations that are or aren't going to viewed as unconstitutional. The extreme right wing view that it was designed to permit us to rise up against our own tyrannical government just doesn't square with the Supreme Court's view. I recognize that this doesn't change their ideology, but it does create a disconnect between what they wail about as being unconstitutional and what really will be found unconstitutional. (Set aside the more practical point that if tyranny prevention were the purpose, shouldn't we be allowed to match the firepower of the U.S. military? But I think few -- if any -- of these folks would publicly argue that it should be legal for any "law abiding citizen" to own a bazooka, rocket launcher, tank, or nuclear weapon. So where would they draw the line?)

  • beejeez on January 16, 2013 11:26 PM:

    If only we had some way of knowing whether there's some other country in the world where slightly stricter gun control laws led to fewer shooting deaths and no loss in democratic accountability. I guess we'll never know.

  • MuddyLee on January 17, 2013 8:54 AM:

    Obama Derangement Syndrome is the real epidemic we face in America. And it's even worse than Clinton Derangement Syndrome was in the late 1990s. But it's not just the 2nd amendment - it's the 10th amendment too, and the efforts to repeal the new deal and great society legislation (not modify or fix - REPEAL). These so-called conservatives (needs to be another term for it - radcons?) are crazy. Let's give them the state of Texas and let them secede (and see if they can "succeed"). In the meantime, I want to start a new organization to help make South Carolina more beautiful - the NSLA - the national shoot a litterer association.

  • James M on January 17, 2013 10:06 AM:

    The comment thread on Talking Points Memo was very interesting. Most of the commenters seemed to agree that the 'Obama is a wimp' meme no longer holds water. I watched his policy announcement on YouTube and it is clear that he is prepared to go to war on this.

    If BO can get this done they will have to open up some space on Mt. Rushmore because he will become one of the most influential presidents of the modern era. Unregulated gun use is perhaps the major systemic pathology of the American system. Real progress on gun laws may be the real sign of America's entry into the modern era. Ironically, this is one of the few areas where the radical right is actually right: effective gun regulation would make us more like Europe!

  • Robert Waldmann on January 17, 2013 3:32 PM:

    I think or at least I wished I thought that part of it is that Obama tricked them. A key part of the crazy were the people who began talking about impeaching Obama for his executive orders before Obama issued the orders. I really want to believe that he said he would write orders before announcing them because he knew some Republicans would denounce the ex ante and then wrote absurdly uncontroversial orders (including as an exceptional measure given the gravity of the situation, I command B H Obama to actually do his job and nominate an ATF director).

    Hardly 11 dimensional chess, but you make fools of the political adversaries you have.