A couple of months ago, I listed some air pistols for sale online and got a message from a gentleman who wanted to buy the lot.
Over the course of about a week, I exchanged three or four phone calls with him totaling about an hour and a half. The reason it took so long, I came to realize, was that the gentleman mainly just wanted a friend to talk to, and buying air pistols was largely incidental to that goal.
I learned a lot about the man. He used to shoot cartridge firearms, he said, but he had a bad heart and his doctor told him he needed to stop; air pistols, being much quieter and having virtually no recoil, were the heart-healthy option. Additionally, he had been in a terrible car accident a few years earlier and it left him confined to a wheelchair. He had set up a little target range in his basement where he could do some plinking, usually accompanied by his grandson.
When he finally offered me a price for the lot of pistols, he told me that I could definitely get a little more from someone else but his offer was as high as he could afford to go. I told him I’d take it; I wanted the air pistols to go to someone who would appreciate them. And I obviously didn’t say this part to him, but I could tell they would bring a little joy to his life and he seemed like a guy who could use it.
The gentleman was thrilled with the sale and he had plenty of kind words for me. We had become friends, at least as far as two people doing a business deal who are never going to meet in person can become friends.
On our last phone call, he asked me if I ever shoot cartridge firearms. I told him that I do; mostly revolvers, I said, but I keep a couple shotguns on hand to scare off the coyotes that wander onto the property.
“I used to go shooting out behind my house, too,” he said. “None of my neighbors shoot, though. F****** liberals.”
He spat those last two words with uncharacteristic venom. I didn’t say anything and he moved on to a different topic. But all I could think was, man, we’re having a very nice conversation right now, but if you knew what I really think about the state of the world, you would probably despise me.
It’s not the first time that thought has crossed my mind. It happens frequently these days.
I think regular readers of this column would label me a progressive and hate-readers of this column would label me a Godless heathen liberal. Politics never came up once when I was talking to the gentlemen who bought my air pistols; why would he assume I wasn’t progressive?
There are, I think, two answers to that. The obvious answer is that I live out in the woods and own guns. I know a number of progressives who live out in the woods and own guns, but that’s definitely not the popular perception.
The second reason, however, is more troubling.
At no point in our conversations did I advocate for dismantling democracy and letting anarchy reign. At no point did I say I hated America. At no point did I insult the troops. At no point did I say I hated the American flag.
Since I didn’t do any of that, he must have figured I was a nice, normal, reasonable person and therefore on his team. You obviously can’t make a human connection with one of those awful liberals you hear about on the news. They’re monsters who hate this country.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider former President Donald Trump’s Veteran’s Day speech from this past Saturday. Near the end of the speech, Trump said the following:
“We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections,” he said. “They’ll do anything, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America and to destroy the American Dream. … The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous, and grave than the threat from within. Our threat is from within.”
First things first, that is an absolutely insane speech from anyone, much less a former President ostensibly talking about Veteran’s Day.
Secondly, while I don’t consider myself a communist or a Marxist, and I definitely don’t consider myself a fascist, I do have to ask myself: am I a “radical left thug?” Well, I’m pretty progressive, I’m a former full-time journalist who maintains a weekly newspaper column, I don’t believe the election was stolen, and I don’t like Trump, so I’m going to guess that I fit his definition. I’d wager that about 81 million other Americans do as well.
Up until recently, there was a certain understanding in American politics: no matter the party affiliation, a President represented all of his constituency, not just his supporters. It was understood that regardless of political party, no one goes out and casts a vote hoping to destroy their country.
Trump not only has no interest in serving those who didn’t vote for him, he’s actively saying they’re not human.
Trump’s use of the word “vermin” to describe American citizens is straight out of the fascist playbook. Hitler compared the Jews to rodents. Mussolini compared communists and socialists to vermin. The Rwanda government propaganda prior to the Rwandan genocide characterized the Tutsis as cockroaches and snakes.
This is the language of dehumanization, the language that allows a dictator’s followers to commit atrocities because their enemies are unlike them; they are members of the great Other, an unknowable species that only wants to destroy everything that good citizens value. None of this is new, which makes it all the more frustrating that so many refuse to see it for what it is.
When I was a kid, I always used to wonder how the German people allowed Hitler to rise to power. What I’ve come to realize is that it didn’t start with putting people in gas chambers; it started with convincing the citizenry that the people who would end up in the gas chambers weren’t people at all.