The almost unanimous conservative euphoria over Rand Paul’s filibuster the other day seems to me an odd thing. More precisely, it seems to me delusional, and therefore demanding understanding. Much of the excitement seems to result from the sheer novelty of a real filibuster, requiring the speaker to hold the floor (and hold it in) for hour upon hour; part of it is the hunger for someone with the “balls” to finally “stand up” to the Obama administration; part of it is the entrance into public life of the libertarianism that has been percolating for years around the margins of the conservative movement and Republican party, which takes its rhetorical power from a fetishization of the US constitution (by which I mean not adherence to its terms, but the belief that the defense of the constitution defines our political imperatives and priorities, and that the constitution contains the answers to political questions, even to questions regarding the best mode of public life); part of it is a sense of stealing the left’s issue and their thunder, and even gaining the grudging support of the more honest among them; and part of it is, I assume, genuine concern over the immediate issue at end—the question of whether the President is constitutionally empowered to assassinate (or is it only to assassinate using “drones”?) American citizens on American soil.
But if we start with that issue, without which the entire event is really nothing more than catharsis, it seems to me there is much less there than meets the eye. I have noticed that on conservative websites, discussions of the general principle get met with indictments of the Obama administration’s duplicity, opportunism, cynicism, and treachery, most of which indictment I share, but now tipping over into the further claim that if we can’t put it past them to demonize Tea Partiers, gun owners, Christians, veterans, etc., as potential terrorists, then we also can’t put it past them to start assassinating them. This slippage into left-wing style paranoia (the indulgence of which I would add to the above list as reasons for the euphoria) both misses the supposed “real” point and unwittingly demonstrates the emptiness of Paul’s entire exercise: such an administration would have no problem acknowledging they have no right to do something and then going ahead and doing it anyway; and whether the government might misuse the powers at its disposal tells us nothing about whether it legitimately possesses those powers. And on that question, the answer seems to me obvious: the President would have to have the power to put down a rebellion organized on American soil; such a rebellion, by definition, would exceed the powers of law enforcement and put us on a war footing; part of putting down a rebellion that, on this assumption, controls part of US territory, might very well involve assassinating its leaders, even those who are involved in political and propaganda rather than strictly military operations, something well within the laws of warfare; since it is conceivable, even likely, that, say, a portion of the Southwest in some combination socialist/Mexican nationalist Chiapas style revolt would include American citizens, those American citizens would be making themselves targets—so, yes, obviously, the President would have the right to kill them, using drones, poison, exploding cigars or any other available lethal technology. (I notice in rereading this that victimary thinking would exclude even the hypothetical construction of such a scenario, since one must in some way “stigmatize” some specific group in order to do so—I could have imagined an Islamist revolt in some part of Michigan, a white supremacist revolt in Idaho, etc.—in any case, names must be named—so, denying the very possibility of such an event feeds one’s self-congratulatory White Guilt or self-righteous victimary stance.)
Disposing of that question leads me to conclude that the roots of the euphoria lie even deeper than the causes I have given so far: the assertion that no American President could ever have the right to assassinate an American citizen on American soil silently assumes and therefore reassures us that it will never be necessary to do so—that we are as inviolate here, on our own land, as the 9/11 attacks may have led us to believe we no longer were. Any war on American territory would be for causes both left and right are well equipped to diagnose and combat, at least in their own imaginations: the home grown tyranny that our political doctrines have always warned us against. To put it bluntly: Paul’s filibuster allowed conservatives to join in the fantasy, which began 9/12/01 and has grown steadily in strength ever since—the fantasy that 9/11 didn’t really happen, and that there is no enemy out there that we don’t create by violating our own principles in some way, through some original sin of our own. On my reading of the evidence, those who enter this fantasy don’t leave it—indeed, why should they, as its terms are idyllic, combining in equal measure victimary resentments, an orientation towards one’s own, familiar, domestic political opponents, and an inexhaustible justification for romantic and populist posturing against the state. A state that they all, in the end, know will not really take them out with a drone as they sip their latte. This simply confirms what I concluded following the November elections: that Americans, having gotten on the victimocracy train, and will not get off until it has high sped to its destination, whatever that might be.