On a rainy day in late April, in a once-storied democracy now ruled by a certifiable madman who gives senior positions to his simpleton children because he wants to, who boasts of grabbing women by their private parts because he wants to, who uses the highest office in the land to enrich his gaudy hotels and let off his thuggish friends because he wants to, who threatens the press corps and Mexican people and his political opponents and his ex-wife because he wants to, who slathers gold paint on his MDF furniture and orange cover-up on his face because he wants to, who tells lie after lie after lie for no other reason than just because he wants to, during a global pandemic when the same madman’s dazed inaction has resulted in more people dying from the virus in his country than any other in the world—on that day, an armed militia drove up to a Michigan state government building, stormed the visitors gallery and stalked the balcony, assault guns brandished, as legislators sat below.
Their demand: that they, too, be able to do what they want, no matter what others want. What they want is, they claim, “liberty.”
Their demand was in response to Trump’s. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” Trump tweeted last month. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA.” All have Democratic governors; all have stay-at-home orders. But liberty for everyone? About the female governor, some in the crowd chanted, “LOCK HER UP!”
Liberty: In their view, it is the freedom to threaten others; in reality, it is they who threaten freedom. They want to do what they want to do, and they want to do it whenever they want to do it, however they want to do it, and here is the key: It is not that they want to do what they want to do in spite of the fact that others may get hurt; they want to do what they want to do because others may get hurt. That they are scaring people is no accident. It is the point. It is what they want. They imagine liberty is being taken from them and must instead be taken from others. To maintain their own parched little plot of freedom, they rain fear down upon everyone else.
And so, in and around the Michigan statehouse, some have waved rifles because they believe they have the God-given right to subject lawmakers to reasonable fear of getting their heads blown off; some have carried the Confederate flag because they believe they have the God-given right to subject Black people to the reasonable fear of being lynched.
Some have threatened to incarcerate a female legislator because they believe they have a God-given right to subject women to reasonable fear of all manner of retribution. And all have swarmed public spaces in a mass because they believe they have a God-given right to subject other people, their own societies, their own country and beyond, to a reasonable fear of a deadly virus.
Their allyship is natural. The gunmen, the white supremacists, the misogynists, the pandemic deniers—each believes that power over others is their birthright, and freedom the ability to wield it unchecked. It is a tyrannical freedom they believe in, a freedom to terrorize others, a freedom not for everyone but for oneself alone if one is the right kind of self—which is to say, a freedom that is no freedom at all, merely a brutal hierarchy in which both the oppressor and the oppressed are trapped, in which domination is justified by domination and subjugation is not an evil but the toxic patrimony of descendents of power.
That isn’t to say there’s no freedom for which to fight.
On a summer day in 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer from the Deep South, who was Black, who was a woman, who had polio, who as a 12-year-old had picked 200 lb. of cotton a day even though she wanted to go to school, who had been sterilized by what she called a Mississippi appendectomy even though she wanted to have children, who had an adopted child that died after the child was refused admission to a hospital because its mother was a Black half-literate sterile cotton-picking cripple woman who was getting a reputation for wanting to vote, who was fired from her job by her plantation boss because she wanted to vote, who narrowly missed being hit by 16 bullets fired by Klansmen because she wanted to vote, who was jailed and groped and half-blinded by police officers and highway patrolmen who told her they were going to make her want to be dead because what she really wanted was nothing less than for her people to vote—on that day, she walked up to a table at the Credentials Committee during the Democratic National Convention, sat in a chair and, armed only with her neat little white handbag, told much of this to a television audience.
Then the president of a storied democracy took over the airwaves so that she wouldn’t take from him what he wanted, which was for white delegates from her state to vote, but some years later, not so many years ago after all, she had this to say: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Whatever these men want, it isn’t liberty.
This article appears in print in the June 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Liberty in America.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.