“Tyranny” Explained

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.