The Singularly Appalling Republican Party
With his promise to pardon convicted murderer Daniel Perry, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has brought the GOP to yet another new low
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The law-and-order party has a law-and-order problem.
I’m not talking about the Republican Party’s tolerance for, and even unconditional defense of, Donald Trump’s many legally dubious acts—though that is certainly bad.
I’m talking, instead, about something far broader in the party and the culture from which it derives its political energy. We saw it in the way conservative media outlets and personalities back in 2020 treated 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse as some kind of folk hero for shooting three men, killing two, during civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after he made a point of driving, heavily armed, to the site of the protests from his home in neighboring Illinois.
We see it in strong support among Republicans, not only for permissive gun regulations, but also for laws allowing private citizens to carry military-grade firearms in public places, whether concealed or not.
And we see it in its most alarming form yet in Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s promise to pardon Army sergeant Daniel Perry, who was convicted of murder last week for killing 28-year-old Garrett Foster at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Austin in 2020.
Together these trends—but especially Abbott’s stance on Perry’s murder conviction—show us a party staking out a position incompatible with life under the rule of law and within a civil society. In its place, the GOP appears to favor a return to the unlawful disorder of the wild west, where vigilante violence and factional allegiances took the place of establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, and promoting the general welfare.
Just the Facts
For summarizing the facts of the Perry case, I can’t do better than quoting generously from a write-up in the New York Times:
On July 25, 2020, Mr. Perry, an active-duty U.S. Army sergeant, was working as a driver for the ride-hailing company Uber when he drove toward a crowd of marchers in Austin and came to a stop, the police said at the time.
Mr. Foster, a former aircraft mechanic for the U.S. Air Force who wore a bandanna on his face and carried an AK-47-style rifle on a strap in front of him, approached the vehicle, the authorities said.
Lawyers for Mr. Perry said during the trial that Mr. Foster then threatened Mr. Perry by pointing his weapon at their client.
They argued that, when Mr. Perry shot Mr. Foster, he was acting in self-defense. But prosecutors said that Mr. Perry had instigated the episode.
During the trial, prosecutors pointed to Mr. Perry’s social media posts as evidence, such as when he wrote that he might “kill a few people on my way to work; they are rioting outside my apartment complex,” The Austin American-Statesman reported.
The jury unanimously voted to convict Mr. Perry.
In denouncing the guilty verdict the day after it was announced, Abbott made the following assertion on Twitter: “Texas has one of the strongest ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws of self-defense that cannot be nullified by a jury or a progressive District Attorney.” This comment echoed those of other politicians, including Matt Rinaldi, chairman of the Republican Party in Texas, who is quoted by the Times saying (also on Twitter) that “this case should have never been prosecuted” and that a pardon from the governor was “in order.”
(For additional details about the shooting and subsequent trial, along with furious criticism of the right’s responses to both, I highly recommend this scalding Radley Balko post.)
Two Sets of Laws for Two Groups of Americans
So, to summarize: Perry announced his desire to shoot protesters. He drove into a crowd of protesters. When a legally armed man approached to tell him to stop driving into the crowd, Perry shot and killed him, ostensibly on the belief that the victim intended to shoot him. Which means the governor of Texas believes “Stand Your Ground” laws cover situations in which the shooter creates a confrontation and the person shot doesn’t make an explicit threat.
The Rittenhouse case is somewhat analogous to the first of those considerations (creating a confrontation), in the sense that Rittenhouse deliberately traveled to a place where he could reasonably have expected to face danger. Despite that, the jury concluded that Rittenhouse was justified in defending himself with lethal force, even if he was foolish to have placed himself in such a threatening situation in the first place.
Yet a jury of Perry’s peers came to a different conclusion, convicting him of murder on the grounds that he faced an insufficient threat to justify shooting and killing Foster.
Isn’t this something Republicans normally support? After all, the GOP regularly denounces progressive district attorneys for exercising restraint in prosecuting certain offenses and (supposedly) progressive juries for showing leniency against certain defendants.
That isn’t at all what happened here. A man was killed. The suspect was arrested, tried, and convicted. Yet because the victim is presumed to be on the left (because he was taking part in a BLM protest) and the man who shot him is presumed to be on the right (because he opposed the protest), the Republican governor is staking out the reverse position: Now a progressive district attorney should exercise restraint because Republicans view the alleged perpetrator as one of their own; and the (presumably) progressive jury should refrain from convicting, because the Republicans view the defendant as an ally.
And the response hasn’t just amounted to political grumbling on the part of Republican elected officials. It’s gone all the way to a promise of trial nullification by way of an instantaneous pardon on the part of the governor. (Abbott now awaits a recommendation from the parole board, the members of which are appointed by the governor.) This isn’t the rule of law, which is supposed to apply equally to all. It’s an expression of a desire for a society with two sets of rules—one for red (good) Americans and another for blue (bad) Americans.
In its implications, this amounts to giving Republicans in red states permission to shoot and kill anyone they want.
A Legal and Moral Abyss
But is that really true? Or am I just deploying incendiary rhetoric? I don’t think I am, as you’ll see quite quickly if you think through the logic behind the Republican position.
Let’s imagine what would happen if “Stand Your Ground” laws were interpreted in the expansive way Abbott favors: They give someone permission to shoot and kill on the basis of believing someone else constitutes a threat. That’s how Abbott can maintain that Perry was permitted to “stand his ground” by driving into a crowd and then shooting someone who came over to tell him to stop (because that act supposedly led Perry to believe he was threatened).
But what about a man who sees someone driving into a crowd of protesters? If he’s armed, as Foster was, isn’t he also entitled to “stand his ground” by opening fire on the driver of the car? After all, this armed protester could just as reasonably say he believed Perry was about to run him over. If your belief in a threat is enough to justify deadly force, then “shoot first, ask questions later” is the rational approach to any and all confrontations.
As my friend (and fellow Substacker) Noah Millman put it in a cogent post written in response to the Rittenhouse acquittal:
If people roam the streets armed and looking for trouble … then they are bound to find it. If, when they find it, they can use their weapons and claim impunity due to self-defense, then I don’t see how one could expect anything less than anarchy.
But of course, Republicans don’t want anarchy. They want law and order—though exclusively on their terms. Americans like themselves are permitted to act with lethal force on a mere presumption of threat, but other Americans must act with utmost restraint or else risk arrest and severe punishment by the criminal justice system—or face vigilante justice by private citizens taking the enforcement of law into their own hands, secure in the knowledge they will be protected by the authorities for having done so.
I have to say, that sounds an awful lot like a well-known polemical description of conservatism that I’ve resisted endorsing in the past, mainly because I’ve known and still know so many principled conservatives who don’t at all view the world this way. The trouble is that such conservatives have been thoroughly displaced within the Republican Party since 2016 in favor of a right-wing rabble and the sycophantic officeholders and media entertainers who flatter its malicious tribalism. The result is a party that increasingly elevates that polemical description of conservatism into a self-evident foundational principle of absolutized bad faith: There must be ingroups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside outgroups whom the law binds but does not protect.
I defy readers to gaze into the legal and moral abyss opened up by Greg Abbott’s promised pardon and try to explain it in a way that doesn’t amount to a restatement of this singularly appalling principle.
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