This week, democracy in the USA again came under threat as former president Trump held a rally in Waco, Texas, where in 1993 a 51-day government siege of the headquarters of a religious cult gave birth to the modern anti-government militia movement. Since then, Waco has been a touchstone for violent attacks on the government. There, Trump stood on stage with his hand over his heart while loudspeakers played not the national anthem but a song recorded by January 6 insurrectionists. Footage from the attack on the U.S. Capitol played on a screen behind him.
In the wake of the school shooting in Nashville on Monday 27th, in which seven people died (including the shooter), Biden once again urged Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons. Republican Rep Andrew Ogles, in whose district this happened said he was “utterly heartbroken” by the shooting and offered “thoughts and prayers to the families of those lost.”
This is the same Ogles who posed for his Christmas card with his wife, and children all holding guns, carrying the message: “The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference—they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good.”
It would appear Republican lawmakers will never agree because gun ownership has become a key element of social identity for their supporters, who resent the idea that the legal system could regulate their ownership of firearms.
This pandering to right-wing reactionism in home-of-cowboy-culture Texas seems to underscore that MAGA (Make America Great Again) Republicans not only have the GOP (“Grand Old Party”) by the short-and-curlies, but seem to be guiding its moves from a political playbook that might have been compiled from the scripts of old Westerns.
For MAGA maniacs, the evils of the world can be confronted and conquered by a good man with a gun, just like Gary Cooper in High Noon. There is no more respect or understanding for other cultures than in the blinkered, driven focus of The Searchers. Heroes are taciturn loners whose arguments are settled by gunplay, as in Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” trilogy, or a band of buddies who triumph by shooting the bad guys to shreds, as portrayed in Rio Bravo.
Reading Rep. Ogles’ Christmas “greeting”, you speculate if his favourite film might be Winchester 73, where people are secondary and the film is the story of the gun itself. Not all Republicans are signed-up members of The Wild Bunch, although the way the party is going the metaphor of nine gun-blazing desperadoes who get whittled down to four before a Götterdämmerung confrontation with the entire Mexican Army could well prove apt.
Westerns do have wide appeal. The idea of a wide-open frontier where men of guts could carve a future, where black hats and white hats defined simplistic morals is understandably embedded in American culture. But, revered as the myths may be, the Gunfight at the OK Corral never took place; it was invented by Howard Hawks after a conversation in Los Angeles with an aging Wyatt Earp.
What is more important, the Western is no template for 21st century politics. Those trying to do so are not just paunchy oilmen sporting string ties and Stetsons. Rich Republicans much further from the original culture can be found on Beacon Hill; in California hot tubs; in Manhattan gyms; on Philly’s trading floor; playing Pebble Beach or Augusta. What they share in common is hostility to regulation in general and government in particular. America’s fiscal free-for-all rewarded them with riches, so why can’t everyone else. Those who make it have much to protect and real protection comes in the shape of a gun. Never mind that the frontier died a century ago—and its simplistic morals with it.
Republicans—especially the MAGA sort—seem not to believe that. This is makes them political dinosaurs, appealing mostly to the wealthy and the uneducated. The former are kept on-board by self-interest and the latter by disinformation.
But their relevance is fading as they offer nostalgia but no new policies. They are flickering, like the clattering sepia nickelodeon footage that introduces Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.