In September, an Arizona student who tested positive for COVID-19 was ordered to quarantine for several days. Seems normal, no? No. The boy’s father barged into Principal Diane Vargo’s office and demanded the kid be allowed back into school immediately. Vargo was alarmed when the intruder told her that others were on their way, warning, “If you keep doing this, we’re going to have a big problem.” Two other men did arrive, one carrying military-style zip-ties. They told Vargo that they were going to make a “citizen’s arrest.”
As it happens, the intruders were the ones arrested — by the police.
The same month, in Michigan, a meeting of the Barry-Eaton District Board of Health was disrupted when a man threatened to make a citizen’s arrest of a county health official after a school mask mandate was announced. That was mild compared with the death threats Genesee County officials have received over masks. And that, in turn, was less serious than what happened in Kent County, where someone tried to run a health official off the road.
Stories of threats and violence aimed at ordinary Americans who are simply serving on school boards, supervising elections or holding public office are not new. It’s a mashup of pandemic-induced mania, social media misinformation, Trump-incited disinhibition and something in the water.
The citizen’s arrest has become a theme running through some of the most sinister of the recent plots. It has a long pedigree, originating in English common law. In the U.S., it has been codified in a number of ways by states. But the invocation of the citizen’s arrest as an excuse for political violence is new. Former President Donald Trump set this table with his “lock her up” chants and accusations of treason against anyone who damaged his fragile psyche. His 2019 Twitter tantrum at Rep. Adam Schiff was the gold standard: “I want Schiff questioned at the highest level ... Arrest for Treason?”
Back in 2020, when a gang of 14 right-wing nuts plotted to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, they claimed they were effecting a “citizen’s arrest.” In a normal world, such a claim would be instantly dismissed as risible. But we’re not in that world. We’re in the world where the sheriff of Barry County, Dar Leaf, seemed to think it had merit. “It’s just a charge, and they say a ‘plot to kidnap’ and you got to remember that,” Leaf told a local Fox affiliate. “Are they trying to kidnap? Because a lot of people are angry with the governor, and they want her arrested. So are they trying to arrest or was it a kidnap attempt?”
”A lot of people are angry with the governor,” he said. And then, as if the next words flowed logically, he added, “and they want her arrested.” Right, because when we dislike the policies of duly elected officials, we arrest them?
Fear factor in GOP politics
The threats are proliferating. The Washington Post reported that lawmakers were subjected to 3,900 threats in 2017. By 2020, that had more than doubled to 8,600, and in 2021, the rate rose even faster. As Tim Alberta noted in his Atlantic profile of Rep. Peter Meijer, the fear factor in Republican politics has changed. Republicans displayed a total lack of political courage in dealing with Trump from 2015 to the present. But because they didn’t stand up to him when the consequences would have been merely political, they/we now face a very different climate: fearing for their safety and that of their families. Describing a colleague who said he couldn’t vote to certify the 2020 election, Meijer said: “Remember, this wasn’t a hypothetical. You were casting that vote after seeing with your own two eyes what some of these people are capable of. If they’re willing to come after you inside the U.S. Capitol, what will they do when you’re at home with your kids?”
Many members of the Jan. 6 mob didn’t conceive of themselves as coup plotters (in contrast to those in the Oval Office). They thought they were vindicating democracy, not destroying it. As they were storming the Capitol, they were exchanging messages that reflected the treason talk Trump had normalized. “You are executing a citizen’s arrest. We have probable cause for acts of treason, election fraud.”
There is a substrate of perverted patriotism here. The invocation of the citizen’s arrest signifies a wish for legitimacy. They yearn to be responsible citizens, upholding the law and the duties of the individual. They have been corrupted — all the more reason for the rest of Americans to assert their uncorrupted patriotism. They must defend the election workers, health care workers, school board members, journalists, politicians and anyone else who is being abused by the mob. If patriotism animates only the worst among us, we are lost.
Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast.
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