How the alt-right corrupts the Constitution

About 10 years ago, I spent a sabbatical on the Maine coast writing a book about the Constitution.

One afternoon, an eager reference librarian who knew about my interests invited me to a talk at the library. The featured speaker was a woman who proudly called herself a “Constitutional Patriot.”

The speaker was self-educated and her message was simple: Liberal elites – judges, politicians and academics – had perverted the meaning of the “True Constitution.”

Getting the Constitution “right,” in her view and in the view of a great many far-right conservative groups and organizations, all of them constitutional patriots of a sort, means understanding the Constitution as the Founders understood it.

Getting the Constitution “right” thus means returning the Constitution to its original meaning. It also means that the Constitution, as they read it, advances a particular and deeply conservative worldview, where “We the People” includes only those citizens who would have qualified for citizenship at the founding (which is to say, whites), a strong commitment to states’ rights and extensive – if not absolute – protections for freedom of speech and guns.

It is a view that many in the alt-right share.

Christian, conservative and white

Most observers think the alt-right are conservative extremists, defined chiefly by their loud and proud commitment to white racial superiority and privilege.

But there’s much more to the alt-right.

I’m a constitutional scholar and in my latest book, “Fracturing the Founding: How the Alt-Right Corrupts the Constitution,” I show how the alt-right and a wide variety of extremist organizations advance a comprehensive – if not entirely comprehensible – vision of the American Constitution.

What I call the Alt-constitution is an odd mix of the forgotten, the rejected, the racist and the bizarre.

It begins with the claim that the Constitution was not only divinely inspired, it is also Christian, conservative and white.

An ad for ‘The Essential Liberty Pocket Reference Guide,’ which contains the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Screenshot from The Patriot Post Shop
The Alt-constitution – in sharp distinction from the real Constitution – tolerates no restrictions on speech, guns or private property, does not concede that federal laws trump state and local law – although the supremacy clause of Article 6 of the Constitution clearly indicates otherwise – and incorporates the principle of separate but equal.

For the far right, the meaning of every provision in the Constitution is plain or discerned easily by appealing to what the Founders intended. Or failing that, to Holy Scripture.

Guns and speech

Extreme right-wing thinking about the Constitution is not limited to radical readings of just a few isolated amendments. Rather, it extends to nearly every part of the document. But you can get a good feel for the Alt-constitution by focusing upon just a few provisions, such as the First, Second and 14th amendments – and on the alt-right subgroups that focus on them.

The far right’s reading of the First and Second amendments – which govern free speech and the right to bear arms, respectively – starts from a simple premise: Both amendments are literal and absolute.

The far right holds that the First Amendment allows them to say anything, anytime, anywhere, to anyone, without consequence or reproach by government or even by other citizens who disagree or take offense at their speech.

Similarly, the alt-right gun advocates hold that the Second Amendment protects their God-given right to own a weapon – any weapon – and that governmental efforts to deny, restrict or even to register their weapons must be unconstitutional. They think the Second Amendment trumps every other provision in the Constitution.

In sharp contrast, even the Supreme Court’s originalists, who believe that the Constitution’s meaning should be the one it had when it became law, have rejected this absolutism.

In both DC v. Heller, a 2008 ruling that concluded that the Second Amendment does protect an individual right to own certain kinds of weapons, and McDonald v. City of Chicago, which made that right applicable to state governments, the court conceded that the Second Amendment does not, as conservative icon Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, protect a “right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

The Sheriff’s Brigade of Pennsylvania – “a law abiding grassroots organization comprised of patriotic, freedom loving Americans” and definitely not “to be construed as being a militia group, a para-military group” – disagrees.