Opinion: Let’s not hang out the welcome sign for right-wing extremism

Former state representative and chair of the Maine Grassroots Republican Caucus John DeVeau apparently wants to send white nationalists and sovereign citizens an engraved invitation to come to Aroostook County.  

Earlier this summer, DeVeau presented the Aroostook County Board of Commissioners with a resolution that would have made The County a Second Amendment Sanctuary. Deveau ultimately withdrew it from consideration at the July commissioners’ meeting — only to submit a new, broader resolution that would require the commissioners to protect and defend our constitutional rights from our state and federal governments. As if those rights are under assault for white folks here in Aroostook County. And as if we don’t already have processes to protect them if they were. 

In a 2019 weekly radio address on behalf of the Maine Republican Party, DeVeau spent his airtime decrying Democratic “extremists” and how they might “abuse our Constitution to further a progressive agenda.” Yet the resolution currently before the commissioners represents a real abuse of the Constitution in service of an extreme, regressive agenda…one that stirs white working-class grievance and uses the language of constitutional rights to promote exclusionary politics.  

DeVeau’s voluble defense of the Constitution is particularly ironic, given that Articles III and VI of the founding document enshrine the power of the Supreme Court to protect it as the highest law of the land. It makes clear that an Act of Congress (or state) contrary to the Constitution cannot stand. Individual rights are protected by the Constitution, and the United States has had a clear process for determining if a constitutional right was violated since Article III was ratified in 1788.  

Following the manipulation of the Supreme Court nomination processes in the past several years, we now have a slate of justices that bring conservative perspectives to the bench, something that should give DeVeau great comfort as to the sanctity of his constitutional rights. Yet here he is, putting forward a resolution that empowers three county commissioners to determine what is constitutional and what is not. That’s an incredibly dangerous precedent. 

If you saw the flurry of news reports in June, you’ll know that white nationalists and separatists totally dig DeVeau’s brand of tough talk. The Constitution has been co-opted as a key text and symbol for these individuals as they struggle to assert hegemony in the United States, and Deveau’s resolve to see it defended against make-believe threats telegraphs a certain kind of sympathy for a white nationalist ideology. Aroostook County has long been on the radar as the “ideal” location for some sort of white separatist utopia, so why not make it even more attractive? We’ve got lax gun laws, a prime location about as far away from the southern border as you can get, and practically free land — and now, if DeVeau has his way, a group of County Commissioners who are “duty-bound” to protect the Constitution. Well, one interpretation of the Constitution. You know, the originalist one in which the right to bear arms is unfettered, but the right for Black people to have equal access to the ballot is pish-tosh.  

Although I was heartened to see County folks on the left, right, and center express concern about the Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution, many of my conservative neighbors are still likely to be supportive of this kind of resolution. After all, it only seems reasonable to want to protect the highest law of our land. As a progressive, I value the Constitution, shocking as that may be to some. But this resolution isn’t the way to safeguard it.    

A screenshot from a ReOpen Maine rally at the Augusta State House in Spring 2020.

DeVeau knows this, knows that this is all symbolic in the end. What he’s doing is creating an opportunity to stoke fear. Fear that begins with “them” coming to take “our” guns — something that Richard Pelletier, a former county sheriff’s deputy who attended the July commissioners’ meeting, warns against, saying, “If police officers are sent by the government to come and get our guns, you’re going to bury half of them. We’re not making threats or anything.” [Stage whisper to Mr. Pelletier: yes, you are.] Fear that “people with anti-American agendas” (read: the Democrats) are using COVID-19 to take away our freedoms — to “weaponize the virus against American liberty now and in the future.” Fear that the 9.5 million American adults, most of whom are people of color, who lack full voting rights might rise up and elect candidates who stand for their public policy priorities if given equal access to the ballot.  

A resolution like this, supported by some Aroostook County residents and enacted by the Board of Commissioners, would send a welcoming message to folks who say things like, “I’d recommend anyone in Maine not interested in a white ethnostate to move out of Maine.” Or “Anyone who is in the way of what I am … is an existential threat.” Or who advocate killing truck drivers as a way of crippling the U.S. economy. Piscataquis County has already delivered its invitations to these folks with its passage of a Second Amendment Sanctuary County resolution on June 15 – the first county in New England to declare such a position. (As of July 7, Waldo County’s commissioners have a similar issue on the table for consideration.) 

For my conservative neighbors, I suppose it’s all fun and games until a group of right-wing extremists moves into their backyards. (Folks sure didn’t like it last month when they learned that an armed sovereign citizens group stopped by police in Massachusetts was headed to the Bangor area, but to be honest, I’m not sure whether the concern was an issue of race or ideology.) Until they begin to feel threatened and unsafe. Until they realize that these folks who plan to make the “Great Maine Migration” don’t care the tiniest bit more about their rights than those of their liberal, Black and Indigenous, and LGBTQ neighbors. Until they realize that their conservatism has been co-opted by extremists. And by then, it’s too late. Rather than enacting resolutions that encourage radical groups, as John DeVeau would have Aroostook County do, we need to come together to reject belief systems that threaten true freedom for all Mainers. 

Photo: The Gadsden Flag, designed as a symbol against tyranny during the Revolutionary War, has been co-opted by Libertarian, Tea Party and other anti-government movements in recent years.  | Fibonacci Blue, Creative Commons via flickr

About Kathryn Harnish

Avatar photoKathryn Harnish is currently pursuing her Masters in Social Work at the University of New England after a long career in the software industry. With her husband, Rob, she owns and operates Took a Leap Farm, a small goat farm and state-licensed creamery in southern Aroostook County. Kathryn brought her progressive voice to the 2020 campaign for the Maine House in District 144.

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