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1. The Land of the Free
As a young boy, he would go into the woods to hunt squirrels and rabbits with pellet guns. He would fish in a river right next to the family home. His father wasn’t an especially passionate hunter, but they would go together once a year, in deer season.
“I grew up in nature,” Scott Mercer said. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted my own kids to grow up with acreage around them.”
It had worked out like that: His own family now lived on 50 acres, on a mountainside 1700 ft above sea level, amid the majestic terrain of the Shenandoah river valley – the corner of Virginia where Appalachia seems to spill, topographically and culturally, over the state line from rugged West Virginia. They were about ten miles outside Charlottesville (population: 46,000), and not far from the smaller town where Scott had grown up.
“We’ve got a creek on the property, we’ve got mountains. It’s not unusual to be woken up with a black bear being on the back deck, looking in the door,” said Scott. “The occasional mountain lion. Deer, wild turkeys…”
He wasn’t boasting – I’d asked him to describe that country to me, who knew it only by legend.
“It is beautiful,” he said reverently.
Scott was a tall, strongly built man in middle-age, his salt and pepper hair closely cropped. He had served in the Navy. I didn’t ask what job he’d had exactly, and he didn’t volunteer anything except to say that he’d been a diver. When he got out, he’d kept diving, recreationally, and when he met Kristen he’d started teaching her. She’d got certified; they’d got married. And before the children were born they would take frequent excursions, diving together with mixed gases at depths of over 100 feet.
Now that the kids were getting older, Scott thought that they might get back to taking those trips again, some day. Twenty miles off the coast of North Carolina is the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” where treacherous but clear blue waters embalm the wrecks of several hundred sunken ships, including German U-Boats that Scott had swum through himself.
“I’ve found,” Scott said, “that the things that are sometimes the most fun in life are some of the things that are the most dangerous things in life.” He shrugged. We were at a Greene Turtle, a chain Sports Bar and Family Restaurant native to the suburbs of the mid-Atlantic region. Scott nursed a Crown Apple.
One of his sons had taken to hunting, and accompanied Scott on frequent trips each winter. The other wasn’t so keen: “He doesn’t like loud noises. But that’s fine, he’ll find his own path,” Scott said. Both boys (13 and 15 years of age) rode quad-bikes around the property, “and if they wanna walk on the back deck and take a pee off the back deck as boys,” Scott said, “there’s no neighbor that’s gonna call the police on ’em.”
“What man doesn’t like to take a leak off his back porch?” he asked, laughing, almost bashfully. “I can see that in a magazine in print now.”
But taking that leak was Freedom – off that back porch, where black bears also roamed free. It was as good a way as any of encapsulating the version of the American Dream that the Mercers seemed to have attained quite comprehensively.
“I’m not loyal to the flag, or the country,” he said. “I’m loyal to the ideals on which this country was founded – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – and if there was another country that had the Constitution we have, I’d gladly move there.”
“You take what America accomplished since its founding,” he continued. “In the short period of time this nation has been around, we became a superpower. We created more wealth and more prosperity for more people than any other system in the world, and in such a short period of time. People would come here and have the freedom to be the best that they could be without any government interference. And now they wanna change it? Change it to what? Until you can show me a system that’s gonna yield more results and more personal wealth and more freedom than capitalism, that’s it baby!”
Kristen was with us at the Greene Turtle, and I asked whether they saw eye-to-eye on such matters. Scott said that they did, having often discussed them before getting married.
“She knows my viewpoints. Then when you try to raise children,” he continued, “you want your children always to turn out better than you. You want their education to be better, you want them to be more successful, what parent doesn’t want that? We’re no different than that. We don’t want cradle-to-grave government, telling me where I can live, what bathroom I can use, or what bathroom I should use, if I feel like – if my sons feel like they wanna be a girl, today, in this society that’s considered completely acceptable. They’ve blurred the lines of the sexes. I think the percentage of transgenders, I think I saw the statistics and it’s less than one percent. But yet the news media pushes not only transgenders but same-sex marriage, and all these progressive ideas as being mainstream, and a social experimentation in our military…”
“I don’t think it’s the government’s business what’s being done in the bedroom,” Kristen added. “It’s personal business.”
“If you wanna have sex with an animal, or you wanna marry your brother, your cousin, or your sister – that’s up to you.” Scott resumed. “Keep it out of my schools, keep it to yourself.”
2. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
After the Navy, he’d worked his way to ownership of a chain of four Arby’s fast-food restaurants. But while the Mercers had prospered, they had watched the Dream fade for others around them. Scott told the familiar story of the heartland’s decay:
“The town I grew up in is a prime example,” he said, reeling off the big names of the departed industry-base. “Dupont, Wayn-Tex, Genicom – thousands of jobs they created. And the reason the factories left is because taxation became so high, regulation became so strict, that they could not succeed anymore. The downtown streets used to be a bustling hub of activity. They created so much wealth that these workers now opened up their own stores. So the streets were lined with shops and restaurants. When the factory left, a lot of people didn’t have the income anymore, so they left. Now the businesses that these guys started didn’t have their people coming in, now they had to close. It all went downhill. All the jobs and the lifestyle that these workers had is gone now.”
The same was true in neighboring West Virginia, where coalmining had been destroyed, in Kristen’s words, “because of all the regulations. Not because we can’t produce, but because they won’t let us. It’s not ‘clean energy,’ that’s what they say.”
I mentioned a federal program called the Appalachian Regional Commission. Since 1965, the ARC has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into coal country, vastly improving quality of life for its poorest inhabitants and mitigating the effects of the industry’s long contraction, which has been caused as much by automation and cheap natural gas as by environmental regulations.
“They’re a very proud people,” Scott said. “No one wants to be taken care of by the government. No man wants to go home to his family and tell them that he can’t put food on the table. They want the coalmining jobs. They’ll go in and do whatever you need, as long as they can make a good living and be proud in what they do.”
“When I grew up,” he went on, “the father was the breadwinner and the mother stayed home to raise the family. But then the taxes got to the point to where the father couldn’t do that anymore, you had to have two incomes. And when you take both parents out and they’re working, and the kid comes home from school and there’s nobody there – maybe the parents fight over money and the kids sees that – they don’t go to church on Sunday, there’s no religious instruction, there’s no morality laid down for them. And the parents break up, now you’re living with your mom or your dad, and when you break up the nuclear family, decade after decade, we wind up where we are now: disrespect of women, disrespect of authority. I dunno if you kept up with what happened in the last administration, with how Obama portrayed the police in this country?”
I eased Scott away from that last topic. He was more interesting about things that affected him directly than he was about things he saw on the news. I wanted to know about his life, his household, the way the days passed up on that mountaintop, with that back deck that opened out toward an ancient, rolling forest. I ended up asking about healthcare.
The Mercers wanted to have a very minimal, “catastrophic-only” coverage plan, in which the first $20,000 of expenditure would be out of their own pocket. This kind of plan was not legally available under Obamacare, an imposition that was “completely foreign, and disgusting” to Scott.
“With freedom comes responsibility. Healthcare is not a right. This country has made it out that it’s a right. That housing is a right, food is a right. Education. No. These are not rights,” he said, conclusively. “Our rights were laid out in our founding documents. But our Constitution’s been utterly destroyed, by decade after decade of progressive politicians, on both sides of the aisle.”
3. Freedom of Conscience
“And our educational institutions have done a wonderful job at watering all that down and not teaching it,” Scott continued.
I asked about his own sons, and what they thought about it all. I wondered if it was a challenge for them to get one message at home and another, conflicting message from the contemporary world at large.
“My kids have no idea,” he replied, “about any of the history that I’ve already spoken about tonight. They look at me and kind of just get glassy-eyed. It’s hard to make it interesting to a teenager, to make them want to sit there and listen to your stories. And I give them certain things to read and ask them questions about it, but … I mean, when I was a teenager I had no interest in that either. It’s a catch-22: They live in pretty much luxury, freedom, they have TV, indoor plumbing, gourmet meals prepared by their mother, and I tell them all the time, ‘You all don’t understand just how lucky you are. Wait till you get out on your own, you have to cook your own dinner, or go to a restaurant and pay for it, then you’ll see how expensive it is.’ So if you always want your kids to have more than you have, and to live a better life than you lived, you really have to be careful because if you give them too much and you don’t let them feel the pain of their own decision-making, you’ve ruined ’em.”
Scott and Kristen had talked, for example, about their own kids’ lack of religious instruction.
“Again, it’s hard to get children interested in religion, unless they see their parents live, eat and breathe that,” he lamented.
Scott was baptised an Episcopalian. He’d been to Baptist churches, Presbyterian churches – all kinds of churches. One of his best friends growing up was Jewish, and had taken him to synagogue. He’d been to Buddhist temples, even.
“I’m pretty much agnostic. An agnostic doesn’t believe in god, he doesn’t disbelieve in god; he has questions – he doesn’t know. And to me that’s the most logical point to be from. And, unfortunately, that’s one of the points between my wife and I – she was brought up much more strict, in Catholicism.”
Kristen’s expression gave little away.
“But I went to so many churches and seen so many different philosophies and read so many different things, that I have a lot of questions. A very inquisitive mind. And I just don’t follow anything blindly. And I sure as hell don’t like the government to tell me what I can or can’t follow.”
He explained that “‘freedom of religion’ doesn’t mean freedom from religion.” When I said something about the separation of church and state, he gently scolded me that the phrase is not to be found in the United States Constitution. I asked about the question of religious messages and activities in public school classrooms, and whether that amounted to government-established Christianity, in violation of the Constitution.
“If you wanna hang a Hindu prayer there or you wanna have a Jewish prayer there, I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. “My kid goes to that school – the more he’s exposed to, the more well-rounded he is as an individual. Just don’t forbid him to practice something. If my son wanted to say a prayer before his math test – because god knows he needs to say a prayer before he has a math test – and the teacher stops him, and wants to throw him out the classroom? That’s happened in this country. There’s been football coaches that before the team goes out to the field they’ve led a prayer – they’ve been fired. If my kid played football and there was a Jewish rabbi who was the coach, and he led them all in a Jewish prayer before the game, I would not have a problem with that. I’ve been to all these different places. And it just gives you a good reference as to what religion is and what different people practice. Curious about the Muslim faith, and why they seem to hate everyone Christian. So I picked up the Koran and read it, because I wanted to read the book I’d heard so much about. You have to get a translation of it of course. You should read it, because then you’ll get a perfect understanding. It just seems like a very vile religion.”
4. The Free Market
At its peak, their Arby’s restaurant business had employed about 110 people:
“We’re not talking slave-wages, because there’s competition due to free-market capitalism,” Scott explained. “We started out paying $5.50 an hour, minimum wage. Eventually, I’m gonna pay maybe six dollars – I get better people, they take care of my customers better. The guy next to me, Burger King, maybe he’s paying $6.25. McDonalds? They’re gonna pay seven dollars. So now I’m looking at ‘Damn, my profits are being hurt.’ I’m gonna raise my wages up.”
The best way to look after the poor, he believed, “is to generate an overabundance of wealth.” Otherwise, the Mercers preferred the idea of charity to federal welfare programs. “There’s enough benevolence in every locality, every community, every town,” Scott said. “Churches exist, they take care of people, there’s soup kitchens. There’s always been that.” When he had found people sleeping in the dumpsters behind his restaurants, he had offered them jobs, and tried to help them get on their feet.
“What you do on a personal level, rather than what somebody says they’re entitled to have,” added Kristen.
At the same time, Scott believed that “our very poorest in this country live better than anywhere else in the world.”
“Cellphones,” interjected Kristen, perhaps thinking of the “Obamaphone” story, a right-wing media fixation falsely accusing the Obama administration of handing out free smartphones to welfare recipients.
“Cellphones. Automobiles. TVs,” Scott resumed. “But yet, it’s portrayed as if they live in squalor, and there’s people dying on the street from sickness, that there’s people that don’t have food – it’s a lie. Even air-conditioning – on hot days in America they make broadcasts that they have cooling centres set up. ‘If it’s too hot, go to our cooling centres!’ Cooling centres, for god’s sakes!”
The Mercers currently paid “26 different taxes, local, state and federal combined,” and wanted to see a flat income tax-rate of 15%, without any of the loophole-exploitation that goes on currently.
“Progressive tax rates are meant to squash the incentive to earn the wealth,” Scott said, indignantly. “I don’t know why you’d wanna do that to a man! You’d like to be able to earn enough money to live a decent life. Everybody wants that. You throw a damper on that, take away your incentive, take away your pride, you become a shell of a man, and you just retreat and you don’t do anything to produce anything!”
I said that I thought vast income inequality could also drive people to despair.
“Why would it make people despair that a guy they work for is worth billions of dollars?” he replied. “When they themselves might have a six-hundred-thousand-dollar home they live in, drive a Mercedes, have food on their table, have membership of the country club, their kids are swimming at the YMCA. Why would it make them unhappy? Look at how many millionaires Microsoft created, all because of Bill Gates. And our educational institutions should teach that. These are people you wanna be like, learn about their life story, how did they become—”
“How did they get that way?” Kristen broke in. “Rather than teach them to say that this person’s a bad person because they’ve got all this money and they’re not sharing their wealth. Like you’re entitled to what they have. There is no entitlement.”
“I will never despise rich people,” Scott said, shaking his head. “I admire them.”
5. De Oppresso, Liber
He’d sold the Arby’s business in 2007.
“We had a fifth location planned, then the economy around Obama started to crash. I saw the writing on the wall,” he said. “I saw people getting loans that had no business at all getting loans. And I knew that the monetary system was going to crash. I thought it was gonna crash a lot worse than it did, so I took all the chips off the table, I cashed out. Sometimes I think I may have overreacted. But I got out at the peak of the real estate market and sold the company for more than it was worth.”
He hadn’t wanted re-invest in that stifling tax environment, he said. So he’d put his money into guns. He didn’t know how many he had; it was “a quarter-million-dollar inventory.” He’d created an LLC, called it Black Widow Arms, and sold them at gun shows and online. I told Scott that guns frightened me.
“Guns are very safe,” he said, smiling broadly, settling back into his chair. “Now, if you come to my house, we have all types of guns all over the house: pistols, rifles, shotguns. We have a gun safe on every level of the house. And I’ve been conducting a test for about the last 20 years: sometimes I leave the door of the vault open with a loaded gun right behind it. I’ve been waiting for it to come out and shoot us, and to date it has never come out on its own and shot anyone! It requires human intervention.”
I laughed. But what about the kids? Scott described how, when the boys were younger, he would take a pistol out of the safe after they went to bed, and place it on his nightstand, for security purposes. He would put it back before they woke up. A shotgun hung high up on the wall, “so even if the kids pile a box on a chair and build a little mountain, they can’t get to it.”
When I asked him if he’d ever had to fend off any kind of attack at his home, Scott said not really.
“Just maybe like a car now and again, triggering my driveway motion sensors at 1AM in the morning. We got a quarter-mile driveway,” he added.
The cars that had showed up occasionally had turned out to be “maybe just a couple of young guys looking for somewhere to park up, maybe drink a couple of beers, or maybe one with a young lady,” he explained. “You ever did something like that when you were younger? But we had them out of the cars, down on the ground. We let them know they picked the wrong driveway. And they were very apologetic: ‘Sorry, sir, won’t happen again’.”
Scott also occasionally touched on things like gang-infested “no-go zones,” and indeed covert terrorist training camps dotted around the country. Again, these weren’t things he’d ever experienced, just things that get talked about in sensationalist media, and I didn’t particularly want to hear about them from him. But now he spoke in general, philosophical terms.
“The world can be a very vicious place. Human nature can be very vicious,” Scott said. Kristen had left us by this point, to check in with the kids, and he had stayed behind for one more Crown Apple. “Hell, if mankind didn’t have guns he’d have bow-and-arrows, he’d have spears, rocks, clubs. Man has been beating the hell out of each other since the dawn of time. It’s just human nature. Human nature is one of the primary reasons the Constitution was developed.”
Human nature was also one of the primary reasons Scott had had a $25,000, 45-hundred-watt solar-panel array installed on his roof. (He was not concerned about climate change.)
“I think about my role as a father, if war broke out or maybe there was an electromagnetic pulse, which shut down our electrical grid,” he said, leaning forward now.
“And all of a sudden you can’t go to the supermarket. How long can a father sit there and watch his kids be hungry, thirsty, hot, cold, crying and sick? How many people in this room, in a month’s time, would kill for their food? America wouldn’t be far away from falling off that cliff and breaking up, if the conditions were right. But what about the man that foresees this happening, and tries to prepare for that day – without being a total nut about it. He has food, he has weapons, he has water, he has fuel? It’s a common-sense thing in my book. Again, I’m the man of the family. I like to call it, ‘If shit hits the fan,’ will I be able to refrigerate my food? Yes I will. Will I be able to provide a level of comfort that may not be what we are used to, but it won’t be like going back to the pioneer days?”
I nodded. I didn’t know what to ask at the time. Since that evening, I’ve wondered whether Scott had always seen things in this way, or how his worldview had evolved in that direction. He was someone who took total responsibility, for himself and his family. That was admirable, even formidable in itself. He was also, by his own admission, somewhat attracted by a sense of danger. But his adventurous American spirit seemed to have turned inward. At what point had he started fortifying the house, planting motion sensors along his driveway and installing gun lockers on every floor? Was this another reason why he wanted his kids “to grow up with acreage around them,” as a buffer? Beyond the hypothetical risk of electromagnetic pulse, was the shit already hitting the fan, in some way that we’d been too polite to discuss? Scott had chosen to sit out the Obama years for financial reasons, but also, it seemed, out of a more general pessimism related to that time. He had sold the Arby’s restaurant chain and retreated to his mountaintop. The way he spoke about society suggested that he had not only opted out from those downtown streets, but renounced them, and that bustle of activity he’d known in the past.
Of course, Scott was a huge supporter of the new president, and we’d talked about that a lot too.
“We’re finally gonna take our own country back,” he’d said at one point. “And I’m really enjoying watching it.”
6. Freedom of Speech, and the Right to Free Assembly
On August 11th, thirteen days after my meeting with the Mercers, the “Unite the Right” white-supremacist rally took place in Charlottesville, their closest major town. I immediately wrote to Scott to get his perspective. Meanwhile, President Trump gave an initial statement criticising the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides – on many sides,” referring also to the counter-protestors, some of whom had met the white supremacists with violence – and one of whom had been killed.
At a press conference in Trump Tower on August 15th, Trump extemporised at length:
“They came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs […] came charging in – without a permit – and they were very, very violent. […] they came at each other with clubs, and it was vicious, and it was horrible. […] You had people that were very fine people, on both sides […] but you had troublemakers, and you see them come with the black outfits, and with the helmets, and with the baseball bats…”
Scott still had not responded to my message a little over a month later, when Trump used the term “son of a bitch” to refer collectively to the NFL players who had been protesting the criminal justice system’s mistreatment of African Americans by soberly kneeling during the singing of the national anthem at games.
He had already given generously enough of his time – and of his story, too. Scott had given generously to me of himself. But his Black Widow Arms website also gave just one more small hint.
Displayed at the foot of the homepage, alongside a few other recommendations, was a link to the website of Oath Keepers: a nationwide network of amateur militias, founded upon previous military service, enthusiasm for firearms, and deep suspicion of government. Oath Keepers were reported to have “deployed” at Charlottesville, and other, similar “patriot” militias were certainly present at the rally. These militias appear at scenes of possible unrest – not to demonstrate themselves, supposedly, but to safeguard the First-Amendment rights of others. Observing from the sidelines, geared out like special forces, they claim to shield the populace from looming governmental oppression.
The link on Scott’s website only meant that he approved of them in theory, and I had no reason to think he ever actually participated with Oath Keepers in person. But let’s say he could have freed himself from his daily obligations to his family and business, on that of all days. If Scott’s disembodied mind, breaking its final bonds, could have drifted down the mountain roads to Charlottesville, it might have found its place among the militia.
I imagine he would have looked at the neo-Nazis and Klansmen with narrow-eyed disdain. But he would have looked at the “anarcho-communist” presence, what Trump called the “alt-Left,” in about the same way. Like Trump, he would have resented the campaign to take down the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, whose preservation was the pretext of “Unite the Right” – even if only for partisan reasons, because the familiar opposition had lined up on the other side of the issue.
And, of course, Scott would have been armed.
In short, he would have been as close as it got to one of those “very fine people” that Trump, in all his grand vagueness, assumed had been there.