WASHINGTON

It was the nearly forgotten midcentury novelist Nelson Algren who said: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”

To this catalogue of sagacity, Algren today might add, “Never trust a group that claims to work for God, country or liberty, as any or all three are unlikely to be well-represented.” Just ask David Lopez-Zuniga, the 39-year-old air conditioning repairman who was run off a Texas road in October by a private investigator for the Liberty Center for God and Country.

See what I mean?

Lopez-Zuniga was, as they say, minding his own business, “driving like I normally do, and I see a car behind me” shortly after leaving his mobile home at 5:15 a.m., he explained to The Washington Post. “He was swerving. I thought he was drunk.”

When Lopez-Zuniga slowed down to let the other vehicle pass, the driver of the SUV—a former Houston police captain named Mark A. Aguirre—rammed Lopez-Zuniga’s truck, forcing him off the road. Aguirre then got out of his SUV with one hand in his jacket, causing Lopez-Zuniga to believe the man was hurt. When Lopez-Zuniga got close to Aguirre to try to help him, Aguirre pulled a gun from his pocket, released the safety and pinned Lopez-Zuniga to the ground with a knee to his back.

A few minutes later, two other men arrived on the scene, searched the truck, then drove it away and dumped it. Lopez-Zuniga, meanwhile, was terrified, he said. Imagine: He has no idea who this man is, it’s early morning, and suddenly he’s on the ground at gunpoint.

As extremely good luck would have it, a Houston police officer happened to be driving past and witnessed these events unfolding. Under questioning, Aguirre explained that he had been surveilling Lopez-Zuniga for possible voter fraud and, ultimately, led the officer to his surveillance spot, saying, “I just hope you’re a patriot.”

Algren Addendum No. 2: Beware conceal-and-carry people calling themselves patriots.

Aguirre has been charged with assault with a deadly weapon, which his lawyer claims is a political plot. (What isn’t these days?)

Lopez-Zuniga’s imaginary crime, for which of course no evidence exists, was supposedly transporting 750,000 ballots fraudulently signed by Hispanic children.

If you’ve been picturing a vigilante state lately or, as recently discussed in the White House, a declaration of martial law, your imagination is not running wild. It is wrong to say such things couldn’t happen here; they do, and they are. Algren would certainly agree, since he was under constant surveillance himself during the 1950s for suspicion of being a communist.

But yesterday’s communists are today’s Democrats, if you subscribe to the ideas behind the Liberty Center for God and Country, which was formed in August and funded primarily by well-known GOP megadonor Steven F. Hotze, who serves as the group’s president. According to The Post, the group has “paid 20 private investigators close to $300,000 to conduct a six-week probe of alleged illegal ballot retrievals in Houston leading up to the election.”

This and other similar projects around the country were prompted by President Donald Trump’s preemptive claims that voter fraud would be rampant when the vote counting began. As all but his most die-hard fans now accept, Trump was paving the way for his post-election legal challenges—and apparently for loyal goons to run innocent people off the road, too.

Hotze himself sponsored several of the lawsuits that have been dismissed by state and federal courts since the election. Aguirre not only conducted “24 hour surveillance” of Lopez-Zuniga’s mobile home, where he lived with his wife and daughter, but also wrote an affidavit used in one of Hotze’s lawsuits.

Aguirre won’t say why the repairman was considered a suspect, and Hotze claims, without evidence, that Aguirre’s team stopped a Democratic fraud operation that would have flipped Texas to Biden. But Hotze maintains that no GOP group was directly involved in funding or organizing Aguirre’s surveillance operation.

And then there’s poor Lopez-Zuniga. Minding one’s own business used to mean staying out of trouble and leaving others alone—a round-trip ticket to work and home without fear of menace. But in today’s conspiratorial climate of denial, deceit—and a troubling tolerance for vigilantism—the forces of extremism have been allowed to surface and flower.

Trump didn’t create these developments, but he has provided fertilizer and water to impulses previously buried. A by-product of cultivating such impulses is that ordinary citizens are no longer inoculated against zealots imbued with self-righteousness. When people like Hotze can buy prime political real estate and fund personal missions of vindication or vindictiveness under the flag of liberty, God and country, we are living in a country not our own.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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