The Race War That Isn't

Media anxieties over "lynch mobs" and "brownshirts" demonstrate a telling lack of faith in contemporary America


I remember very well the last time America was gripped with panic over impending racial violence. It was in the fall of 2001, after 19 Middle Eastern hijackers, mostly from Saudi Arabia, pulverized the World Trade Center and ripped a gash into the Pentagon, murdering nearly 3,000 people while trying to massacre several times more.

There were hundreds of news articles that autumn warning of a potential domestic backlash against suspected Muslims. President George W. Bush, his anxiety palpable, went out of his way to pay visits to Mohammadan places of worship, and praise Islam as a "religion of peace." The lefter regions of the political spectrum produced serial expressions of preemptive dread, such as Barbara Kingsolver's Sept. 25 pronouncement that American patriotism "despises people of foreign birth" and "threatens free speech with death." Many of us with memories stretching back to the Iran hostage crisis braced ourselves for a long and unhappy season of rag-head jokes, open vandalism, and worse.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Arab-American lynching: not bloody much. A Sikh gas station owner was murdered in Mesa, Arizona. A Hindu temple was firebombed in Matawan, New Jersey. Reports of harassment and non-deadly violence briefly spiked up. Each was awful enough, but as a tapestry of violence it fell far short of the widely predicted wave of hate crime. Americans, derided as "hateful" bigots by the likes of Kingsolver, and revenge-minded rubes by those with better manners, were not only opting out of vigilante violence, they were cramming bestseller lists with musty old books about Afghanistan and the Middle East.

As the religion reporter Gustav Niebuhr later observed, after having spent several months on the post-Sept. 11 hate-crimes beat, "In the very week when the nation suffered a grievous injury from a stateless criminal gang that identified itself by its members' religion—as Muslims–some Americans chose to express concern and friendship toward their Muslim neighbors….It makes a far more interesting story about contemporary America than I had imagined."

That is the American story to keep in mind when reading, every day for the rest of this summer at least, about the "incendiary mix of political passion, weird thinking and weaponry" that "is likely to explode" in Obama's America. Under direct, terrorizing attack from a stateless band of brown-skinned terrorists representing apocalyptic Islam, Americans as individuals largely turned the other cheek, even seeking interfaith understanding with their attackers' co-religionists. Yet faced eight years later with a vague, non-life-threatening "new era of cultural and demographic change" (which, according to New York Times columnist Frank Rich, is "the biggest contributor to this resurgence of radicalism"), the rednecks are allegedly on the verge of a rampage.

"Violence" is "in the air," warned Woodrow Wilson International Center scholar Jamie Stiehm, in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed that revisited the 1830s torching of an abolitionist-built hall in the City of Brotherly Love. "If it could happen there and then, it could happen here and now." The American right's "recurrent" and "deep-seated problem with political violence," warned popular liberal blogger Josh Marshall, "endangers the country." The "election of Barack Obama," wrote Mother Jones' James Ridgeway, "adds even more fuel to nativist rage." Lefty historian-of-the-right Rick Perlstein, in a Washington Post chat to discuss his theory that "the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy," analogized anti-Obama protesters to "brownshirts" and "Nazi street thugs" in Weimar Germany, warning that "authoritarian takeovers of nations happen, they happen slowly, and it's a process." Washington Post columnist and regular public broadcast commentator E.J. Dionne went even further with the Nazi comparisons, describing this summer's town hall disputes as "the politics of the jackboot." Dionne added:

[V]iolence and the threat of violence have always been used by those who wanted to bypass democratic procedures and the rule of law. Lynching was the act of those who refused to let the legal system do its work. Guns were used on election days in the Deep South during and after Reconstruction to intimidate black voters and take control of state governments.

Yes, I have raised the racial issue, and it is profoundly troubling that firearms should begin to appear with some frequency at a president's public events only now, when the president is black. […]

[I]f we can't draw the line at the threat of violence, democracy begins to disintegrate. Power, not reason, becomes the stuff of political life.

These are indeed "profoundly troubling" charges, which makes one wonder why they're being bandied about with such flippant regard for historical plausibility.

The "jackboot" analogy, for starters, breaks down at the ankle: The footwear was favored by enforcers for totalitarian governments, not random Ron Paul supporters flashing Thomas Jefferson quotes outside political events. Weimar-era brownshirts were an organized Nazi paramilitary group perpetrating calculated violence against political opponents in a hyperinflationary, recently humiliated country that had never enjoyed liberal democracy; not a dozen-plus scattered gun nuts in one of the world's oldest democracies peacably (if jarringly) exercising their Second Amendment rights by keeping their guns holstered (not "brandishing" them, as Rich and countless others have claimed). The last actual lynching in America, depending on who you ask, took place in 1981; the atrocious practice had been all but dead since the 1960s.

To fear the Weimarization of America, or the return of lynching, is to fundamentally lack confidence in the very real progress the United States has made over the past several decades. Conditions have improved exponentially even since the post-lynching 1980s, when I was coming of voting age. Back then there was still a politics to be had in bashing Martin Luther King, supporting apartheid South Africa, whipping up fears of black ultra-violence, and otherwise appealing openly to white resentment against blacks. It was gross, it was reckless, it led to terrible policies, and it was the reason I permanently swore off joining the Republican Party. It's also largely an artifact of the past.

The last white-resentment candidate to win a Republican presidential primary was Pat Buchanan in 1996. George W. Bush first rose to national prominence as the immigration-embracing, border-state anti-Pete Wilson, and as president he never did have a Caucasian secretary of state. The party's most popular politician in the 1990s was arguably Colin Powell. John McCain in his many books has repeatedly singled out the heroism of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge back in 1965, and such is his distaste for racially coded politics that he slammed one of his own supporters just for repeating Barack Obama's middle name three times in a warmup speech. When Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in 2002 expressed retroactive support for Strom Thurmond's 1948 Dixiecrat campaign for president, he was pressured by other Republicans to resign his leadership, and eventually (though not soon enough) limped out of the Senate. The GOP chairman these days may be a dolt, but he's probably not a racist.

The political market on race-baiting politics has spoken, and resoundingly. We have, not irrelevantly, elected a black president with a weird, foreign-sounding name. Anti-immigration politics, certainly fueled in part by paranoid xenophobia, are persistently unpopular. Republican attempts to make a big deal out of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's "wise Latina" remark failed to resonate with the public, and she sailed on through the confirmation process. Affirmative action just isn't much of a hot political topic anymore, even though its impact is still real and widespread.

Worrying about the latent potential for widespread, race-based violence requires thinking either that the American public conceals its racism from its electoral preferences, or that the fringe holds disproportionate, menacing power. As Jesse Walker has frequently noted in these pages, such centrist paranoia inevitably tells us more about the attitudes of those expressing the fear than it does about contemporary America. It's a timely reminder that near the foundation of both major political tendencies in this country lies a disturbing lack of faith in the country they take turns misgoverning.

Republicans tend to mistrust what people do with their personal choices, worrying that perverse tastes in everything from sexuality to ideology will undermine America's moral character and cohesiveness. Especially when in power, they all too often want to put the very "liberty" they claim to champion on a binary "scale" with "security," instead of trusting that the same openness that makes America prosperous and interesting also makes it more safe. Democrats, on the other hand, tend to mistrust what really lies in people's hearts, worrying that malevolent personal and corporate tendencies, if unrestrained by a civilizing government, will ineffably lead to exploitation, fraud, and violence.

The best that can be said about such dark suspicion of Amercians' true nature is that it reflects a sincere and strong desire to avoid the kind of racist violence that has plagued the country since its founding. The problem with the analysis, though, is that it fails to recognize that the overwhelming majority of Americans, too, despise racial conflict.

There was a fascinating article posted to Esquire magazine's website last week, purporting to track the "dangerous threats and outrageous actions" of what author John Richardson called "nothing less than the birth of a new religion" animating the resurgent right-wing fanatics. "Cobbled together from old parts (fundamentalism, gun rights, excessive reverence for capitalism and The Founders, paranoid talking points from the good old liberal-hating John Birch Society), this new decidedly American religion has finally achieved critical mass under the pressure of a president whome its most extreme adherents call — by no accident — the Antichrist."

Sounds pretty racist, probably! Until you meet the subject of Richardson's profile:

He has no sympathy for the many fans of the Confederacy who live in the area, for example. "They talk about taxes, about the war of northern aggression—that's all crap. It was about keeping black men in chains, and that was an affront against God."


One reason that the rising-tide-of-violent-racial-resentment narrative remains unconvincing is that* (see appended note at the bottom of this article) the proponents of the theory so rarely find any actual racists to pin it on. Frank Rich, in his Sunday column, entered this as his primary motivational evidence:

As the sociologist Daniel Bell put it, "What the right as a whole fears is the erosion of its own social position, the collapse of its power, the increasing incomprehensibility of a world—now overwhelmingly technical and complex—that has changed so drastically within a lifetime."

Daniel Bell wrote those words in 1962. And yet his condescending sentiments are being dusted off and repackaged as protester-explaining wisdom this summer, as if nothing significant has changed in 47 years.

"They are angry because they feel displaced," think tanker Chip Berlet told New America Media. "They feel pushed out of the way by liberals, people of color and immigrants. It's the story they have told themselves to explain why they haven't made it in America. It's racial anxiety fueled by a bad economy, a black president and disparities at a time when white people's supremacy is being challenged." As syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts put it, "Change, almost by definition, always comes too fast, always brings a sense of stark dislocation. As in the woman who cried to a reporter, 'I want my country back!' Probably the country she meant still had Beaver Cleaver on TV and Doris Day on 'Your Hit Parade.'"

So does it matter if some pundits exaggerate a threat that, if acted upon, even by a lone gunman, would indeed be terrible? I think yes, for three reasons:

1) It's a way to marginalize the political viewpoints of non-violent non-racists. So Michael Tomasky characterizes all opponents to the Democrats' complicated health care package as "the birthers and the gun-toters and the Hitler analogists." Leonard Pitts says, "These are the people who immediately declared it their fervent hope that the new presidency fail, the ones who cheered when the governor of Texas raised the specter of secession, the ones who went online to re-christen the executive mansion the 'Black' House, and to picture it with a watermelon patch out front." Gene Lyons asserts that "It's not possible to reason with people peddling grotesque and preposterous lies, bargain with people who are screaming, or negotiate under threats of violence."

The biggest problem with blanketly characterizing opponents of the health care package as venal, irredeemable grotesques is that it would mean 54 percent of Americans are evil, stupid, or both. Not a very charitable reading on the country that just elected a liberal black guy as president. It says plenty about the dominant political party's sore-winner instincts that at the first sign of strong resistance to the new administation's policies, the American people themselves get tarred as "delusional" and worse. While usually uncoercive and easily resisted, the marginalization of ideas can have a negative impact on debate, and therefore policy.

2) It could lead to terrible legislation
. The anti-militia hysteria of the 1990s led directly to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996, a PATRIOT Act-precursor of a law that introduced the totalitarian concepts of secret evidence and secret courts to the Land of the Free, removed the appeals process for the disproportionately non-white legal non-citizens who are barred entry to the United States by border guards, and limited appeals for death row inmates. This heinous, unamerican law played a significant role in causing liberal New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis to conclude that "Bill Clinton has the worst civil liberties record of any president in at least 60 years."

If you think such linkage between contemporary hysteria and liberty-eroding legislation is a stretch, read no further than Frank Rich's column, which—amazingly, considering he writes on the same page where Lewis systematically detailed AEDPA's outrages against civil liberties in the 1990s—sneeringly criticized Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) for his efforts to "soften" the bill when it was passed.

3) It could encourage law enforcement abuse. Dehumanizing the "other" is not just the province of racists. And, as anti-"eliminationists" are otherwise quick to remind us, dehumanizing your political opponents is the classic precondition for treating them in inhumane ways. Americans rightly recoil when racists call Mexicans "cockroaches," or when idiot Republicans draw watermelons on the Obamas' front lawn. But dismissing a swath of the country as fanatical brownshirts threatening the country with impending violence performs a similar function of dehumanization—what's a lower human life form than a Nazi, after all?—and practically cries out for forcible intervention.

We've already seen law enforcement tipsheets putting cops on the lookout for Bob Barr voters and people with "Don't Tread on Me" stickers (an act of political profiling that gets a new round of high-fives from the media every time an abortionist gets murdered, or someone brings a holstered gun to a political event), and we know that agent-provacateurs were already infiltrating right-wing organizations during the Bush administration. More hauntingly, we have that atrocious mid-1990s slaughter that almost always goes unmentioned by those who today invoke Timothy McVeigh: the dehumanization-fueled government killing of 86 Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.

But before we surrender to the fate of re-living the violence of the 1990s, it might be time to take a national chill pill. Despite the policies and rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans alike, we're a better country since then. As The Nation's Steve Bischeff—no fan at all of bringing guns to town hall meetings—rightly pointed out this week, "after six weeks of escalating (but still relatively tiny) demonstrations…there has in fact been very little violence and no gunplay at all." The August congressional recess and townhall politicking was a perfect, made-for-television opportunity for Americans to vent whatever pent-up feelings they have about economic policy over the past year; that things got mildly heated during the worst economic crisis in at least a quarter-century should be no great shocker. The great town hall mobs will be holstering their pitchforks before you know it.

So no, there isn't a brownshirt menace. No, Obama is not a National Socialist, or a commie. If there's anything positive at all about this season's flurry of idiotic Hitler comparisons, it's that it demonstrates a six-decade-old truism: Americans, like Indiana Jones, really do hate Nazis. Maybe there's hope for us yet.

Matt Welch
is Editor in Chief of Reason magazine.


* The original version of this article read: "that, as in the Esquire piece, the proponents of the theory so rarely find any actual racists to pin it on." But the assertion that Esquire was a proponent of the racial-resentment theory was incorrect.