Conspiracy

The Paranoid Center

How the panic over right-wing violence is being used to marginalize peaceful dissent

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On June 10, 2009, an elderly man entered the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, raised a rifle, and opened fire, killing a security guard named Stephen Tyrone Johns. Two other guards shot back, wounding the gunman before he could end any more lives.

The killer was soon identified as James Wenneker von Brunn, an 88-year-old neo-Nazi. Von Brunn acted alone, but there was no shortage of voices eager to spread the blame for his crime. The murder was quickly linked, in a free-associative way, to the assassination 10 days earlier of the Kansas abortionist George Tiller. This, we were told, was a "pattern" of "rising right-wing violence."

More imaginative pundits tried to tie the two slayings to a smattering of other crimes, from an April shootout in Pittsburgh that killed three cops to a year-old double murder at a Knoxville Unitarian church. The longest such list, assembled by the liberal blogger Sara Robinson, included nine diverse incidents linked only by the fact that the criminals all hailed from one corner or another of the paranoid right. One of the episodes involved a mentally disturbed anti-Semite who had stalked a former classmate for two years before killing her in May. "This is how terrorism begins," Robinson warned.

Crime wave thus established, the analysts moved on to denounce the unindicted instigators. Bonnie Erbe of U.S. News and World Report pinned the museum guard's death on "promoters of hate," adding, "If yesterday's Holocaust Museum slaying of security guard and national hero Stephen Tyrone Johns is not a clarion call for banning hate speech, I don't know what is." In The New York Times, columnist Bob Herbert wrote that he "can't help feeling" the crimes "were just the beginning and that worse is to come"—thanks in part to "the over-the-top rhetoric of the National Rifle Association." His Times colleague Paul Krugman warned that "right-wing extremism is being systematically fed by the conservative media and political establishment." Another Timesman, Frank Rich, announced that "homicide-saturated vituperation is endemic among mini-Limbaughs." After the museum murder, Rich wrote, the talk show host Glenn Beck "rushed onto Fox News to describe the Obama-hating killer as a 'lone gunman nutjob.' Yet in the same show Beck also said von Brunn was a symptom that 'the pot in America is boiling,' as if Beck himself were not the boiling pot cheering the kettle on."

When critics blamed pro-life partisans for the death of George Tiller, there at least was a coherent connection between the pundits' anti-abortion rhetoric and the assassin's target. Say what you will about Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, but neither is known for railing against the Holocaust museum. If Beck, to borrow Rich's mixed metaphor, is cheering on a kettle, it isn't the kettle that produced James von Brunn.

We've heard ample warnings about extremist paranoia in the months since Barack Obama became president, and we're sure to hear many more throughout his term. But we've heard almost nothing about the paranoia of the political center. When mainstream commentators treat a small group of unconnected crimes as a grand, malevolent movement, they unwittingly echo the very conspiracy theories they denounce. Both brands of connect-the-dots fantasy reflect the tellers' anxieties much more than any order actually emerging in the world.

When such a story is directed at those who oppose the politicians in power, it has an additional effect. The list of dangerous forces that need to be marginalized inevitably expands to include peaceful, legitimate critics.

The Paranoid Style in Center-Left Politics

This isn't the first time the establishment has been overrun with paranoia about paranoiacs. The classic account of American conspiratology is Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," a 1964 survey of political fear from the founding generation through the Cold War. A flawed and uneven essay, Hofstadter's article nonetheless includes several perceptive passages. The most astute one might be this:

"It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through 'front' groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy." 

Hofstadter didn't acknowledge it, but his argument applied to much of his audience as well. His article begins with a reference to "extreme right-wingers," a lead that reflected the times. In the early 1960s, America was experiencing a wave of alarm about the radical right. This had been building throughout the Kennedy years and then exploded after the president's assassination, which many people either blamed directly on the far right or attributed to an atmosphere of fear and division fed by right-wing rhetoric. By the time Hofstadter's essay appeared, the "projection of the self" he described was in full effect. Just as anti-communists had mimicked the communists, anti-anti-communists were emulating the red hunters.

In 1961, for example, Walter and Victor Reuther of the United Auto Workers wrote a 24-page memo urging then-Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to join "the struggle against the radical right." The letter, co-authored by the liberal attorney Joseph Rauh, called for Kennedy to deploy the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Federal Communications Commission against the extremists. By "the radical right," the Reuthers meant not just the Birchers and the fundamentalist Christian Crusade but Sen. Barry Goldwater and the libertarian Volker Fund. In Before the Storm, his history of the Goldwater movement, Rick Perlstein describes Group Research Incorporated, an operation funded by the Reuthers' union, as "the mirror image of the political intelligence businesses that monitored left-wingers in the 1950s, identifying fellow-travelling organizations by counting the number of members and officers shared with purported Communist Party fronts. Group Research did the same thing, substituting the John Birch Society for the reds."

Interestingly, the phrases that sounded so dangerous on the lips of the far right weren't always so different from the rhetoric of the Cold War liberals. Robert DePugh, founder of the Minutemen—the anti-communist activists of the '60s, not the anti-immigration activists of today—claimed to have been inspired by JFK's own words: "We need a nation of Minutemen, citizens who are not only prepared to take up arms, but citizens who regard the preservation of freedom as a basic purpose of their daily life." In Before the Storm, Perlstein notes that Kennedy "spoke often in these absolutist, apocalyptic terms."

Philip Jenkins, a scholar at Pennsylvania State University who specializes in both the history of moral panics and the history of the American right, has described this period as the second of three "brown scares" ("brown" as in the brown shirts of fascism). The first came in the late 1930s and early '40s, when aides and allies of Franklin Roosevelt conflated genuine domestic fascists with critics who were far from Nazis. The third came in the mid-1990s, when Timothy McVeigh's mass murder in Oklahoma City set off a barrage of fear-mongering stories about the alleged militia menace in the heartland, helping Bill Clinton push through the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The anxieties of the latter period have the most in common with the cocktail of fears emerging in 2009.

The Great Militia Panic

In the popular imagination, the militia movement of the '90s was a paranoid pack of racists plotting terrorist attacks. The University of Hartford historian Robert H. Churchill calls this "the narrative of 1995," a storyline cemented after McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that year. "In this narrative," Churchill writes in To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant's Face, a perceptive new study of the militias, "the militias and the Patriot movement took on the guise of a perfect, racist 'other,' and the threat they posed was best articulated by Morris Dees' apocalyptic vision of a 'gathering storm.'"

This vision was pushed by a collection of groups dedicated to tracking the radical right, notably Dees' Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. It dominated the media. "In news coverage, popular novels, episodes of Law and Order, and movies such as Arlington Road," Churchill writes, "the public became well acquainted with the archetypal militiaman, usually portrayed as warped by racial hatred, obsessed with bizarre conspiracy theories, and hungry for violent retribution." In Searching for a Demon, a detailed 2002 study of how the movement was portrayed, the Indiana University sociologist Steven Chermak summed up the militiamen's media image: They were "irrational terrorists—a dangerous, growing outsider threat that needed eradicating."

The figures who crafted this image often traced the militia movement to a single weekend in 1992, when Peter J. Peters, an anti-Semitic preacher associated with the racist Christian Identity movement, organized a gathering of the far-right tribes in Estes Park, Colorado. About 160 people reportedly attended, one of whom, John Trochman, later played a significant role in the militia milieu. By this account, the militias were a direct sequel to the violent racist underground of the 1980s, represented by such groups as the Aryan Nations and the Order. (The latter was a terrorist gang that robbed banks, counterfeited money, and murdered a Jewish talk radio host.) If the militias didn't seem to express the same set of concerns, that was merely a mask. In The Eliminationists, published this year, the Seattle-based journalist David Neiwert—one of the movement's most prominent critics—claims the militias were "specifically geared toward mainstreaming some of the basic tenets of [the racist right's] worldview."

Churchill offers a more persuasive origin story. By his account, the militias overlapped with the older, broader populist right, but their origins were distinct. The movement began to congeal not in 1992 but in the early months of 1994, as activists reacted to the lethal federal raid on the Branch Davidian church in Waco, Texas. Rather than tracing the phenomenon back to groups like the Order, Churchill uses a series of case studies to explore the long American tradition of armed resistance to intrusive government.

The militias of the 1990s, he argues, were reacting primarily to the rise of paramilitary police tactics. Their causes célèbres—the disastrous standoffs in Waco and in Ruby Ridge, Idaho—were only the most visible examples of what could go wrong when policemen regarded themselves as soldiers rather than peace officers. The militias formed and grew, Churchill writes, as their members "came to the conclusion that the federalization and militarization of law enforcement had created a paramilitary culture of violence." He backs up his interpretation with many quotes from militia figures, including, significantly, denunciations of the beating of Rodney King and the rape of Abner Louima, a Haitian man whom New York police sodomized with a broomstick in 1997.

A decade and a half later, paramilitary policing has proven far more deadly than paramilitary dissent. Neither McVeigh nor his accomplice, Terry Nichols, turned out to be a member of a militia. After the Oklahoma City attack, a Michigan Militia spokesman said his group's closest contact with the bombers had come when James Nichols, Terry's brother, showed up to speak during the "open forum" portion of a meeting. By that account, Nichols attempted to distribute some literature, urged everyone to cut up their drivers' licenses, and was eventually asked to leave. *

After Oklahoma City, a few figures on the fringes of the militia milieu were nabbed for planning attacks. These plots—by the most generous definition of militia, there were about a dozen of them—bolstered the anti-militia narrative, but the details of the schemes reveal a much more complicated picture. Several of the plans originated with the government's own infiltrators. Many of the "militias" involved were tiny operations run by hotheads who'd been expelled from more established militia groups. And most important, in at least three cases the conspirators were arrested after militia members themselves got wind of the plans and alerted police.

Patriots and Racists

While the press sometimes described the militia movement as a simple continuation of the 1980s racist right, the leaders of the older groups weren't so quick to recognize the new crew as their children. "They are not for the preservation of the white race," Aryan Nations chief Richard Butler complained to the New York Post reporter Jonathan Karl in Karl's 1995 book The Right to Bear Arms. "They're actually traitors to the white race; they seek to integrate with blacks, Jews, and others."

That's not to say that members of the racist right didn't join militias, make an effort to recruit from the militias, or try to capitalize on the militias' notoriety. Some of them appended the word militia to their groups' names in the 1990s, giving us organizations like the tiny Oklahoma Constitutional Militia, led by an anti-Semite who'd been kicked out of the mainline militia movement. But even as bigots sometimes appeared in militia circles, so did blacks, Hispanics, and Jews. Churchill divides the militia movement into two distinct though sometimes overlapping tendencies: the constitutionalists and the millenarians. The former organized in public, emphasized gun rights and other civil liberties, and saw themselves as a deterrent to repression and abuse. The latter often organized in secret cells, emphasized elaborate conspiracy theories, and saw themselves as survivors in the face of a coming apocalypse. The millenarians were more likely to tolerate racists, while groups in the constitutionalist wing sometimes went out of their way to pick political fights with white supremacists.

To understand just how oversimplified the story of militia racism was, look back to a nearly forgotten scandal that erupted the same year as the Oklahoma City bombing. For a decade and a half, it was discovered, federal, state, and local law enforcement officials had been attending an event in Tennessee called the Good Ol' Boys Roundup. A Department of Justice investigation found "ample evidence of shocking racist, licentious, and puerile behavior" at the gathering, including a sign saying "No Niggers" and a self-appointed group that stopped drivers to announce that they were "checking cars for niggers."

What does this have to do with the militia movement? It was the Alabama-based Gadsden Militia that learned about the event, infiltrated it, and exposed it to the press, eventually triggering the official investigation. Faced with racist cops, those militiamen didn't see allies in the belly of the beast. They saw another government abuse to be exposed.

Militia critics nonetheless went through incredible contortions to paint anti-government populists as bigoted thugs. A representative text here is the 1996 book A Force Upon the Plain, written by the liberal attorney Kenneth Stern. Stern essentially argued that when militia members weren't racist themselves, they were racist dupes. When their conspiracy theorists fretted over an international cabal led by Freemasons, the Illuminati, or the Trilateral Commission, Stern suggested, they were really imagining a cabal led by Jews. Their theories, he wrote, were "rooted in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the infamous anti-Semitic forgery, because the worldviews were structurally similar. "The militia movement today believes in the conspiracy theory of the Protocols," Stern concluded, "even if some call it something else and never mention Jews."

This argument resembled Woody Allen's syllogism: "Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, all men are Socrates." And Stern's history was as bad as his logic. The Protocols did not emerge until the late 19th century and was not widely popularized until 1903. Anti-Masonic theories were common throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and the first anti-Illuminati hysteria broke out in 1797.

An even odder argument held that the militias were, in effect, a gateway drug. Stern attributed this idea to Ken Toole of the Montana Human Rights Network, who compared the movement to a funnel. People enter it for many reasons, he acknowledged—to protest taxes, regulations, gun control, or some other policy. But as they're sucked in, they begin to embrace conspiracy theories and revolutionary rhetoric. At the far end of the funnel are the hardcore bigots. Not all the militiamen are at the funnel's eye, Stern conceded, but that was where they were heading.

This theory would only make sense if white supremacy were the logical conclusion of opposing globalism and federal power. But you'd expect the most radical members of such a movement to embrace a radical decentralism, not racism. Perhaps anticipating this objection, Stern argued that decentralist rhetoric is itself racist—that the idea of states' rights "has always been used to shield local governments from criticism over discriminatory practices." (Yes, he wrote "always." When state officials object to federal raids on medical marijuana clubs, Stern presumably believes they have a veiled racist agenda.) And the dangers of decentralization didn't stop there. Stern warned: "When a political movement rejects the idea of common American values and says, 'Let me do it my own way,' it usually means it wants to do things that are objectionable, and yearns to do them undisturbed and unnoticed."

So anyone critical of centralized power, from governors protesting unfunded mandates to eco-conscious locavores, is potentially a part of the problem. That's a mighty big funnel.

The Big Funnel of 2009

When you blur the boundaries of a scapegoated group, there's a useful side benefit: You can discredit mainstream as well as radical political opponents. There was a turning point in the mid-'90s standoff between Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a moment when the White House was able to start setting the terms of the debate and the GOP went on the defensive. In most accounts, the shift came when the Republicans' willingness to "shut down" the federal government backfired during the budget battle at the end of 1995. But the April bombing in Oklahoma City and the militia panic that followed was at least as important in shifting the grounds of the argument. They allowed Clinton's supporters to play up the "extreme" anti-government rhetoric coming from Gingrich's supporters in the talk radio right, and to link it to the "extremism" of McVeigh and the militias.

A similar dynamic is at work in 2009. When pundits weave a small number of unrelated incidents into a "pattern" of crime, then link it to the rhetoric of Obama's opponents, it becomes easier to marginalize nonviolent, noncriminal critics on the right, just as a red scare makes it easier to marginalize nonviolent, noncriminal figures on the left.

Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on the threat of "rightwing extremism." Depending on whose interpretation you prefer, the paper either defined extremism far too broadly or failed to define it at all. "Rightwing extremism in the United States," the department said, "can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration."

The charitable reading of this passage is that it's a sloppily phrased attempt to list the ideas that drive different right-wing extremists, not a declaration that anyone opposed to abortion or prone to "rejecting federal authority" is a threat. But even under that interpretation, the report is inexcusably vague. It focuses on extremism itself, not on violence, and there's no reason to believe its definition of extremist is limited to people with violent inclinations. (The department's report on left-wing extremism cites such nonviolent groups as Crimethinc and the Ruckus Society.) As Michael German, a policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote after the document surfaced, the bulletin focuses "on ideas rather than crime." One practical effect, German noted, is that the paper "cites an increase in 'rhetoric' yet doesn't even mention reports that there was a dirty bomb found in an alleged white supremacist's house in Maine last December. Learning what to look for in that situation might actually be useful to a cop. Threat reports that focus on ideology instead of criminal activity are threatening to civil liberties and a wholly ineffective use of federal security resources."

Unfortunately, the Homeland Security report wasn't an anomaly. Government-run "fusion centers" in several states have produced similar papers aimed at identifying "potential trends or patterns of terrorist or criminal operations"; the subjects range from anarchists to Odinists to "Illicit Use of Digital Music Players." The most infamous dossier, produced by the Missouri Information Analysis Center, was devoted to the remnants of—what else?—the militia movement, plus a host of other dissidents it roped in with the militiamen. The fact sheet, which was distributed to police throughout the state, declared that "it is not uncommon for militia members to display Constitution Party, Campaign for Liberty, or Libertarian material. These members are usually supporters of former Presidential Candidate: Ron Paul, Chuck Baldwin, and Bob Barr." 

Not content to engage in political profiling, the document warned that the Gadsden flag, that familiar historical banner bearing the slogan "Don't Tread on Me" below a coiled rattlesnake, "is the most common symbol displayed by militia members and organizations." Watch out, highway patrolman: That history buff with the flag on his bumper just might be a terrorist!

The Validators

When panicky centrists aren't willing to draw an unbroken line from peaceful conservatives to the violent fringe, they posit a somewhat subtler link. The killers, they acknowledge, aren't taking their marching orders directly from Fox News and AM radio. But by giving serious attention to theories associated with the fringe right—that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is preparing concentration camps, that Barack Obama is not a natural-born U.S. citizen—Glenn Beck and other broadcasters are validating the grievances of potential killers, giving them the impression that they aren't alone. This validation is buttressed by the sweeping, sometimes violent rhetoric about "liberals" that you hear from partisan celebrities, such as Ann Coulter's joke that McVeigh should have blown up the New York Times building instead. In The Eliminationists and on his blog, David Neiwert tries to establish a chain linking "eliminationist" behavior in American history (lynchings of blacks and Asians, the slaughter of American Indians), eliminationist rhetoric on the mainstream right (the Coulter wisecrack), and von Brunn–style efforts to eliminate people directly. 

The theory is interesting, but it has two enormous problems. The first is that it ignores the autonomy of people on the fringe. Not just the radicals who commit the crimes, but the radicals who don't commit crimes. There's a complex ecology at work here, one demonstrated most clearly in those cases when militiamen alerted authorities to terrorist plots in their midst. Words have influence, but they influence different people in different ways; you can't reduce media effects to simple push-pull reactions. Accusing Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly of validating right-wing violence isn't so different from accusing pornography of validating rape, Ozzy Osbourne of validating teen suicide, or Marilyn Manson of validating school massacres. 

The second problem is the implicit version of history. Neiwert has uncritically embraced the idea that the militia movement began in 1992, so it's easy for him to imagine a progression from the old lynch mobs to the right-wing '80s underground to the '90s militias to Republicans who tolerate militia-style arguments. But if Churchill is right about the origins of the militia movement, the original eliminationists might have a different, more dangerous set of descendants. 

The 1997 documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement includes footage of camouflage-clad cops gathered outside David Koresh's compound before the final assault on the Branch Davidians. One officer declares himself "honed to kill." A buddy of his compares him to Rambo. A Klansman turns up in the middle of the standoff to offer his services in stopping Koresh. "Give him an ultimatum, give him a deadline," he suggests. 

Who exactly were the eliminationists here? The reporters and officials who stigmatized a sect and launched an attack that ended with most of the Davidians dead? Or the people who were moved to defend the rights and the memory of a multi-racial community associated with unusual beliefs and sexual practices?

If the Oklahoma City bombing stands out, that is because it is unique in American history. Eliminationist rhetoric may flower in some of the fringes, but the violence that sometimes follows is usually petty stuff. The most formidable eliminationists have always been in the American center, not on the margins. They aim to preserve or extend the existing social order, not to subvert it. And they have the most guns. 

The eradication of the Indians would have been impossible without the support of the federal government. When the second Ku Klux Klan was at its most powerful, in the early 1920s, it controlled the governments of Colorado, Indiana, and Oregon. In the South, lynch mobs and night riders served as a sort of para-state: A man who wore a policeman's badge by day could don a Klansman's hood by night. In the 1960s it was possible for urban cops to engage in extralegal violence in one moment and to call for "law and order" in the next. You could view that as a contradiction. Or you could view it as an especially ugly idea of what law entails. 

It's comforting to imagine that violence and paranoia belong only to the far left and right, and that we can protect ourselves from their effects by quarantining the extremists and vigilantly expelling anyone who seems to be bringing their ideas into the mainstream. But the center has its own varieties of violence and paranoia. And it's far more dangerous than anyone on the fringe, even the armed fringe, will ever be.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker (jwalker@reason.com) is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).

* The text originally described both Terry and James Nichols as McVeigh's accomplices. In fact, only Terry Nichols was charged with the crime.