Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Rush, Newspeak and fascism: Part 7

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6..

"Hitler was more moral than Clinton," intoned the nice-looking, dark-haired man in the three-piece suit. "He had fewer girlfriends."

The audience laughed and applauded, loudly.

A remark like that might hardly have raised an eyebrow in post-Monica America, particularly in the meeting-halls of mainstream conservatism, where it often seemed, by the end of Bill Clinton's tenure in the White House, that no hyperbole is too overblown in the campaign to depose him -- mostly, it seems, by convincing the rest of us that he was too grossly immoral to continue to hold the presidency.

As the scandal wore on, the volume, intensity and downright nastiness of his critics reached impressive levels. It wasn't unusual to hear of congressmen calling him a "scumbag" and a "cancer on the presidency," or for mainstream conservative commentary to refer to him, as Orlando Sentinel columnist Charley Reese did at one point, as "a sociopath, a liar, a sexual predator, a man with recklessly bad judgment and a scofflaw."

But the scene above took place four years before Monica, in 1994, long before Clinton handed his enemies a scandal on a platter that seemingly made such references acceptable. It was not at a Republican caucus or Christian Coalition meeting, but at a gathering of right-wing "Patriots" who had come to hear about forming militias and common-law courts and defending their gun rights -- indeed, their families -- from the New World Order. They numbered only a hundred or so and only half-filled the little convention hall in Bellevue, Washington, but their fervor saturated the room with its own paranoid energy.

And the speaker, who could have passed even then for a local Republican public official -- actually, he was nominally a Democrat -- in fact was one of the nation's leading Patriot figures: Richard Mack, then sheriff of Arizona's mostly rural Graham County. As a leader in the fight against gun control (his lawsuit eventually led to the Supreme Court overturning a section of the so-called Brady Law), Mack was in high demand on the right-wing lecture circuit as he promoted the militia concept to his eager acolytes. He usually sprinkles his "constitutional" gun-rights thesis with his theories on church-state separation -- it’s a "myth," he claims -- and "the New World Order conspiracy."

The similarities between Mack’s 1994 sentiments and the hyperbole directed at Clinton in 1998 are not accidental. Rather, they offer a stark example of the way the far right's ideas, rhetoric and issues feed into the mainstream -- and in the process, exert a gravitational pull that draws the nation's agenda increasingly rightward. For that matter, much of the conservative anti-Clinton paroxysm could be traced directly to some of the smears that circulated first in militia and white-supremacist circles.

Mack's Clinton-bashing was mostly a gratuitous nod to one of the Patriot movement's favorite themes: an almost pathological hatred of the former occupants of the Oval Office, manifested as a willingness to believe almost any slander directed at "Billary," as they like to refer to the Clintons. Had you gone to any militia gathering -- held usually in small town halls or county fairgrounds, sometimes under the guise of "preparedness expos," "patriotic meetings" or even gun shows -- you could always find a wealth of material aimed at proving Clinton the worst kind of treasonous villain imaginable.

By 1998, this rhetoric was indistinguishable from that bandied about on Rush Limbaugh's radio program or, for that matter, on Fox News cable gabfests or MSNBC's Hardball. The migration of the accusations against Clinton from the far right to the mainstream was instructive, because it indicated how more deeply enmeshed conservatives became during the 1990s with genuine extremists.

And in subsequent years, this commingling of ideologies has begun to play a role in the presidency of George W. Bush, as well. As we've already discussed, many of these same far-right factions are now involved in demonizing liberals who dissent from Bush's Iraq war plans.

It's also important to understand how the migration of these ideas occurs. Richard Mack, for instance, doesn't compare Bill Clinton's morality to Adolph Hitler's at every speaking opportunity. His remark didn’t show up, for instance, when he had his moment in the sun with the National Rifle Association.

It just pops out when he's in front of an audience of Patriot believers. That's when he knows it will gain the most appreciation. It mixes well with the fear of the New World Order he foments, in his quiet, almost sedate speaking tone.

Mack is a transmitter -- someone who treads the boundaries of the various sectors of America’s right wing and appears to belong to each of them at various times. Mack's gun-control message still sells well with mainstream, secular NRA audiences. His claims that church-state separation is a myth resonate nicely with the theocratic right crowd as well. And he cultivates a quasi-legitimate image by taking leadership positions in groups like Larry Pratt's Gun Owners of America. But he is most at home in his native base: the populist right, the world of militias, constitutionalists and pseudo-libertarians. Mack even occasionally consorts with the hard right, as when he grants front-page interviews to the Christian Identity newspaper The Jubilee.

At the same time he tours the countryside preaching the Patriot message, Mack cuts a seemingly mainstream conservative figure. As one of the key players in the effort to overturn the Brady Bill gun-control law -- which Mack claims infringes on his rights as sheriff -- he gained his highest public notice in 1995 when the National Rifle Association honored him as their Law Enforcement Officer of the Year. The image boost let him tour nationwide, speaking at numerous Patriot gatherings and hawking his books ("From My Cold Dead Fingers" and "Government, God and Freedom").

Back home in Arizona, though, his celebrity was not a big hit; the Graham County voters ousted Mack as sheriff in 1996, when he lost by a 3-to-1 margin in the primary. So he moved to Provo, Utah -- home of his alma mater, Brigham Young University -- and made plans for a Patriot "think tank," running for sheriff again (and losing big again) the summer of 1998. But like most Patriot heroes, expect Mack to keep finding his way back to the spotlight.

I think Chip Berlet's model of the right is accurate and helpful. He divides the American right into three sectors:
-- The secular conservative right. This is comprised of mainstream Republicans and white-collar professionals, glad to play government critic but strong defenders of the social status quo.

-- The theocratic right. So-called 'conservative Christians' and their like-minded counterparts among Jews, Mormons and Unification Church followers, as well as Christian nationalists. Some of the more powerful elements of this faction argue that the United States is a "Christian nation," and still others -- called "Reconstructionists" -- argue for remaking the nation as a theocratic state.

-- The xenophobic right. These include the ultra-conservatives and reactionaries who make broad appeals to working-class and blue-collar constituencies, particularly in rural areas, with a notable predilection for wrapping themselves in the flag. [See Pat Buchanan.] This faction ranges from the relatively mild-mannered Libertarians -- who also have made big inroads into the computer-geek universe -- to the more virulent and paranoid militia/Patriot movement, and finally to the hard right: the neo-Nazis, Klansmen, Posse Comitatus and various white supremacists -- including some of the nastier elements of the Patriot movement -- all of whom wish nothing more than to tear down modern democratic America and start over. This is the faction where some of the more insidious ideas (like bizarre tax-protest theories) and conspiracies (from black helicopters to the Protocols) originate, making their appearance in mainstream settings somewhat disturbing.

Transitional figures like Richard Mack play a central role in the way the right’s competing sectors interact. By transmitting ideas across the various sectors, they gain wider currency until they finally become part of the larger national debate. Secondarily, shape-shifters like Mack are increasingly important for the xenophobic right, because they lend an aura of mainstream legitimacy to ideas, agendas and organizations that are widely perceived otherwise as radical.

Transmitters operate in an array of related venues, often coordinating messages with their allies and timing the release of information for maximum emotional effect. There is a broad array of arenas in which they primarily operate: politics and public officialdom, including the military and law enforcement; the mainstream press; radio and the Internet; and religion.

Next I'll discuss who some of these transmitters are, how they operate, and how they have shifted strategies after Clinton.

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