VI: Crossing the Lines
The line between right-wing extremists and "the conservative movement" has been increasingly blurred in the past 10 years. The distance between them now has grown so short in some cases as to render them nearly indistinguishable.
Certainly it is hard to distinguish between George Bush's contempt for the United Nations and the kind that a John Bircher might harbor. Moreover, Bush panders to these sentiments; he reportedly waxed nostalgic before a group of visiting Southerners about the old "Get us Out of the U.N.!" billboards that were common in Bircher country.
This, in addition to sloppy thinking, is why some on the left will offhandedly label Rush Limbaugh or George W. Bush "fascists." I’m here to explain why, despite all appearances, they aren’t. Yet. And how we’ll know when they are.
I first covered neo-Nazis in Idaho beginning in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Back then, even in a reactionary Republican state full of John Birchers, it was relatively easy (though not always so) to distinguish between the mainstream conservatives and the far right.
But that all changed during the 1990s. Responding to the serious law-enforcement crackdown on their activities, the white supremacists in the Christian Identity movement -- which was the driving ideology at Hayden Lake -- began morphing in the early part of the decade into the Patriot, or militia, movement. This was essentially an effort by Identity leaders to mainstream their belief system, primarily by locking away or disguising the racial components of their belief systems and instead emphasizing their political and legal agendas, all of which are bound up in the movement’s métier, conspiracy theories.
And the Patriot movement has thrived during that period on its mutability, its ability to confront a broad range of issues with its populist appeal, all wrapped in the bright colors of American nationalism. In the Patriot movement, just about any national malady -- unemployment, crime, welfare abuse, drugs, abortion, even natural disasters -- can be blamed on the "un-American" federal government or the New World Order. If you don’t like gun control, or the way your kids are being taught in school, or even the way the weather has affected your crops this year, the Patriot movement can tell you who’s to blame.
Of course, no discussion of the Patriot movement would be complete without mentioning the important role played in this crossover by its Southern component, the neo-Confederate movement. (Indeed, there are a number of figures prominent among neo-Confederates, particularly Kirk Lyons, who are closely associated with the Identity movement.) Its resurgence in the South was closely associated with the rise of the Patriot movement nationally. The rhetoric and agenda were likewise virtually identical.
At roughly the same time, mainstream movement conservatives -- driven to apparent distraction by the election and then sustained success of Bill Clinton -- became more ideologically rigid and fanatical. And it was in this meeting ground of Clinton-hatred that mainstream conservatism and right-wing extremism became much closer.
To the far right, Clinton embodied the totalitarian threat of the New World Order, a slimy leader in the conspiracy to enslave all mankind. To conservatives, he was simply an unanswerable political threat for whom no level of invective could be too vicious. Moreover, he was the last barrier to their complete control of every branch of the federal government. These interests coalesced as the far right became an echo chamber for attacks on Clinton that would then migrate into the mainstream, ultimately reaching their apex in Clinton's impeachment.
Ideas and agendas began floating from one sector to the other in increasing volume around 1994. I noticed it first in the amazing amount of crossover between militia types and the anti-Clinton vitriol out of D.C. that eventually built into the impeachment fiasco. In fact, it was clear that what I was seeing was that the far right was being used as an echo chamber to test out various right-wing issues and find out which ones resonated (this was especially the case with Clinton conspiracies). Then if it got traction, the issue would find its way out into the mainstream.
This crossover is facilitated by figures I call "transmitters" -- ostensibly mainstream conservatives who seem to cull ideas that often have their origins on the far right, strip them of any obviously pernicious content, and present them as "conservative" arguments. These transmitters work across a variety of fields. In religion, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are the best-known examples, though many others belong in the same category. In politics, the classic example is Patrick Buchanan, while his counterpart in the field of conservative activism is Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation.
In the media, Rush Limbaugh is the most prominent instance, and Michael Savage is a close second, but there are others who have joined the parade noticeably in the past few years: Andrew Sullivan, for instance, and of course Ann Coulter. On the Internet, the largest single transmitter of right-wing extremism is FreeRepublic.com, whose followers -- known as "Freepers" -- have engaged in some of the more outrageous acts of thuggery against their liberal targets.
And finally, there’s Fox News, which bills itself as "fair and balanced," but which in fact is a virtual data center for transmitting extremist material into the mainstream. One of the most egregious examples of this was Fox’s broadcasts, on several occasions in 2000-2001, of an anti-tax protester named Bob Schulz. Schulz operated a snake-oil outfit called We The People Congress which operated on the old Posse Comitatus theory that the 16th Amendment -- the one approving the income tax -- was never properly approved. The same theory was also the main serving of a number of Patriot outfits.
However, the really interesting -- and equally enigmatic -- meeting-ground between the far right and the apparent mainstream comes in the field of money. Namely, the funding of the far right tends to be relatively mysterious, since many of them work under the aegis of a religious organization and are thus exempt from reporting the identities of contributors. But it was interesting to see the money flowing from allegedly mainstream rightist organizations into several neo-Patriot outfits who specialized in spreading numerous conspiracy theories that were clearly Patriot in origin. Most noteworthy of these was the Western Journalism Center and WorldNetDaily, originally financed by Scaife. Moreover, there was a lot of Scaife money underwriting publication of the anti-Clinton material I saw distributed at militia meetings.
Scaife was probably the most visible case. Many observers, myself included, suspect strongly that outfits like Militia of Montana and Bo Gritz's operations in Idaho and Nevada are being funded by right-wing sugar daddies who make their livings in real estate or development, perhaps manufacturing. Vincent Bertollini, the right-wing Silicon Valley millionaire who underwrote Richard Butler at the Aryan Nations for a number of years, is another such case -- though as it happens, he is currently on the lam from a drunk-driving charge that is likely to land him in the slammer.
A classic example of the way the far right gets quietly funded by wealthy corporatists from the mainstream cropped up a couple of years ago, when a wealthy Massachusetts lawyer named Richard J. Cotter bequeathed some $650,000 of his estate to various white-supremacist causes. It’s more than likely he quietly slipped them money while he was alive, too. There are other similar cases -- and these are only the ones that happen to become public.
These likely are people who are not public about their beliefs but are sympathetic to Patriot causes, and more importantly, see right-wing extremists as a useful lever, a threat that helps keep "leftists" in line. As Matthew Lyons of Political Research Associates has often argued (especially in the book he co-wrote with Chip Berlet, the excellent Right Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort), the extremist right has long been a very useful tool of the corporatist right deployed purposely for precisely this function, as well as to drive wedge issues such as race between labor unions and working-class people.
It seems clear to me that by any reasonable definition, George W. Bush is a corporatist, not a fascist. It seems unlikely, of course, that he or his family are the kinds of corporatists who would financially underwrite far-right organizations today, given that the discovery of such would doom any political legitimacy for the Bushes. (And besides, they’ve already done their part underwriting -- and making millions off -- the Nazi war machine earlier this century. )
What is also clear, however, is that Bush and his cohorts have not the least compunction about allying themselves with the thuggish and potentially violent component of the extremist elements that have now been subsumed by the Republican Party. This became abundantly clear in the 2000 election, and particularly in the post-election fight in Florida. Don Black’s Stormfront people were there providing bodies for the pro-Bush protests, and his Web site proudly announced their participation. And as the Village Voice reported at the time:
- On November 13, Black helped an angry crowd drive Reverend Jesse Jackson off a West Palm Beach stage with taunts and jeers. "He wasn't being physically threatened," Black says, in a later interview.
No one from the Bush camp ever denounced the participation of Black and his crew or even distanced themselves from this bunch, or for that matter any of the thuggery that arose during the post-election drama. Indeed, Bush himself later feted a crew of "Freeper" thugs who had shut down one of the recounts in Florida, while others terrorized his opponent, Al Gore, and his family by staging loud protests outside the Vice President's residence during the Florida struggle.
These failures were symptomatic of a campaign that made multiple gestures of conciliation to a variety of extreme right-wing groups. These ranged from the neo-Confederates to whom Bush’s campaign made its most obvious appeals in the South Carolina primary to his speaking appearance at Bob Jones University. Bush and his GOP cohorts continued to make a whole host of other gestures to other extremist components: attacking affirmative action, kneecapping the United Nations, and gutting hate-crimes laws.
The result was that white supremacists and other right-wing extremists came to identify politically with George W. Bush more than any other mainstream Republican politician in memory. This was embodied by the endorsement of Bush’s candidacy by a range of white supremacists, including David Duke, Don Black and Matthew Hale of the World Church of the Creator. This identification even cropped up in odd places like the neo-Nazi flyers that passed around in Elma, Washington, in November 2000 that proclaimed Bush their group’s "supreme commander."
However, the signal event of 2000 that went under everyone’s radar was Patrick Buchanan’s bid for the presidency on the Reform Party ticket. It was this move which drove everyone from the Patriot movement firmly into the arms of George W. Bush and the Republican Party.
Right-wing extremists, for the most part, are only a tiny portion of the electorate; they usually represent at best about 3 or maybe 4 percent of the vote. During the 1990s, these voters gave Ross Perot’s Reform Party nearly half its total base. This was critical in the 1992 election, when George H.W. Bush saw much of his conservative base go to Perot. It didn’t matter quite so much in 1996 -- Clinton defeated the GOP’s Bob Dole quite handily, with or without Perot’s help -- but the lesson was clear. That 3-4 percent was killing the GOP.
So in 2000 came the Buchanan takeover of the Reform Party. He managed to do this with a maximum of acrimony, so that the party became split into its Buchananite wing -- which largely was the white-nationalist faction -- and its Perotite wing. Buchanan’s side won the war and got to carry the party’s banner in the national election.
And then Buchanan selected a black woman as his running mate.
The white nationalists who had been Buchanan’s footsoldiers abandoned him immediately. And where did they flee? The GOP, of course. As David Duke’s manager explained it to a reporter: "[A]fter Buchanan chose a black woman as his veep he now thinks that ‘Pat is a moron’ and ‘there is no way we can support him at this point.’" The Democrats -- with a Jew as the running mate -- were threatening at the time to win the race outright. The combination of all these factors herded the far right handily into voting Republican.
If someone had intended to sabotage the Reform Party and drive its voters back to the GOP, they couldn’t have done a more perfect job of this than Buchanan did. While no one can say whether Buchanan’s moves were made with this end in mind -- it certainly is feasible he believed his own bullshit -- neither does it seem beyond the pale for an old Nixon hand to take a political bullet for the home team.
In any case, what we’ve been seeing in the field since 2000 is that much of the dissipation of the energy in the Patriot movement is directly related to the identification by right-wing extremists with George W. Bush. The announced reason (according to the New York Times) for the disbanding of Norm Olson's Michigan Militia, for instance, was the belief among members that Bush had the country headed back in the right direction, as it were:
- Mr. Olson attributed the dwindling membership to the election of President Bush. ''Across the nation, there is a satisfaction among patriots with the way things are going,'' he said.
It was in this election that large numbers of former Patriots -- many of them disillusioned with the movement after the failure of the "Y2K scare" to materialize, but still maintaining their attitudes about government, liberalism and conspiracies, and disenfranchised by Buchanan's campaign -- turned to the politics of the Bush team, which made all the right gestures to make them feel welcome.
Thus, even though the Patriot movement never even came close to achieving any kind of actual power -- outside of a handful of legislators in a smattering of Western states -- the absorption of its followers into mainstream conservatism successfully brought a wide range of extremists together under the banner of Republican politics, embodied in the defense of the agenda of President Bush and in the hatred of all forms of liberalism.
Then, after Sept. 11, the attacks on liberalism became enmeshed with a virulent strain of jingoism that at first blamed liberals for the attacks, then accused them of treasonous behavior for questioning Bush's war plans. Now we're seeing a broad-based campaign of hatred against liberals -- particularly antiwar dissenters -- that serves two purposes: it commingles mainstream pro-Bush forces in direct contact, and open alliance with, a number of people with extremist beliefs; and it gives the extremist element of Patriot footsoldiers who turned Republican in 2000 an increasingly important role in the mainstream party.
Namely, they are increasingly starting to look like the "enforcers" of the Bush agenda, intimidating and silencing any opposition. In the process, this element gains power and influence far beyond what it could have had as a separate proto-fascist element.
By first subsuming the Patriot element under the Republican banner, the Bush regime has effected an apparent alliance -- not explicitly, but systemically. And it is clear that while Bush’s charisma may not appeal to everyone, he has the power to electrify this base.
It's difficult to say whether this absorption has mitigated the extremist impulses of the former Patriot footsoldiers, though it probably has. Certainly it has had the predictable effect of making a travesty of the Patriots' original ideology: those who once were rabid anti-government activists have become equally rabid defenders of the government of the Bush regime. Their presence at the large "pro-war" rallies which existed primarily as an invasion of preplanned antiwar protests was noteworthy.
More important is the effect that the absorption has had on the larger Republican Party. Just as the Southern Strategy changed the very nature of the GOP from within, so has this more recent absorption of an extremist element transformed its basic nature. Now, positions that at one time would have been considered unthinkable for Republicans -- unilateralist foreign policy, contempt for the United Nations and international law, a willingness to use war as a first resort, a visceral hatred of even the hint of liberalism -- are positions it touts prominently.
Now its agenda aligns with the base impulses Robert O. Paxton identifies as fascist, and which drove the Patriot movement: national identity über alles; a claim of victimization; hatred of liberalism; reigniting a sense of national destiny and a closely bonded community; an appreciation of the value of violence; and of course, all of this uniting under the divinely inspired banner of George W. Bush, the Frat Boy of Destiny.
In a sense, this turns the scheme of Paxton's second stage of fascism on its head. That is, the proto-fascists of the Patriot movement, rather than obtaining power by the ascension of their own political faction in an alliance with conservatives, obtain power through absorption, from within conservatism. Forming alliances first in hatred of Clinton and Gore, and then in defense of Bush's war, the conservative movement has, perhaps unthinkingly, allowed itself to be transformed from within.
Possibly all this commingling has had a moderating effect on the extremists. But it is mainstream conservatism that demonstrably has undergone the most dramatic change in this cauldron: It seems to increasingly view the Left as an unacceptable governing partner. And in doing so, it has effectively ended a longtime power-sharing contract between liberals and conservatives in America. It has become common for conservatives to openly reject any hint of liberalism, and to demonize liberals as a caustic and ultimately unacceptable force in society.
The impetus for these attacks comes from the hectoring likes of Rush Limbaugh and the truly noxious Ann Coulter, Fox News and the Free Republic. They are all people who take extremist ideas and dress them in mainstream clothing, straddling both sectors, and transmitting information between them. I call them "transmitters."
Next: The Transmission Belt