VII: The Transmission Belt
"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." Even right-wing scribe Andrew Sullivan played the armchair psychologist on national television, describing Clinton as "sociopathic."
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.
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 granted 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).
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. Bill and Hillary Clinton, after all, occupy a central position in Patriots’ "New World Order" paranoiac fantasy.
"For those in this right-wing conspiracist subculture, Clinton as President represents a constitutional crisis because he is seen as a traitor betraying the country to secret elites plotting a collectivist totalitarian rule through a global New World Order," observes Chip Berlet of the Cambridge, Mass., think tank Political Research Associates. "Stories of Clinton's alleged sexual misconduct buttress this notion because they demonstrate symptoms of his liberal secular humanist outlook, which ties him to what is seen as a longstanding conspiracy against God, individual responsibility, and national sovereignty." The Clintons’ conspiracy is believed to have its roots in global Communism and, ultimately, the "international bankers" (read: Jews) who pull all the world’s political strings.
Go to the Militia of Montana’s table at any Patriot gathering and you can find, alongside Army manuals on "Booby Traps" and guerrilla-warfare manuals like The Road Back, a healthy selection of books and tapes devoted to Clinton’s many perfidies:
- -- Black Helicopters Over America: Strikeforce for the New World Order, Jim Keith’s militia classic that, besides postulating global preparations for the enslavement of mankind, identified Bill Clinton as an "obvious socialist and possible Soviet agent" whose administration has "ushered in the New World Order."
-- "Executive Orders for the New World Order," MOM’s popular pamphlet with a list of presidential orders -- mostly related to national emergencies under the aegis of that X-Files bugaboo, the Federal Emergency Management Administration -- which ostensibly show how Clinton has prepared for the NWO takeover.
-- Big Sister is Watching You, a supposed expose of Hillary’s secretive claque of "Feminazis" (with several suggestions that a witch’s coven might be lurking in the White House). The MOM catalog describes it thus: "These are the woman who tell Bill Clinton what to do: Lesbians, sex perverts, child-molester advocates, Christian haters and the most doctrinaire of Communists, whose goal is to end American sovereignty and bring about a global Marxist paradise."
-- Martial Law Rule, an "exposé" by Oregon white supremacist Robert Wangrud, of Clinton’s continuing imposition of "martial law" in the U.S. (which he claims began under Lincoln and has remained in place since). Elsewhere, Wangrud has been known to argue that civil-rights legislation constitutes the treasonous act of "race betrayal."
-- The Death of Vince Foster and The Clinton Chronicles, the now-infamous creations of Citizens for Honest Government which supposedly laid bare Clinton’s involvement in the murder of his aide as well as a web of drug-running and murders in rural Mena, Arkansas.
Indeed, the militia movement provided most of the early audience for The Clinton Chronicles; large stacks of the books and videos sold well at Patriot gatherings, and the Mena tales continue to be regarded as articles of faith. The wild and bizarre accusations -- easily refuted both in mainstream media and by a congressional investigation -- gained an extended half-life in a milieu where counter-evidence is only considered further proof of a conspiracy. This echo effect resonated long enough that the claims were certain to regain currency in the mainstream -- and eventually, they did.
This is how the Patriot movement pulls the national debate towards its own agenda. Regardless of how far-fetched or provably false their claims or ideas might be, they stay alive in the everything-fits conspiracist mindset of the far right. The ideas that have a long-term resonance are transmitted to the mainstream, stripped of their racial or religious origins -- which often is the swamps of supremacist Christian Identity belief -- by being presented as purely "political" claims or conjecture. As the ideas gain more traction in the mainstream, the far right’s agenda becomes realized incrementally.
David Duke knows all about this technique -- it is one he has mastered over the years as one of the nation’s leading white-supremacist figures. For years -- especially during his Populist Party presidential bid in 1988 and his nearly successful U.S. Senate campaign in 1990 -- Duke denied being a white racist, despite his background as a KKK leader.
Finally, in his 1996 Senate race (which he lost), Duke abandoned his pretense and began campaigning almost exclusively on the issue of "saving white heritage" and other "racial realities"; his campaign literature listed his former Klan leadership, and his Web site contained Duke’s favorite theories on racial separation. Noting wryly the similarities between the 1996 GOP platform and his own 1988 presidential platform -- anti-immigration, anti-affirmative action, anti-welfare, anti-abortion -- Duke made it clear he saw no reason not to revert to his true self, since he was driving the debate: "The nation has come to me," he observed.
The Patriot movement (which has deep roots in white supremacy, but is a separate phenomenon) effects its agenda in much the same way. A network of transmitters -- those people who maintain mainstream positions and public images but who have a foot firmly planted in the Byzantine gardens of the far right -- carry into mainstream settings the Patriots’ uniquely reactionary positions in the national debate, whether the topic is gun control, environmental policy, education or abortion, and the ripples draw the debate in their direction. And deposing the epitome of evil itself -- Bill Clinton -- has, naturally, always been near the top of the list.
Consider, if you will, the "Clinton Body Count."
Everybody who’s on e-mail, probably, has received a version of this urban legend at some time or another. Friends, or friends of friends, pass it along like one of those dreaded chain e-mails, or the latest Monica Lewinsky joke.
It’s gruesome -- all those dead people associated somehow with Bill Clinton. (You’d think he was someone famous who came into contact with a lot of people or something.) In some cases, the count is as high as 80. Some of them you know about, like Vincent Foster. But what about that former intern, gunned down in a mysterious Georgetown coffee-shop killing? Or those two little boys found dead on the railroad tracks in Arkansas? Obviously, one is meant to conclude that that Bill Clinton is nothing less than a murderous, blood-stained monster.
The "body count" is one of the Internet’s versions of an urban legend, built around the creepy supposition that Clinton is somehow responsible for the deaths of any people who’ve had dealings with him -- and many more who haven’t, but who’ve been connected to him through the conspiracy grapevine. These include not only Commerce Secretary Ron Brown (offed for knowing too much, the body-counters suggest) but some obscure figures vaguely related to the Mena, Arkansas, operations detailed in The Clinton Chronicles.
The Clinton Body Count also happens to be one of the Patriot movement’s hoariest traditions. It appears to have originated with (now-discredited) militia leader Linda Thompson’s 1993 essay, which detailed 29 deaths linked to the then-new president. The concept flourished among the movement, showing up at a lot of homemade Web sites, like the 1994 version at a Web site called The Patriot, with 28 bodies and three "ongoing" cases, some different from Thompson’s. Soon the list was growing exponentially, especially as the non-militia types who shared a hatred of Clinton joined in the fun, and more Clinton-haters linked more conspiracies to the president over the years.
By 1998, there were at least 30 sites keeping track of the Clinton Body Count; though their numbers have declined since Clinton left office, many remain active today. One current site, operated by a believer in a wide range of Clinton conspiracies, lists 52 bodies. Another racks up a total of 79. And by 1999, you could read about it at mainstream conservative Web sites like radio commentator Ken Hamblin’s -- not to mention "conservative" Web sites like Free Republic, which for a time featured entire sections of its forum devoted to "Suspicious Deaths" and the "Clinton Death Squad." And, lest we forget, Clinton’s supposed onetime paramour, Gennifer Flowers, keeps a version of the Clinton Body Count on her Web site, linked alongside copies of her taped conversations with Clinton, a CD of her singing debut, and glamour pix.
Of course, to believe any of these lists, you also have to believe in virtually all of the conspiracies, assassinations and misdeeds in which the Clintons are alleged to have taken part: Mena, Vince Foster, Ron Brown, and the Georgetown Starbucks murders (not to mention the larger New World Order plot, which links him retroactively to JFK’s assassination). You also have to believe that all those dead military personnel were once his "bodyguards." In short, you have to believe that he is probably the anti-Christ.
This happens to be a view not in short supply these past eight years, judging by the flow of rhetoric, first from the Patriots, and then from more mainstream sources, of the past eight years. It has, of course, been debunked roundly on several occasions, but then, so have most of the Patriots’ other conspiracy theories. That doesn’t stop them from purveying them anyway.
The White House tried to draw attention to the flow of what it called "fringe stories" into the mainstream in a 331-page report obliquely titled The Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce, which posited that the scandals the Clintons faced were manufactured by his political enemies out of groundless rumors that bubble up from the extreme right.
However, the report suffered from several fatal flaws. On the all-important public-relations front, it cast all this anti-Clinton activity in a conspiratorial light -- while the campaign in fact has been fairly open and public in its desire to end Clinton’s presidency, and was often spontaneous in nature and uncoordinated.
Conservative commentators had a field day, accusing the White House of finding conspiracies under rocks, comparing the report to Nixon’s "enemies" list and offering the Clintons rides in black helicopters. Some even accused the White House of embarking on a conspiracy of its own -- attempting to intimidate its enemies by linking them to wackos: conspiracies within conspiracies within conspiracies within conspiracies.
More important, the report missed its own target. While it accurately detailed the way groundless stories like the Vince Foster suicide/murder circulated outside of the normal media venues with helpful nudges from well-moneyed enemies like Richard Mellon Scaife, it cast its net only as wide as conservative think tanks and largely mainstream circles, treating the venues for the false stories as merely "fringe" elements and failing to recognize the interaction of larger segments of conservatism in the stories’ spread. It reflected in essence a kind of Beltway bias that neglected to assess the central role played by the far-right echo chamber as a way of spreading extreme ideas into the mainstream.
In any event, the very trend it described had come to full flower by 1998. The rhetoric once common among the militia had become 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.
Chip Berlet's model of the American right is accurate and helpful in understanding this transformation. He divides the right into three sectors:
- The secular conservative right. This comprises 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 and Rush Limbaugh 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.
Indeed, what fascinates Berlet about the interaction of the sectors is watching "the transmission belt -- how stuff gets essentially a trial run in the Christian right or even the far right, and the messages will get refined, and then they’ll be picked up by these intermediary groups and individuals, and refined some more, and then there’ll be a buzz that’s created, and then that gets media attention in the mainstream press.
"That isn’t some conspiracy theory out of the White House. That’s how this stuff works, and it’s always worked this way. The joke is that it’s not a conspiracy -- it’s the way people organize each other."
Next: Official Transmitters