XIV: The War on Liberals
Last summer I drove out to Kalispell, Montana, to give a talk to a community gathering there at one of the local parks. It was organized by a Flathead Valley version of the "Not In Our Town" campaign, and about 200 people showed up for the potluck dinner. Among them were the mayor of Kalispell, the police chiefs of both Kalispell and nearby Whitefish, several pastors and even a couple of local judges. I was one of about five speakers.
Most of the crowd, though, was composed of local conservationists and environmentalists from around the Flathead Valley. And in many ways, it was on their behalf that I was speaking.
Kalispell made the news last year when a militia outfit called Project 7 was broken up by local police. Its leader, a 38-year-old named David Burgert, was arrested for jumping bail on an earlier conviction for assaulting an officer and resisting arrest; when captured, officers uncovered him in possession of an arms cache of about 30 weapons and some 30,000 rounds of ammo.
What was even more disturbing was the simultaneous discovery of his plans for this materiel: To run amok in a killing spree against local authorities. Burgert had organized a team of about 10 people to target some 26 city and county officials, including some of those same police officials, mayors and judges who came out for the potluck last summer.
Burgert, who received support from the usual far-right suspects, eventually pleaded guilty to federal firearms charges in the case, and faces a maximum 10-year prison term when he's sentenced in September. But no one has ever been charged in the alleged conspiracy, partly because any evidence that the plot extended much beyond Burgert's fantasies was not very strong. He has countered by filing a lawsuit against the FBI and Montana's state Division of Criminal Investigation.
But "Project 7" was at best the tip of the iceberg for what's been happening in the Flathead Valley in the past couple of years. See if this has a familiar ring to it: A rabid right-wing radio talk-show host has been stirring up a campaign of hatred aimed at local liberals. In this case, though, the threats have gone beyond simply empty words into concrete action involving threats and intimidation.
The talk-show host in question is a fellow named John Stokes, who operates little KGEZ-AM, a radio station south of town next to Highway 93 (in fact, there are reasons to believe he bought the station mainly as a way to scam the state out of millions in condemnation proceedings, but that's another story). Shortly after Stokes took over in 2000, he began broadcasting right-wing screeds that indeed made Rush Limbaugh sound like "the voice of reason" in contrast. Stokes regularly launched vitriolic attacks on all kinds of liberals; gays and lesbians came in for special scorn (he accused two lesbian activists in Missoula whose home had burned down in an arson of setting the fire themselves), and of course Bill Clinton was a frequent target.
The primary targets of Stokes' venom, though, were conservationists and environmentalists, for whom not even the most appalling comparison nor the most groundless accusation was adequate: Stokes constantly referred to them as Nazis, and the central thrust of all his attacks was that "greens" were responsible for nearly everything that was wrong with life in Western Montana, particularly the depressed economy. Indeed, Stokes has referred frequently to Patriot conspiracy theories, and not merely on the subject of environmentalists (who are viewed by militia types as a cult intent on enslaving the rest of mankind); he's also trotted out Patriot theories on such subjects as taxation and the Constitution.
Unsurprisingly, his audience reflects this kind of proto-fascist orientation. Many of his callers have outright advocated violence against conservationists, and Stokes has encouraged them to do so.
The real-life consequences of all this talk made quite clear that this was not merely "entertainment," and that Stokes' "hot talk" was doing more than just garnering ratings. Beginning in the summer of 2001, local conservationists began receiving a series of death threats, some delivered in person, others by phone. Car windows were smashed in, tires slashed. Strange men would show up in people's yards at twilight, then run off when confronted. People's homes were vandalized. Others would be followed home by men in pickups or on motorcycles. Sometimes the teenage children of the targets were threatened.
And egging all of these people on was John Stokes. Sometimes callers would announce on his show that a local conservationist was on vacation, which would present an opportunity to "visit their home." In others, a caller would simply give the home address of an environmental activist who had just been vilified as "Satanic" on the air by Stokes.
The Montana Human Rights Network, which is run by a sixth-generation Montanan named Ken Toole -- a Toole was the state's first governor, and Toole's father was the much-beloved historian K. Ross Toole -- kept track of all these incidents and compiled them in a detailed report titled School Yard Bullies: The Harassment of Conservationists in the Flathead (which is not available online, but can be obtained by writing to them). Reading the report, the sheer volume of the harassment becomes almost overwhelming -- which is exactly what the environmentalist community in the valley has been feeling.
One of the victims of the harassment -- an ex-cop named Brenda Kitterman, whose teenage daughter also got caught up in the threats -- decided to fight back, and has been one of the prime movers in organizing the "Not in Our Town" campaign. She read In God's Country and got in touch with me, asking if I'd talk to the summer potluck gathering. (These kinds of calls are very gratifying, since this was precisely the main reason I wrote the book -- to provide an information resource for the communities that are confronted with the Patriot movement and its manifestations.) I periodically give talks like this before various civic groups where these problems arise, and the Flathead Valley is a special place. I naturally agreed.
Stokes of course heard about the Saturday event, and on the Friday before he reportedly urged his listeners to show up at the potluck with their guns, since that was what people like the organizers expected anyway. As it happened, though, he told them to go to the wrong park at a different time -- directing them, in fact, to a fundraising event for a couple of young children whose parents had recently died. There were no reports of people with guns showing up there, thankfully. And certainly none of them showed their faces at the park where we were holding the potluck, though the presence of all those police cruisers may have had something to do with that.
It was mostly an informal affair, and I am hardly a gifted (much less confident) public speaker, but it was a rewarding trip anyway, because of course I got to meet a lot of very interesting people. The gathering was filled with the kind of Westerners I have always been comfortable around, and their common-sense worldview is always refreshing.
It occurred to me, though, that what we were witnessing in the Flathead was something like what we saw eight years before, when the Patriot movement was first gathering steam in western Montana: A sort of testing the waters for a right-wing strategy that eventually would be taken to a larger national scale.
Eight years before, I had watched as a venomous attack on the government was promoted -- at literally every single militia meeting I ever attended -- primarily through a pathological hatred of President Clinton that focused on his supposed immoral nature; and among its target audience, it was a phenomenally successful strategy. I then watched as that same hatred was transmitted to the nation as a whole and culminated in the national travesty of his impeachment.
So I wondered if soon, apropos of the trend in the Flathead Valley, we would be seeing vitriolic hatred directed no longer at the president, nor even at the government per se, but at liberals generally, scapegoating them specifically for some great national malady. And I wondered if it would begin translating into threats and intimidation.
Well, unfortunately, we're starting to see some of this already manifesting itself in the fast-rising tide of jingoism surrounding the conservative movement's support for George W. Bush's war in Iraq. This means we are indeed entering some very dangerous waters that could sweep us into the dark currents of fascism.
We've been hearing for some time now, from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal, that Americans who dissent from Bush's war strategy are being "treasonous," "pro-Saddam" and "anti-American," and from the likes of Andrew Sullivan and David Horowitz that liberals now represent a "fifth column" of potential traitors who would aid the enemy. Now, from the repulsive Michael Savage sector, we're also hearing that such dissenters are a threat and should be arrested. And finally, President Bush himself has intimated that opposition to his regime's war plans from neighboring nations can bring about unhappy repercussions for the citizens of dissenting nations, not from the U.S. government, but from "the people" -- a hint that has the distinct sound of loosing the dogs.
So far, grass-roots support of the pro-war faction is moderate at best, but it has grown steadily as talk-radio hosts have raised the hyperbole. The massive propagandizing of the right against liberals generally and antiwar elements specifically is an area where a number of disturbing trends are beginning to coalesce:
- -- The increasing tendency of extremist memes to appear in mainstream discourse as an acceptable version of conservative thinking, propelled especially by the now-apparent bias among most national media outlets favoring conservative propaganda.
-- Bush's purposeful projection of religious motivations for his war effort, with overt suggestions that his decisions are divinely guided.
-- The extremist right's growing identification with Bush, and their apparent willingness to use thuggish tactics of intimidation on his behalf.
-- Likewise, the Bush regime's increasingly apparent willingness to make use of such factions for their own political ends.
-- The rising demonization of antiwar liberals, complete with vicious eliminationist rhetoric.
-- The constant framing of the war in jingoistic "national renewal" sentiments, both in political and religious terms.
-- The dislocation caused by the flailing economy and terrorism fears, both of which raise the conditions under which people become willing to turn to totalitarianism.
These rivulets have been coalescing in a campaign directed against antiwar liberals, and creating a powerful undercurrent that hasn't yet broken through the surface. What hasn't happened yet is that the thuggishness has not directed itself on any kind of large scale at all (there have only been a few isolated incidents); neither has the Bush regime made any kind of open signal that such activities are viewed approvingly.
If they do signal such an alliance, however, then I am convinced that the nation is in serious danger of submerging under a tide of genuine fascism. And as I've been arguing all along, it won't be a fascism we can easily recognize. It won't be German-style or Italian-style; rather, it will be uniquely American -- probably, if history is any guide, one with a veneer of Christian fundamentalism, but underneath, one predicated on a coalescence of corporatist power with proto-fascist thuggery.
That said, even though the danger is clear, it's important to understand that we are not there yet. More to the point, we can stop this slide. We only need to be aware that it is occurring.
My advice would be nearly identical to that which I give those little community groups like the one in Kalispell: Stand up for democracy. Don't threaten and don't cajole. And don't back down.
Most people -- conservatives especially, who view analyses like mine as merely an attempt to smear Republicans -- are in denial about these trends. Even in Kalispell, there was resistance from many in the business community that even addressing the problem just gave the extremists free publicity -- ignoring, of course, the reality that trying to pretend them away just gives them a free ride. (Sure enough, there was no reportage on the Not In Our Town event from any of the local papers.)
I have been down that path myself. When I was the editor of the little daily paper in Sandpoint, Idaho, back in 1978-79, we made a conscious decision not to cover the activities that were taking place at that little nook in the woods 30 miles south of us called the Aryan Nations, believing that giving them any publicity would just help legitimize them. Five years later -- after a campaign of anti-minority harassment and general intimidation finally culminated in a series of bank robberies and murders by a gang of locals who called themselves The Order -- the paper's policy had wisely changed.
From my experience and that of nearly every community that has had to deal with right-wing extremism, the notion that paying attention to it -- covering both the leaders and the followers in the press, responding to them publicly -- only publicizes their kookery is a gross mistake. Remaining silent and refusing to stand up to them is not an adequate response. They mistake the silence for complicity, for tacit approval.
This is equally true of the shape-shifting "transmitters" who take extremist memes and inject them into the national discourse, often under the guise of providing "fiery" rhetoric. When the public starts calling them on the sources of their ideas, and exposing them for the coddlers of hate-mongers, extremists and terrorists that they are, then they inevitably scurry back and hide under the rocks whence they crawled out. This is already starting to happen with Michael Savage; it needs to begin happening with Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan and the rest.
Like all bullies, they prove cowards in a real fight. It's time for the rest of America to start fighting.
Next: Waiting for Godwin