[The last days of the Aryan Nations compound: Winter 2000. The church and the surrounding buildings, including the shed with the swastika, were burned to the ground the following summer by the new owner.]
There's a scene in the Coen Brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou in which our three heroes have crept their way into a Ku Klux Klan rally in hopes of rescuing a black friend of theirs (the scene, incidentally, is a delicious homage to The Wizard of Oz). At one point the marching stops and the Grand Kleagle on the mainstage begins singing, a capella, the song "O Death":
- O, Death
Won't you spare me over til another year
Well what is this that I can't see
With ice cold hands takin' hold of me
Well I am death, none can excel
I'll open the door to heaven or hell
Whoa, death someone would pray
Could you wait to call me another day
It is an old man who sings this (Ralph Stanley, who was 72 at the time, provided the voice), and in the setting of the mass spectacle lynching under way, its effect is chilling to the bone, since the song speaks to the heart of evil itself.
The last time I saw Richard Butler alive, he was in the process of losing title to his Aryan Nations compound. This was in February 2001, and I was covering (for the Washington Post) the court hearing that would officially award the compound to the family whose lawsuit bankrupted him.
At a press conference afterward, the 82-year-old hatemonger was defiant, claiming that Jews were responsible for his troubles, and vowing to continue preaching and organizing as he has for decades: "I'm not going leave like a whipped dog. Period."
I stood close to Butler that day and was intrigued by his features up close: his leathery skin sagged in a way that made it seem strangely artificial, as though all the hate that had been festering inside him for years somehow kept him propped up, just enough alive to keep spewing bile. I thought of that scene in O Brother, and the thought crossed my mind that it could have been Butler up there in those robes, pleading with death to pass him over.
Now that Butler has earned, one hopes, his final headlines by passing on to the Great White Father in the Sky, it's perhaps worth remembering that hate like that which drives Butler and his cohorts never really dies. It's like an infection that is handed on and on, and its effect on the body politic ebbs and flows like a low-level fever.
Indeed, while it's doubtful that Butler was even cognizant of it, his white-supremacist worldview, even as he was dying, appears on the verge of achieving his fondest hope: becoming, once again, part of the mainstream public discourse.
Butler was an old-style hater. He came out of a milieu in which his Christian Identity belief system was originally relegated to a handful of tiny churches scattered around the country, and these churches attracted tiny but hard-core devotees.
Butler, a quiet-spoken Lockheed engineer and Army veteran, first was attracted to this milieu when involved, in the early 1950s, in a neo-McCarthyite campaign to "expose" California schoolteachers suspected of communism; it was there that he met William Potter Gale, a former aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur who was running for governor on a platform calling for the impeachment of Eisenhower and the Supreme Court for their roles in the unfolding desegregation drama. Gale introduced Butler to a congregation in Lancaster, Calif., called the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, operated by an Identity preacher named Wesley Swift.
Butler eventually took over the reins of the congregation following Swift's death in 1971. On a visit to northern Idaho in the early '70s, he decided it was time to fulfill his dream of creating an all-white "Aryan Homeland," and the Northwest was where he wanted to do it. In 1974, he purchased a 20-acre tract surrounded by forest near Hayden Lake and proceeded to move the Church of Jesus Christ-Christian from Hollywood to Idaho.
By the time the compound finally was forced out of his hands some 27 years later, it had been the wellspring of an unending litany of violence and hate, ranging from the yearlong criminal rampage of The Order to the travesty of Ruby Ridge. There are indications Tim McVeigh made a pilgrimage to Aryan Nations as well; certainly, he was deeply influenced by its neo-Nazi ideology.
The end came because Butler never could control the criminals and thugs who flocked to his property. Three of them one night attacked a mother and her teenage son who'd made the mistake of driving up their driveway by accident. The resulting civil lawsuit bankrupted Butler. In his declining days he was mostly isolated, surrounded by a small cluster of family and friends, though he did make a pallid appearance at this year's annual Aryan Nations parade in Couer d'Alene, where some 40 supporters joined him. He was seated in a lawn chair in the back of a pickup truck, and scarcely moved during the eight-block parade route.
Shortly after Butler lost the property, I interviewed Michael Barkun, the Syracuse University political-science professor and author of Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement, for a thinkpiece I wrote for MSNBC.
"Obviously, Butler is just about the last of his generation and certainly the group by all appearances seems to be moribund," Barkun told me. "In a sense, while it has a high public profile, it is in many respects the old order, and in that sense the victory may not mean a huge amount, because I suspect that the problems are going to come from groups that are much more adroit in the managing of their public image than Aryan Nations ever was."
Indeed, the nature of Butler's demise -- through his culpability for others' actions -- is forcing the radical right to go in two different directions, according to Barkun, since the success of groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center at driving outfits like his out of business "puts even more pressure on the organized groups to distance themselves from culpability, and therefore have no organization at all or radically decentralized organizations, or organizations that look to be simply avenues for presenting their views to the public.
"One way of protecting yourself was to advocate leaderless resistance, and another was to take the kind of position that Butler and his fellow defendants did at Fort Smith, saying, 'All we're doing is presenting opinions, and therefore we can't be held accountable. This is all either protected speech or free exercise of religion.' So I think that these groups will go in one of two directions -- they will either fragment into small cells that are even more difficult to trace and monitor, or they're going to try to look like interest groups and therefore claim that whatever they're doing constitutes not the advocacy of violence but simply the expression of ideas."
Barkun was exactly on the money. As I just noted, militia and other extremist cells remain a volatile presence in America, keeping a low profile through a tactic that relies on diffuse memberships and "leaderless resistance."
The other shoe, of course, involves the mainstreaming of extremism, a phenomenon I've described at length previously. Max Blumenthal recently filed a thorough report for American Prospect that describes in detail how white supremacists have positioned themselves, through the rising anti-immigration movement, to become a major player in Republican politics:
- White Noise: Anti-immigration zealots have launched a stealth campaign to "fix" Bush's policies
Blumenthal's report focuses largely on the activities of the white supremacists involved in Occidental Quarterly, whose mission statement is fairly unambiguous:
- Race informs culture; it is the necessary precondition for cultural identity and integrity. In 1950 whites represented 30 percent of the world's population. If current trends persist, this number will plummet to 8 percent by 2050. In the United States, whites are projected to become a minority of the national population in less than fifty years. The result will impoverish not only their descendants but the world in general and will jeopardize the civilization and free governments that whites have created.
As I've discussed previously, white supremacists from the Occidental Review are playing roles in such statewide ballot measures as Arizona's Protect Arizona Now, which is still heavily favored to win in spite of the campaign's open association with this element. If the measure carries, as expected, then its backers are going to be positioned to have an impact on the direction of the larger conservative movement.
Blumenthal also describes the role of certain Republican politicians:
- The anti-immigrant activists on the Occidental board have united behind Representative Tom Tancredo, a virulently anti-immigrant Republican from Littleton, Colorado (home of Columbine High School). As the Republican convention opens with the Republican National Committee endorsing George W. Bush's guest-worker proposal for undocumented immigrants, Tancredo is working behind the scenes to make sure that the convention plank supports his anti-immigrant politics. He's vowing "to raise hell" if he's thwarted.
Tancredo's frustration is echoed by Jared Taylor, Occidental Quarterly board member and editor of American Renaissance, a magazine that he says approaches issues of race and culture "from a white perspective."
Says Taylor: "The amazing thing about Republicans is they keep saying, 'If we could only get 12 percent instead of 2 percent of Hispanics to vote for us, we'd be in fat city.' All they need to do is raise their percentage of the white vote one-half a percent and that would make much more difference than all of this futile pandering to minorities. Clearly Bush is going to have sacrificed votes all over the country, although how many is hard to say."
According to Devin Burghart, director of the Center for New Community, a Chicago-based group that monitors the far right, rising anger against the Bush administration's immigration policy within the GOP could provide a prime opportunity for the white nationalist and anti-immigrant movements to incorporate their ideologies into the party.
"There is a huge backlash right now, and, quite frankly, if Bush loses, there's going to be quite a bloodletting within the GOP," Burghart says. "If the anti-immigrant folks can demonstrate that 'compassionate conservatism' was somehow responsible for turning away the Republican base and losing the election, they can move their politics from the fringes into the mainstream."
It's clear, in fact, that the anti-immigration crowd has already had an impact on this year's presidential campaign. Or did anyone else notice that the immigration issue was yanked off the GOP agenda for its national convention? Oh, and did anyone hear a word about the temporary-worker program?
In the meantime, the mainstream press dutifully plays along. Did you all notice last week how an outfit called the Center for Immigration Studies published a report -- titled "The High Cost of Cheap Labor Illegal Immigration and the Federal Budget" -- which concluded that illegal immigrants cost taxpayers in the vicinity of $10 billion a year.
And the mainstream press played it as if it were a legitimate and serious study: "Illegal Immigrants Cost U.S. $10 Billion a Year, Study Says" read the Knight Ridder headline. Copley News Service's read: "Immigration Proposals Could Cost Taxpayers Plenty, Study Says." "Report Says Illegal Immigrants Cost Country Billions" was the Gannett News Service headline.
As Jessica Azaulay at ZNet points out, the media's gullibility in its handling of this study is relatively noteworthy:
- To their credit, some newspapers waited a day to release news of the report, presumably to gather responses from the other side of this issue, but even articles including extensive quotations from immigrants' rights advocates heavily favored the Center for Immigration Study's report in their coverage. In the dozen major newspaper and wire service articles reviewed for this analysis, the bias toward the Center's report was revealed in the comparative number of words given to each side, the placement of quotes and points of view, and the framing of the debate.
Scattered throughout reporting on the issue are various challenges to the Center's study, though these are outnumbered by a ratio of more than two to one and receive little help from the media in terms of cohesion or prominence.
Azaulay also offers an incisive critique of the study's methodology. There was also a lawyerly response from Frank Sharry that is thorough and pretty devastating. Finally, Juan Esparza Loera at The Fresno Bee did a nice job of running down the study's more egregious flaws.
What's important to note, though, is that the CIS is a creature of the Federation for American Immigration Reform -- run by the same people involved in the Occidental Review. The easy spread of their propaganda into the mainstream was facilitated by lazy editors more eager for "hot" headlines than fairness or accuracy.
It reminds me of something Devin Burghart told me when I interviewed him for the 2001 MSNBC piece, discussing the rise of white nationalists within the ranks of mainstream conservatism.
"They're focusing far more on ballots this time around than bullets," he said. "And that's why you see the fights around the Confederate flag, or immigration or affirmative action, or other issues which are racially and ethnically charged becoming issue points for this newly emergent white nationalism, to act as a contending ideology, both here in the United States as well as in Europe."
This effort by the white-supremacist movement, to package itself in mainstream clothing, is nothing new. But its increasing sophistication, and the challenges it now presents, make any legal victories over the Aryan Nations seem small and short-lived.
"It poses a major challenge, particularly when much of racial nationalism is disguised as a kind of America First economic nationalism," said Burghart. "It means that those who are concerned about pluralism and democracy in the United States need to be equipped with the tools to be able to ferret out white nationalism when it emerges in the public sector, when it rears its ugly head in the political process, or makes itself known in any attempt to move into the mainstream."