Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The far right's coming wave

-- by Dave

The other day Rick Perlstein was ruminating about domestic terrorism and just what it means:
I go back and forth about what level of alarmism is appropriate when discussing the possibility of right-wing violence. On the one hand, reviewing it in the New York Times Book Review, I found Chris Hedges predictions in American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America irresponsibly vague and abstract. On the other hand, when a reporter named John Cloud published a profile of Ann Coulter on the cover of Time magazine that found her little more than a kicky diversion from boring politics as usual, I sent him an angry, even patronizing, letter:

The last time figures like Coulter were being mainstreamed for public consumption in this way was 1994-95. People like Gordon Liddy—who, recall, was "joking" to his listeners to shoot federal agents in the head.

This pushed the limits of the acceptable far to the right, and vulnerable, nutty people felt licensed to blow up buildings because of it.

There will be right-wing violence in the next year. Of that I have no doubt. And people who've served to push the limits of the acceptable far to the right by mainstreaming people who spew hate rhetoric, talk violence, and make things up will bear some measure of responsibility.

That was 2005, and there wasn't any right-wing violence (that made the news at least) in 2006. I was wrong.

On the other hand, I'm even more confident that if John Kerry had been elected president, the Secret Service would have been burdened with assassination attempts of a degree unprecedented in history. There is an astonishingly sizable population in America that doesn't consider any Democratic president legitimate - "not our president" was a right-wing refrain from the moment of Bill Clinton's inauguration; no less than a United States senator, Jesse Helms, said that if the President visited North Carolina he ought to wear a flak jacket ("Who will rid me of this meddlesome president?." In the case of Kerry, the situation was complicated by the existence of plenty of mentally unbalanced former special forces officers convinced the man was literally a Manchurian candidate.

Digby also had some thoughts on this:
I predict that we are going to see a remarkable resurgence of rightwing violence if the Democrats take full control of the government. These people are always surprisingly cooperative when the government is run by Republicans and then rediscover their "anti-government" beliefs when Democrats share or dominate the government. I can't imagine why that would be.

We will also, sadly, see veterans involved in this. Aside from the PTSD they will come home to a world that isn't very understanding. How could we be? They've been in hell. I suspect that some of them will be attracted to the rightwing militia (or worse) unless the government makes some very aggressive moves to help these people out and provide every kind of counselling and support they can think of. The last thing we need are hardened Iraq veterans finding solace with the rightwing terrorists.

A lot of this, of course, will be familiar territory for longtime readers of this blog. My own sense all along has been that the far right went into a kind of dormancy during the GOP reign because they felt their issues were being addressed; most average militiamen voted for Bush, as near as I can tell. I've noted previously that many militias dropped off the map after the 2000 election, and the former leader of at least one of them -- Norm Olson of the Michigan Militia -- said it was because most of his troops were happy with Bush's election and felt that their former issues (particularly their hatred of the United Nations and their gun-control paranoia) were being addressed, as in fact they were.

Certainly the trend of the past couple of decades has been that the right-wing extremists tend to ease up more when Republicans rule the roost, and become much more virulently active when Democrats are in charge. This fits in with a much longer pattern, dating back to the 19th century and even before, of the extremist right acting as a kind of cultural and political wedge to separate working-class people from the progressives whose interests they actually share, especially in terms of curbing the effects of corporate and rampant capitalist behavior. The far right, by appealing to people's baser instincts and especially their fears, has a long history of encouraging working-class people to reject progressive values on purely visceral cultural grounds.

And in fact these factions are often well financed, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes not, by the corporate and business types whose interests they are serving in a much broader sense. In the 1990s, we saw a lot of militia organizing taking place under the auspices of phony "grassroots" organizing that actually was being underwritten by wealthy, extremely conservative, and politically aggressive business interests; in western Washington, the chief culprits were the construction and development interests who exploited the extremists, ginning them up with a dozen fresh plates of cockamamie conspiracy theories, as a wedge against environmentalists.

There were also figures like Richard Mellon Scaife, who in addition to exploiting old far-right segregationists in Arkansas and elsewhere in the South, also underwrote a number of "softer" Patriot organizations, such as Joseph Farah's WorldNetDaily. His newspaper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, regularly ran editorials and "news" stories promoting a bevy of Clinton-related conspiracy theories, notably the "Vince Foster was murdered" nonsense, as well as various "New World Order" pieces; both, you may recall, were favorites of the militia movement.

So I think it's a fairly easy prediction that looming Democratic rule, already manifesting itself in Congress and likely to consolidate with the presidency next election season, will produce an upswing in far-right activity, particularly the spread of conspiracy theories, fearmongering, and bogus smear campaigns. As Perlstein noted a little while back, that has been the essence of the conservative movement's appeal for the better part of four decades now anyway. It's what they bring to the political table.

The problem with the right-wing extremism we've seen during the 21st century so far really hasn't been the extent to which it is prone to erupting in violence, precisely because they see conservative rule as being to their benefit, and the things that drive them to extreme action such as violence are less prevalent. Notably, among these things is that the conspiracy-mongering drops a great deal regarding the government.

During Clinton's tenure as president, it reached a real fever pitch precisely because there were so many mainstream right-wingers promoting it (this is part of the previously noted pattern of the corporate right using the far right as a wedge bloc). Now, during Bush's tenure, they mostly have gone away, though there are still some conspiracy theorists around -- notably the 9/11 crowd, which is largely a bizarre intermingling of left- and right-wing extremists; and the "Reconquista" conspiracy theorists such as Michelle Malkin.

No, the real problem with the far right has been its ability to insinuate itself back within the mainstream during the years of Republican rule in this new century, building on the bridges created during the surge of hateful rhetoric and envelope-pushing that characterized the conservative movement in the 1990s. The extremist right, particularly its racist/paranoid factions, have long been seeking this kind of resinsertion; certainly, the militia movement of the '90s was a direct manifestation of this effort. The result has been a steady rightward drag of mainstream conservatism, to the point that now it is virtually unrecognizable as anything genuinely conservative.

So far this century, we've seen a real growth of far-right rhetoric, and the march of its agenda, manifesting itself in such shapes as the Minutemen -- who are in fact almost direct descendants of the '90s militias -- and various cultural eugenicists posing as "immigration reformers" and twisting the national debate on immigration in truly perverse directions; Christian "Dominionists" who want to turn the United States into a theocratic state; and most of all, a real culture of totalism fueled by an increasingly ugly tide of eliminationist rhetoric.

The incidents of domestic terrorism coming from the far right have meantime been bubbling along at a low level, present like background noise that everyone pretends not to notice: the anthrax killer, William Krar, one abortion clinic bomber arrested mid-plot, while another was caught after his bomb misfired.

And in recent months, especially as the prospect of the voting public giving movement conservatives the boot loomed larger, we've seen cases like Chad Castagana, in which formerly mainstream conservatives -- self-admittedly inspired by the hateful rhetoric of people like Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin -- have crossed over into actual domestic terrorism, inspired not just by hatred of the government but hatred of liberals.

Thus, Perlstein's mistaken prediction regarding terrorism from the right: if Kerry had actually posed a more clear threat to conservatives' stranglehold on government in 2004, it is in fact likely that there would have been more violence emanating from that faction. But he did not, and the threat never arose; as it was, the right was content to confine itself to merely ugly rhetoric without backing it up by action.

So what about the change of course in 2006? My sense, from talking to members of the far right, was that two factors were involved in their restraint: for one, most were taken by surprise by the suddenness and magnitude of the political shift in Congress; and for another, many of them had been enervated by the overpowering evidence that the war in Iraq had gone South, and along with it their belief in Bush as a leader and the conservative movement as worthwhile investment of their devotion.

Some of that is likely to still be in play in the 2008 election cycle -- along with the real division that has arisen on the right regarding immigration, with mainstream corporatist Republicans lining up behind Bush's "moderate" proposals (which actually just exacerabate the existing problems within the current broken system) and the arch-conservative faction adopting a rather nakedly nativist agenda.

The real systemic problem looming in all this is the long-term ramifications of the conservative movement's increasing adoption of a genuinely extremist agenda. As I've been saying all along, the real threat posed by the clearly fascist tone of so much mainstream rightist rhetoric this decade hasn't been the immediate outbreak of actual violence, but rather the organic conditions it creates on the ground and its ramifications for the longer term. The faint-hearted, cowardly brand of pseudo-fascism proferred by the mainstream currently may well metastasize, eventually, into the cruel and violent version of outright fascism that arose some 80 years ago, given the right conditions.

Digby's warning on this point is, as always, on the money: the faction to watch here is the returning veterans of the Iraq war. I've contended since early in the conflict that the war would prove to be the Timothy McVeigh Memorial Finishing School: the extreme stresses under which we are now placing these soldiers, especially in the form of multiple tours and forced reenlistment, is eventually going to produce a bumper crop of damaged citizens, some of whom are going to be extremely vulnerable to the "stab in the back" meme that's become a major note in the right-wing drumbeat on the war.

If all that falls into place, we will actually be reproducing the conditions that existed in Italy and Germany in the post-World War I vacuum: a motivated bloc of asngry returned veterans, molded into totalist thinking over a long period, and organized into lawless packs of street thugs eager to expel the "traitors" who had stabbed them in the back. These factions, known respectively as the Blackshirts and the Brownshirts, became the foundations of real fascism.

So it's going to be up to progressives to seize this bull by the horns. They're going to have to anticipate an increasingly violent political environment, and understand that their most effective strategies in defusing it lie in turning the violence into a moral victory (particularly when it's demonstrated that far-right factions are the instigators) and in undermining their appeal by working hard to champion the interest of the same working-class people the extremists depend upon for recruitment.

Digby is right that this is a conversation we need to be having. Unfortunately, it happens to revolve around a political force -- the extremist right -- that few people care to acknowledge, let alone confront. Because of that, it has managed to creep itself into a position of significant influence in our lives, both political and personal. It's time the rest of us awoke to that reality.

No comments: