Across the nation this summer, unknown numbers of people are hunkering down and arming up for what they believe is an imminent battle for the soul of America. Town halls and tea parties provide just a small glimpse of the rage, fear, and paranoia fomenting on front porches and in Internet chat rooms, in the conservative heartland and beyond. While the details may vary, the visions in such forums share a common theme: In one way or another, a fight to the death is coming, and coming soon.
These deep-seated fears explain at least some of the vitriol, the violent scuffles, and death threats bubbling up in town hall protests against health care reform. It's all too easy for certain right-wing activists to accept that the president's plan will create death panels or mandate taxpayer-funded abortions. Because some of these people don't just believe that Obama wants to destroy capitalism and kill their granny and their unborn child—they believe he wants to kill them, too.
At a town hall meeting with Democratic Senator Ben Cardin in Hagerstown, Maryland, on August 12, one attendee carried a sign that read "Death to Obama," and "Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids." Another sign at the same event compared Obama to Hitler. At least some of the Obama-Hitler iconography originates from followers of perennial whack-job Lyndon LaRouche, but the comparison has been disseminated by Rush Limbaugh to a wider audience of hardline conservatives.
That’s not the only insidious comparison making the rounds: One protester who attended a raucous town hall with Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter told a Village Voice reporter that Obama was a "21st-century Marxist" who would adopt the same methods Hugo Chavez used to take power in Venezuela: "infiltration of the education system, political correctness, class warfare ideology, voter fraud, brainwashing through the mainstream media."
As the town halls have become more heated, the hints of violence have become increasingly overt. One man showed up outside the president's town hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with a hand gun strapped to his thigh; on August 17, another brought an assault rifle to a demonstration at the site of Obama's speech to veterans in Phoenix. It emerged that the latter's presence at the meeting had been coordinated with a former member of the Viper Militia, whose adherents were convicted of weapons and conspiracy charges in the 1990s and were accused of plotting to blow up federal buildings.
Clearly, this is about far more than health care policy. Instead, it's just one sign out of many heralding a resurgence of the extreme right wing. It's been widely reported that extremist groups are growing, in numbers and membership, since Obama launched his presidential campaign. As in the past, some of the ideas espoused by these groups are working their way further toward the political core with the help of right-wing politicians and media figures.
For instance, take Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R-Minn.) claim that expanding AmeriCorps would result in liberal "re-education camps." This statement has now morphed into rumors that the young community service volunteers are being armed to take over the country—possibly with some help from the New Black Panther Party.
Similarly, Dick Armey, the former House majority leader and lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, is predicting an October surprise from Obama in the form of "a hyped-up outbreak of the swine flu, which they'll say is as bad as the bubonic plague to scare the bed-wetters to vote for health care reform."
The assertion may sound ludicrous, but it dovetails nicely with a view among conspiracy theorists that a sweeping and deadly plot lurks behind the swine flu pandemic. Influenced by the work of a whacked-out Austrian "journalist" named Jane Bürgermeister, some on the far right believe the virus was manufactured by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the rest of the black helicopter crowd's usual suspects, as "part of a long-term plan by the syndicate, who have built large numbers of FEMA concentration camps with incinerators and prepared mass graves in states such as Indiana and in New York to quarantine people and dispose of the bodies of the people who are killed by the bioweapons attack." This "depopulation" scheme has in turn been linked by conspiracy theorists to the Obama administration's plans for a "global planetary regime to enforce forced abortion" and sterilizing the population through the water supply.
Among liberals, the dominant take on all of this seems to be ridicule and derision, or else impotent hand-wringing about the demise of "civil discourse." It's as if they'd forgotten that many of these so-called loonies just happen to own guns—and while liberals go on chattering, these folks are stocking up on ammunition. And right-wing radicals have an advantage when it comes to ideological fervor. Obama and the Democrats in Congress quickly frittered away any populist energy that might have come out of the recession, the fiasco of the Bush years, or the 2008 election. All that's left are the compromises on top of compromises that they call policymaking, for which no one can muster much enthusiasm. Right-wing zealots, on the other hand, think they are fighting for their lives by standing fast against communism, or the anti-Christ, or both; they're not only doing God's work, but also fulfilling their destiny as true American patriots.
Indeed, the right-wing revival is infused with the words and imagery of the American Revolution. The gun-toting protestor at Obama's New Hampshire health care town hall was also carrying a sign that read, "It Is Time To Water The Tree Of Liberty"—a clear reference to a quote from Thomas Jefferson that the "tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." (Because he had a permit and wasn't in shooting range of the tyrant, the patriot was allowed to keep his gun.) On a website also called The Tree of Liberty, members exchange Obama insults and apocalyptic visions in a forum called Committees of Correspondence, named for assemblies in colonial America that protested tyrannical British policies.
The denizens of these gatherings and websites, the tea parties and the raucous town halls, represent a long-standing force in the country's political culture: American nativism. This oft-ignored strain draws its central impulse from an opposition to anything that challenges the vision of America as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation. Nativists have taken aim at Catholics, Jews, freed slaves, and successive waves of immigrants, beginning with the Irish fleeing the potato famine in the 1840s and continuing through to present-day immigrants from Latin America. They call for a closing of US borders and support strict adherence to the Constitution in its most literal sense, shorn of equivocating amendments, as a remedy for unwanted social change. And they have been inextricably linked to racist right-wing movements, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Militias to the Minutemen who now "guard" the border. (In the current debate over health care reform, one of the most powerful myths is that it will extend free coverage to illegal immigrants at the expense of "real" Americans.)
Many followers of modern extremist right-wing groups also adhere to the doctrine of Christian Identity, which teaches that white men are the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, who traced their lineage back to Adam and Eve. The black and yellow people, they believe, are of lesser stature, likened by some to a bad first copy made by God in his fashioning of the Garden of Eden. They are not real people, the thinking goes, and should be cast down as "mud people." The American Founding Fathers were among the true sovereigns, and the white patriots of today are their descendants. Even before Obama's election, many believed that the nation's political and economic systems had been taken over by the Zionist Occupied Government. Jews, according to them, are not true white people, and are bent upon world domination, with the aid of their henchmen, the racial minorities.
That's why the election of Barack Obama adds even more fuel to nativist rage: The president is a black man, child of an interracial union, the son of a foreigner who bears a foreign name. According to some, he is not even an American citizen. "[T]he face of the federal government—the enemy that almost all parts of the extreme right see as the primary threat to freedom—is now black," says a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups. "And the fact that the president is an African American has injected a strong racial element into even those parts of the radical right, like the militias, that in the past were not primarily motivated by race hate."
For me, the recent outpourings on the right-wing fringe resonate strongly with what I witnessed in the mid-1980s, when I was working on a book and film on the racialist far right called Blood in the Face; I came across people caught in the misery of economic depression, caused by tough loan practices and declining prices for farm commodities, along with a drive by big banks and insurance companies—the primary farm lenders—to consolidate smaller farms into bigger and bigger agribusiness units in the interest of larger profits. Many residents were losing farms that had been in their families for generations.
In this atmosphere of desperation, paranoia flourished. Some talked about a hunting party in Mexico that had spotted a secret airfield of MIGs. Some had heard reports from Baja California of a troop of North Korean troops hidden in the forest. Others said they knew the Russians were breeding an especially strong horse to haul heavy artillery across the Bering Strait for the coming attack. Still others told me that the US and the Soviets were making deals aboard small submarines under the Arctic ice. And the new superhighways leading from Texas up the Mississippi River, they said, were part of a secret plan to accommodate Mexicans carrying backpacks stuffed with small nuclear bombs. Many also saw social factors like abortion, feminism, homosexuality, and interracial marriage as symptoms of the general devolution of American culture after it had been wrested from the hands of the true sovereigns. Behind it all, they believed were the Jewish bankers, the Trilateral Commission, the Federal Reserve, the UN—and the US government.
The people who believed these things bought food and ammunition and hid it in safe places. They got out of the banks, went from paper money to gold, bought mini 14s. Some built bomb shelters, or small forts for defense. They studied the Bible at night and believed they had discovered in Scripture secret plans to eradicate their way of life. They got ready to fight. A few actually died in bloody shoot-outs with the Feds: Elusive Posse Comitatus leader Gordon Kaul and the Order's Bob Mathews were the movement's first martyrs in the 1980s, followed by those who died in the 1990s at Ruby Ridge and WACO—both cited by Timothy McVeigh as inspiration for the Oklahoma City bombing. The vision of dead babies being carried out of the Murrah building in 1995 prompted a crackdown on far-right movements by federal law enforcement. But even before Obama's election, pockets of activity remained.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported rapid growth among right-wing fringe organizations, although it says the numbers don't yet equal the heyday of the militias in the 1990s. Still, the greatest danger is likely to come not from card-carrying members of any organization, but from small, leaderless cells or lone gunmen, perhaps inspired by another far-right favorite: the biblical story of the Phineas Priest, a man who caught an interracial couple together and slew them both, declaring that he was acting in the name of a just God. It is the same notion of justifiable homicide—whether in self-defense or in defense of a just cause—that has reportedly drove Scott Roeder, the gunman accused of killing abortion doctor George Tiller, and James von Brunn, accused of murdering a guard at the Holocaust Museum.
The people I met back in the 1980s told me about their theories and their plans for the coming conflict earnestly, fervently. I first saw this fervor resurface last year, while covering the election in the so-called heartland. I saw it on the fringes of Sarah Palin rallies, and I saw it when a Missouri ethanol plant manager leaned forward confidentially and declared, for the video cameras, why he was against Obama—because the candidate, he said, bore the mark of the Beast, of Satan, or the anti-Christ: 666.