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.