State of the Debate: The White Rage


Morris Dees with James Corcoran, Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat (HarperCollins, 1996).

Kenneth S. Stern, A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate (Simon and Schuster, 1996).

Catherine McNicol Stock, Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain (Cornell University Press, 1996).

Susan J. Tolchin, The Angry American: How Voter Rage is Changing the Nation (Westview Press, 1996).

In the winter of 1992, a recently discharged white GI wrote to his hometown paper in Lockport, New York. With some anguish, he listed a familiar catalog of injustices: "Criminals have no fear of punishment"; "Taxes are a joke. . . . More taxes are always the answer to government mismanagement"; "Politicians are out of control. Their yearly salaries are more than an average person will see in a lifetime"; "The 'American Dream' of the middle class has all but disappeared, substituted with people struggling just to buy next week's groceries."

The young man had an acute sense of class grievance. "Maybe we have to combine ideologies to achieve the perfect utopian government," he mused. "Should only the rich be allowed to live long? Does that say that because a person is poor, he is a lesser human being; and doesn't deserve to live as long, because he doesn't wear a tie to work?"

Such views might have led the ex-GI into the Perot campaign or perhaps into the labor movement to which his father, a veteran autoworker, once belonged. But Timothy McVeigh, we know, was attracted to a wilder sphere of the discontented. In the army, he had devoured survivalist magazines like Soldier of Fortune and seemed to enjoy harassing the black soldiers in his platoon; he often called them "nigger" and, when promoted to sergeant, relegated them to the most menial of duties. McVeigh's journey into the heart of the violent, bigoted right had clearly begun before he wrote that letter to the editor. On April 19, 1995, it may have culminated in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

What are the sources of a rage great enough to persuade men like Timothy McVeigh and his old army buddy Terry Nichols to take up arms against a popularly elected government? If one writes them off as "extremists" with no resonance outside a small circle of paranoid comrades, how do we understand McVeigh's letter, which echoes sentiments held by many if not most Americans?

Four decades ago, some of America's premier liberal intellectuals provided part of an answer when they sought to make sense of the far right of their day. David Riesman, Seymour Martin Lipset, Richard Hofstadter, and others contributed to a provocative anthology, The Radical Right, edited by Daniel Bell. Each essayist agreed that the most zealous disciples of Joe McCarthy were not traditional conservatives who cherished hierarchy and decorum. They made up a new American right of middle-class whites engorged with "populist" rage at an ascendant liberal establishment. Hofstadter traced this "pseudo-conservatism" to "the rootlessness and heterogeneity of American life, and above all, [to] its peculiar scramble for status and its peculiar search for identity." Orthodox Christians were lashing out, irrationally, against a New Deal order whose secular creed and distributionist policies seemed a threat to the self-reliant, God-fearing culture that had prevailed in the U.S. since its founding.

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The concept of status anxiety does offer some insight into the thinking of the alleged Oklahoma City bombers and the citizen militia groups who share their opinions, if not their tactics. These are, after all, white men (and a small number of women) who long to return to a past when their forebears called the cultural tune. Among militia members, belief in what McCarthy called "a conspiracy so immense" against American liberties remains as vibrant as ever. Of course, the identities of the bogeymen have changed; instead of Alger Hiss and the CIO, the enemy now appears in the shape of multiculturalists, feminists, and out-of-closet homosexuals. Listen to William Pierce, author of the tract-as-novel The Turner Diaries, a favorite read on the violent right, "[Our enemies] can't imagine why anyone would want to go back to the bad, old days when this was a White country, and men were men, and women were women, and the freaks stayed in the closet, and everyone worked for his living."

In the 1950s, even the most extreme McCarthyites put their energies into electing like-minded politicians. That far rightists now resort to paramilitary training and extra-constitutional remedies indicates a profound aversion to what American culture has become since the days when comic books were considered subversive. White supremacists who drill in mountain valleys and "freemen" who deny the legitimacy of federal judges can no longer abide the egalitarian, relativist mores of post-1960s America. They vow to reverse what they believe is a wrenching reign of liberal error—or die trying.



Kenneth S. Stern and Morris Dees (with presumed ghost James Corcoran) belong to a small but hardy band of progressive activists whose sole mission is the exposure and defeat of people like William Pierce. Dees has been at it for some two decades; chief counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, he is best known for concocting a legal strategy that successfully sued individual Ku Klux Klan leaders for civil rights violations and drove several KKK chapters into bankruptcy. Stern, who monitors hate groups for the American Jewish Committee, wrote an alarming report about the militia movment that was released only nine days before the terror attack in Oklahoma. Dees and Stern implicitly share with the contributors to Bell's anthology the belief that "extremists" are deranged individuals who can be isolated from the body politic, their cultural anxieties soothed with an appeal to what Dees calls "common sense and decency."

The two books, unsurprisingly, feature the same cast of leading characters and tell most of the same stories about them. Both include lurid accounts of Christian Identity patriarch Randy Weaver and the FBI's fatal assault on his family's cabin in Ruby Ridge, Idaho; of William Pierce's version of Armageddon in which racist commandos lynch Jews and blow up FBI headquarters; of rabid talk show jockeys like G. Gordon Liddy who warn against "brutal thugs" who dare to enforce gun-control laws; of militia members who drill in camouflage uniforms and search the skies for black helicopters; and of Timothy McVeigh's descent from Desert Storm warrior to alleged destroyer of a building filled with hundreds of federal workers and dozens of small children.

There are stylistic differences. Dees has a weakness for melodrama; his chapters bear such titles as "Recipe for Disaster" and "The Last Best Hope." At times, his prose mirrors the apocalyptic views of his subjects: "America is at a very serious crossroads," he writes. "We are deeply divided along racial, political, economic, and class lines. Fear, anger, and paranoia prevail all too often." Kenneth Stern is cooler and more thoughtful. And, unlike Dees, he does not portray himself as the fearless vanguard of all whistle-blowers. Both authors, however, seem content to document, in almost numbing detail, the hatefulness of their subjects, in the hope that the rest of us will take steps to banish what Stern and Dees believe is a serious threat to racial tolerance and democracy.

Unearthing the nasty details about the violent right is necessary, of course. It prevents complacency and pinpoints who is responsible for which repulsive words or actions. But, like many a criminal investigation, it also avoids the search for larger meanings. Neither Stern nor Dees explains why such groups turn to violence or why they hold the mainstream views that appear in McVeigh's letter. Like Bell and his fellow postwar intellectuals, the authors seek to remove a toxic agent from the bloodstream of the body politic. But they neglect the fact that more legitimate figures on the right like Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan also traffic in conspiracy-mongering.

Fortunately, that kind of myopia afflicts fewer of today's academic historians. About the time Ronald Reagan was elected president, a growing number of scholars began reexamining the right in both its legal and militant manifestations. After the publication of many empathetic "bottom-up" studies of wage earners, slaves, and woman reformers, it seemed time to discover the tenacious roots of a conservative coalition that could no longer be dismissed as extreme. As a result, historians now view the KKK of the 1920s as a movement of up to four million "white Protestant nationalists," regard Father Charles Coughlin as perhaps the New Deal's most persuasive critic, and understand the John Birch Society as a grassroots force that played a major role in the right's takeover of the Republican Party during the 1960s. No longer is U.S. political history synonymous with the rise, maturation, and decline of modern liberalism. Conservatives were there all along, asserting their alternative grievances and philosophies and limiting what liberals could accomplish. And "the people," however defined, were as likely to enlist in groups on the right as in the ranks of their opponents.

Catherine McNicol Stock epitomizes the new interpretive sobriety. Stock, who teaches at Connecticut College, attempts to connect McVeigh, Nichols, and their ideological circle to a broad, persistent current in the U.S. past. She calls it "white-male radicalism." Even before America became an independent nation, small farmers and other white rural folk were fighting big, wealthy urban interests with both words and weapons—and finding time to bash humble "outsiders" in their midst, particu larly those with dark skins. As a progressive academic, Stock abhors William Pierce's opinions, but she would probably credit him with grasping a nugget of historical truth. The people she studies did equate the days "when this was a White country" with a culture in which "everyone worked for his living."

Stock is too good a historian to separate the two aspects of this common tradition. Often, the same proud "producers" who cursed heartless bankers and overcharging railroads helped lynch "uppity" blacks and drive Chinese immigrants from western mining towns. Both aspects of the "white-male radical"—the grassroots democrat and the racist vigilante—originated in that most American of desires: the pursuit of individual gain free from interference and restraint.

In the late colonial era, for example, poor white tenant farmers clashed with aristocratic landlords who tried to limit their access to the soil. Determined mobs routinely freed fellow rebels from the grip of the law. During one uprising in New York, writes Stock, "it was said that there was not a secure jail anywhere east of the Hudson River." On the Virginia frontier, a similar grievance led thousands of indentured servants to butcher Native Americans for insisting the land was theirs. In both cases, white colonists refused to accept permanent status as peasants or farm laborers; mass violence furthered their immediate self-interest as well as fueling a larger vision of social justice.

As Stock follows this two-headed tradition into the twentieth century, her analysis gradually loses some of its power. She stretches to fit groups like the KKK and the John Birch Society into her rural pattern, though neither was a hotbed of disgrun tled small farmers. And she fails to explain why the paramilitary right of the 1990s identifies its enemy as Big Government instead of targeting the international corporations who shape our economy and culture far more decisively than do bureaucrats who oversee public lands or regulate firearms. Still, her splendidly written narrative helps to confound simple definitions of "left" and "right" that have impeded our understanding of grassroots rage. After reading her book, McVeigh's 1992 letter makes more sense.



Scholars like Stock who grapple honestly with a long history of conflict, painful and contradictory as it was, seldom engage with writers like Dees and Stern who deplore the angry white men of the contemporary right. The call to quarantine hateful individuals and groups clashes with a search for their tangled roots in movements and causes that often demand our sympathy. To their credit, the investigators worry a good deal about how to check the disciples of William Pierce; scholars tend to abandon the field after contributing their broad-minded, if no less troubled, perspectives.

The historian and the anti-extremist sleuths do tend to assume that the far right has changed little over the decades. None of the writers comes to grips with what makes the militias a creature of the post-1960s era. McVeigh and his ilk are enmeshed in a particularly virulent form of identity politics—of the white male strain. Like radical Afrocentrists, they nurture a view of history as a massive plot to oppress their people and delude them about their true origins and capacities. They reject older universalist categories—"producers," "the common people," even "Christians"—in favor of a new identity as white patriots wrapped up in a grandiose self-image as "lost Israelites" at war with a "Zionist Occupation Government."

The militias' deep mistrust of the constitutional order also echoes the fiercely anti-authoritarian spirit that crested during the 1960s and shows little sign of ebbing. Those who wear camouflage garb and carry semiautomatic weapons might seem to have nothing in common with draft-card burners who wore buttons that declared, "Not With My Life You Don't." But they share a rejection of agencies, laws, and court rulings that demand citizens surrender their most cherished rights to the state. And, like the Black Panther Party, the militias equate the brandishing of fire arms with the exercise of liberty. Obviously, it matters whether the "pigs" are FBI men descending on Idaho farmhouses or white police clamping down on the ghetto. But the Panthers and the patriot war-lovers both saw themselves as well-armed guerrillas defending their communities against implacable, external aggression.

In the end, the Black Panthers barely rocked the stability of the state. What kind of menace do the militias and their dooms day-eager compatriots pose? The police and FBI must, of course, be prepared for future acts of right-wing terror. As Morris Dees predicts about his subjects, "They have killed before. And they will kill again." But the trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols will only strengthen the contempt most Americans already feel toward anyone who tries to start a violent revolution. And the far right does not have the numbers to do prolonged mischief. Kenneth Stern estimates that, together, all the local militia groups have a membership of between 10,000 and 40,000. Even the higher figure is less than half the number of Americans who joined the John Birch Society during its heyday in the early 1960s.

Robert Welch and his minions, who campaigned hard for the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, also boasted a strategic ken and organizational skill that the militias clearly lack. Last October, a scattering of paramilitary patriots from some eleven states attended what they dubbed the Third Continental Congress at a motel on the outskirts of Kansas City, Missouri. The would-be Refounders pledged to set up a Republican Provisional Government and then adjourned to the parking lot. One of their leaders admitted to a reporter from the New York Times that they drilled with guns mostly because "it scares the [existing] Government."

When illuminated by the electronic media, these white guys in jungle-fighting mufti tend to flop and shrivel. A week or so after the Oklahoma City bombing, ABC's Nightline journeyed to a hamlet in rural Michigan that was home to the same local militia that later organized the underwhelming Congress in Kansas City. At a town meeting arranged by the network (participatory democra cy for postmoderns?), Ted Koppel, ever suave and reasonable, asked a militia leader to tell his suspicious neighbors why he was training for war. The graying rebel, humorless and rigid, was no match for the sweet moderation of the visiting superstar. One almost felt sorry for the guy. No wonder even the most reactionary members of Congress now shun these pathetic, if intermittently lethal, warriors.

And the explicit racism and public Jew-hating that drive many on the violent right are depravities whose day has largely passed. Even David Duke and Louis Farrakhan rush to proclaim their tolerant intentions. In this sense, at least, the martyrs of the Holocaust and of the black freedom movement did not die in vain.

On the other hand, it would be foolish to minimize the discontents that fuel the fantasies of men like Tim McVeigh. Mistrust of the state and the defense of "traditional values" have defined the political discourse for some time now. The large majority of Americans are neither violent nor hateful, but they do long, like McVeigh, for public authorities who will respect their values and help to solve their economic problems. As Susan Tolchin points out in her new book, The Angry American: How Voter Rage is Changing the Nation, "People hate government because they expect more than government can possibly deliver, particularly in this era of budget constraints." Big businesses escape much of the blame because they deliver the goods—for those who can afford them. Corporations aren't democratic institutions, and, as such, no one but the most romantic libertarian really expects them to cure our public ills.

Across the Atlantic, there is a radical right that dwarfs its American counterpart. In France, Italy, and Austria, anti-immigrant and racist parties have been winning a significant percentage of the vote while centrist regimes struggle to thin out once generous welfare states and seek to quiet fears about high unemployment and "unassimilated" foreigners. In recent years, events and political forces conspired to break the post-1945 social contract between ordinary citizens and the national leaders, major corporations, and big unions that once delivered an unprecedented measure of prosperity and expanded the meaning of human rights. A growing number of Europeans have turned against established politicians and parties whose typical response to the crisis of the postwar order has been to mull it over at length and then to make it worse.

Neofascists like Jörg Haider in Austria and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France have gained support, in part, because they offer something cautious social democrats sorely lack: an image, however bigoted and fanciful, of national pride and moral revitalization. In the U.S., the far right poses no comparable threat, but neither do we have a grassroots movement of the liberal left that can persua sively explain the sense of loss—to our culture as well as our jobs—that afflicts so many people of modest means. A politics based on policy ideas, like those contained in this magazine, will not appeal to many Americans unless there is an alternative vision to guide them. Only when progressives address the sufferings and dreams of our heterogeneous people will the far right be reduced to a dim, if unpleasant, memory.

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