WORKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY
Morris Dees with James Corcoran, Gathering Storm: America's
Kenneth S. Stern, A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia
Catherine McNicol Stock, Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in
Susan J. Tolchin, The Angry American: How Voter Rage is Changing
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.
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
erroror 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
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 weaponsand 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 vigilanteoriginated 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.
A LEGACY OF THE SIXTIES
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 politicsof 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
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
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 goodsfor 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 lossto our culture as well
as our jobsthat 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.
You may also like:
You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)