America’s new revolutionaries

The belief that the United States stands at a historic crossroads is widespread across the political spectrum. But among parts of the right the view takes worrying directions, says Cas Mudde.

Cas Mudde
3 September 2012

In the past few weeks a lot of publicity has been given to “RaHoWa”, the fictional “racial holy war” proclaimed by white supremacists, mostly in songs and on internet forums such as Stormfront. This relatively obscure and murky world was brought into the media spotlight after the horrific shooting on 5 August 2012 in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin by Wade Michael Page. While he never gave an explanation for his deeds, and took his own life during the shooting, it has become received wisdom that this was his contribution to RaHoWa.

The Wisconsin tragedy has refocused attention on the right-wing fringe in America, in particular the white-supremacist and sovereign-citizen movements (see "Wisconsin's Sikh massacre: the real tragedy", 13 August 2012). This is important, if only because of the previous obsessive focus on Islamic terror at the expense of every other terrorist threat; but it is not where the main battle-call for the “new American revolution” is coming from. Much more worryingly, revolutionary discourse - including calls for “armed resistance” to an alleged totalitarian state - is coming from the mainstream of American society, uncritically amplified by some major media outlets.

Since the inauguration of Barack Obama, America’s first non-white president, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has noted a staggering increase in right-wing mobilisation. In fact, the number of groups, including mostly so-called “patriot” and “sovereign citizens” groups, has now surpassed that of the 1990s, the height of the militia movement (which imploded in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995). Yet while this trend is unsettling in itself, and requires more debate and state supervision, a much more worrying development has taken place in the mainstream, rather than the fringes, or American society: the radicalisation of the angry white man.

Many commentators have noted the “anger” within the Tea Party movement as well as the conspiracy theories that abound within it. The idea that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim socialist hell-bent on destroying “the America of our forefathers” is a sentiment not restricted to the odd ones out. Most rallies I have attended saw various people with signs relating to this conspiracy theory and were generally met with open approval rather than condemnation by the broader crowd. But while it is certainly disturbing that more than half of Republican Party voters think that Obama is not born in the US and that 34% of conservative Republicans think he is a Muslim, in and by themselves these opinions don’t have to lead to anything more than loyal opposition.

The toxic take-back

A much more alarming trend within the right-wing movement, of which the (amorphous) Tea Party is just the loudest and most prominent representative, is the growth of outright “disloyal” opposition, in which the whole state becomes the enemy. One of the crudest examples, though itself one among many, came from Tom Head, a judge in Lubbock County, Texas. Combining the now dominant frame that the upcoming presidential elections are the most important in the country’s history, the last chance to, in Romney’s terms, “take America back” (from what - the Muslims, the socialists?), and long-standing right-wing fears of a United Nations invasion, Head told the local Fox affiliate Fox34 News:

“He’s going to try to hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the UN, and what is going to happen when that happens? I’m thinking the worst. Civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war maybe. And we’re not just talking a few riots here and demonstrations, we’re talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms and get rid of the guy. Now what’s going to happen if we do that, if the public decides to do that? He’s going to send in U.N. troops. I don’t want ‘em in Lubbock County. OK. So I’m going to stand in front of their armored personnel carrier and say ‘you’re not coming in here’. And the sheriff, I’ve already asked him, I said ‘you gonna back me’ he said, ‘yeah, I’ll back you’. Well, I don’t want a bunch of rookies back there. I want trained, equipped, seasoned veteran officers to back me."

As shocking as this statement might be to many, it touches upon sentiments broadly shared within the American right-wing. In fact, I was probably even more struck by the Fox34 News response to the rant: "Whether you agree with the judge, or think his theories are unrealistic, the reality is a tax hike that will provide an additional $832,433 coupled with $2 million in cuts to make the numbers work." Clearly they were not bothered by this thinly-veiled threat of armed resistance to legitimate state power.

The twin target

The belief that America is at a historic crossroads, and that the 2012 election could be the last one,  is widespread within America’s right-wing circles. That’s expressed in the slogan "Defend America. Defeat Obama", popular on t-shirts and bumper-stickers, or in organisations like the Save America Foundation. But while the ideas might be expressed more radically on the fringes of the right-wing movement, they have become well-established within the right-wing establishment too.

For example, Tom Sowell writes about "The Un-American Vision of Barack Obama" in the National Review Online, based on the popular book The Roots of Obama's Rage while Larry Klayman - on the popular conservative WorldNetDaily (WND) website - calls Obama a traitor, "sympathetic not to Judeo-Christians values and culture, but Islam and its surrogate-controlled states".

Anti-governmental attitudes are, of course, nothing new within the American right. Unlike in Europe, where the right traditionally has been close to the state and has at times heralded the state as the prime loyalty of each citizen (even higher than God), political culture in the United States has always been less statist, on both the left and the right. Still, it is a far way from Ronald Reagan’s mantra, "government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem," to the contemporary right-wing’s demand to "take America back" While most mainstream Republicans do not call for armed resistance, their message of doom and increasing use of conspiracy theories seems to leave no other viable option (particularly if Obama wins re-election).

The last years of right-wing propaganda have led to a process that the late Israeli terrorism expert Ehud Sprinzak terms "split deligitimisation", a trajectory through which the right-wing comes to terrorism. Traditionally the right-wing will have its primary conflict with an ‘inferior’ community, mostly (ethnic, political, or religious) minorities, and consider the state as an ally, sympathetic to its cause. Once it feels that the state is captured by the “inferior” enemy (i.e. the Muslim socialist Barack Hussein Obama) it will enter into a secondary conflict with the government. It is here that more or less unorganised political violence, like Page in Wisconsin, is transformed into more or less organised terrorism, such as McVeigh in Oklahoma City.

The real threat

All this does not imply that the average right-wing American is a terrorist-in-waiting, or that the Tea Party is a terrorist organisation. Most such people will abhor violence in general, and violence against fellow Americans in particular. But it does mean that the extremist rhetoric that comes from so-called law-abiding patriots should be taken more seriously. Over the past two decades a majority of acts of political violence in the United States have come from the right, even if the attacks of Muslim extremists were more deadly. Between the highly destructive Oklahoma City bombing of April 1995 and 9/11 - the most deadly terrorist attack on American soil - there were more than fifty (planned) acts of right-wing violence. In many cases the target represented the government/state, including law-enforcement agents.

In this light, it is particularly interesting to see how lax law-enforcement agencies have dealt with these thinly-veiled threats of violence compared to their heavy-handed approach to the alleged threat from radical Muslims  and radical left activists (including animal-rights activists and environmentalists. Most responsibility lies with the right-wing establishment, however. Republican Party leaders should be more careful in choosing their company and insinuations.

They should also stop their obstruction to state investigations of right-wing threats, such as the concerted effort to kill the department of homeland security’s report, entitled Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitmen. After all, if they really love their country and its “heroes” (which includes law-enforcement agents), they should protect these objects of their concern.

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