Unraveling the Gordian knot of media issues in the Oregon standoff between federal authorities and a Patriot/Militia alliance of building occupiers is a daunting task. Some journalists have written excellent, thoughtful articles, and some have wasted wood pulp and bandwidth. Most early reporting sat between those extremes.
The Patriot movement is the term used by many scholars to describe a collection of distinct submovements. Some recent reports make the false assumption that the white racism in the Patriot movement emerged from the South, and was then brought to the Pacific Northwest. This is partly true in the sense that the Ku Klux Klan, born in the South in the 1860s, later flourished in Oregon in the 1920s. There was also an American Nazi movement in Oregon.
The Patriot movement, on the other hand, came to Oregon via California. The Patriot movement is based on a white supremacist and antisemitic conspiracy theory that solidified as a social movement called the Posse Comitatus. There are a number of well-researched books explaining how William Potter Gale in California developed the theory of the US government being seized by a secret cabal operating outside the “real” constitutional laws of the United States. This ideology forged the Posse Comitatus as a movement. In Oregon, Mike Beach started issuing an instruction booklet on how to form a local group.
The rising aggressive militancy of the Patriot/Militia movement in Oregon has been a matter of discussion among progressive journalists, researchers, scholars and activists for many months. As a necessary disclosure, I have been part of that discussion and have done volunteer and paid research for some of the activist and research groups mentioned in this article. I have written about right-wing movements, civil liberties and government repression for over 40 years, and for three decades was a researcher at Political Research Associates (PRA).
Published reporting predicting a coming confrontation in Oregon was online as early as July 2015 in a report written by Spencer Sunshine of PRA for Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project, a human rights group that has been targeted for intimidation by a coalition of militias, the 3 Percenters, Sovereign Citizens and Oath Keepers, all subgroups of the broader Patriot movement. According to Sunshine, the Patriot movement is a form of hard-right politics that exists between the right-wing Tea Party end of the Republican Party and the extreme-right white supremacist movement. Generally those in the Patriot movement view the current US federal government as an illegitimate state rapidly heading toward totalitarianism.
In December 2015, PRA (12/23/15) ran an article by Doug Gilbert warning that the “Hard Right” in the US was “Being Bolstered by the Mainstream”:
Segments of the hard right are also acting in a context where their discourse continues to push into mainstream and is magnified around Donald Trump’s campaign trail. From making heinous comments about Latinos and immigrants, telling protesters to “go back to Africa,” retweeting neo-Nazi soundbites, declaring that all Muslims should be barred from the US, to proclaiming that Black Lives Matter demonstrators should have been “roughed up,” Trump has encouraged a new generation of white nationalists–much like David Duke did in the late 1980s.
After the Oregon standoff began, Sunshine posted a new article on US Uncut (1/3/16), with five analytical talking points about the building occupiers:
- It’s actually a land grab – with guns
- The paramilitaries are powered by conspiracy theories
- The “Patriot” movement is a child of the White Power movement
- Federal government policies have allowed this situation to happen
- There is widespread opposition to the Malheur [federal wildlife facility] takeover
The article included a link to a Patriot Movement Resources List from PRA.
What follows is part media critique and part resource guide, divided into topical themes.
Placing the Oregon Standoff in Ideological and Historic Context
The winner in this category is the New York Times, with a series of articles and commentary so extensive that it already requires a separate web listing to give it the proper credit. A standout in this set of reports was an essay in the New York Times Magazine (1/8/16) by R. McGreggor Cawle, a professor of political science at the University of Wyoming and the author of Federal Land, Western Anger: The Sagebrush Rebellion and Environmental Politics.
Oregon news media had some excellent coverage, especially reports from the Oregonian that predated the building occupation (12/30/15) and then reported it (1/2/16). The roundup of interviews (1/12/16) on why the feds are not storming the building is long and detailed. An overview (1/14/16) of the declining economic situation in the area is sadly enlightening. Oregon Public Broadcasting aired some meaty reports, as did other statewide media.
Several articles explored the backstory of the roles the earlier “Wise Use” movement and “Sagebrush Rebellion” play in the ideology and narrative behind the Oregon occupation. Ben Geman in the National Journal (1/11/16) interviewed professor Carolyn Gallaher, a bona fide expert on the militia movement and other paramilitary movements in the US.
Tarso Ramos of PRA was interviewed by the New York Times (1/10/16) about the ideological roots of the standoff in the Wise Use movement and Sagebrush Rebellion interpretation of private property rights. I published one of the earliest pieces on the subject, written by Ramos in 1995, when I edited PRA’s Public Eye magazine.
A challenging and informative piece by Heather Ann Thompson on Huffington Post (1/6/16), “Putting the Oregon Standoff in Perspective: America’s History of Protest and Its Ironies,” noted that the Oregon standoff is “by no means the first time in American history that a group of armed men and women…staged a dramatic occupation out West and made demands of the federal government”:
Nearly 43 years ago, almost to the month, there was another major occupation against federal land theft out West. In this case, over 200 American Indian activists, Oglala Lakota as well as members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), took over Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in February 1973. Their occupation would last 71 days.
This set the stage for Thompson’s “examination of that 1973 uprising,” which she suggests “illustrates very clearly not only that the occupation still unfolding in Oregon will not be ended easily, but also that its very raison d’etre is, at best, ironic,” since Native people argue the land was stolen from them in the first place.
Should Right-Wing Protesters With Anti-Government Narratives Be Taken Seriously?
It’s easy to make fun of the Patriot/Militia movement. Some of their claims seem absurd: Obama is a Muslim and/or the Antichrist. Agenda 21 is a UN plot to control US land. Regulating guns is a prelude to black helicopters arriving with troops to impose tyranny.
Here is a starling reality check: There is no recent social science evidence showing that people who join the Patriot movement (or any social movement on the right or left) are mentally ill, suffer from paranoid delusions, or are more or less uneducated, ignorant or stupid than people in a surrounding batch of zip codes. They tend to be just like their neighbors. If, as a reporter, you are relying on social science–popular or scholarly–written before 1980, there is a good chance you may be relying on information that is outdated and in some cases has been refuted by sociologists using computer-based, data-driven analysis.
The Concourse’s Deadspin is a website that attempts to put a journalistic spin on snarky blogging, so no surprise that it featured one of the most offensive stories on the web making fun of the Oregon standoff, Albert Burneko’s “Those Jamokes in Oregon Aren’t Terrorists, They’re Jamokes” (1/4/16). According to the author, “When you call these horse’s asses ‘terrorists,’ you are not only dignifying their ridiculous, impotent actions, you are doing them the biggest favor for which they can hope.” Now, this is a comment with a scintilla of valid meaning, but that’s the high point of the article built around the idea that no one should take these losers seriously. The day before, another site author suggested the “Best Way to Mock Those Oregon Dinguses.”
The Patriot movement is heavily armed, and its supporters can be dangerous. They sometimes intimidate, threaten or assault people with whom they disagree. And they take over buildings or ranches and have standoffs with government authorities. This is not funny if you live in communities where the Patriot movement is active; especially if you work for the government, are a person of color, Mexican, Muslim, feminist, gay, a supporter of reproductive rights, etc.
My wife and I spent 10 years living on the southwest side of Chicago involved in anti-racist organizing for racial equality and open housing against an anti-integration coalition of right-wing Patriots, the white-robed Ku Klux Klan, uniformed neo-Nazis and racist skinheads. A reference to this was included in the film The Blues Brothers, when Jake and Elwood Blues in their car force a neo-Nazi to jump off a small bridge into a stream. Jake says, “I hate Illinois Nazis.” I agreed.
The scene was filmed in Chicago’s Jackson Park, but I walked across the actual bridge used by the Illinois Nazis in Marquette Park when I lived in that neighborhood in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s. The film, one of my favorites, is hilariously funny. Less funny was that racist bullies, some of them armed, assaulted black people just walking in our neighborhood, and that there were fire bombings of our black neighbors’ homes.
Our perception of personal and communal threat is shaped by the confluence of our existing biases, the biases of the media we consume, and the biases in language used by the federal government. As in the case of alleged Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, the “media and federal representatives rarely use the word ‘terrorism’ to describe” the violent actions of white right-wing militants, according to Naomi Braine, a sociologist at Brooklyn College. Braine writes in an article for Political Research Associates (6/19/15) that:
In the nearly 14 years since 9/11, more people have died in the US from politically motivated violence perpetrated by right-wing militants than by Muslim militants…. The disparity between treatment of Muslims and right-wing militants highlights the centrality of political power and vulnerability as factors shaping law enforcement anti-terrorism measures.
Cas Mudde is one of the world’s leading scholars on right-wing movements, about which he has authored several books and numerous articles. Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia, warns that “the No. 1 threat, particularly from the law enforcement perspective, is the broad sovereign citizen movement milieu, which has been responsible for the most deaths.”
The idea that the United States is heading for an economic or political collapse is widespread in the Patriot right, Christian right and white supremacist movements The result is a countersubversion panic. This fear-based narrative, which targets both rural and urban areas, is enhanced and exploited by survivalist supplies vendors, right-wing investment firms, and vendors of bulk gold and silver. Right-wing AM radio and internet demagogues push these themes and often have advertisers selling survivalist items. I have visited Christian right congregations where the pastor’s sermon warns of the coming apocalypse and the need to prepare, and discussions of survivalism and liberal treachery flavor the coffee hour.
There is another reason to take the right-wing Patriot movement more seriously. The fears and anxieties spread by the growth of this sector has created a large constituency of primarily white people who fear immigrants, people of color, Muslims, gay people and liberals. Many of them take as facts the assertions they are fed by Fox News about the treachery of Obama and the plan by liberal big government enthusiasts to impose tyranny in the United States. Obscure phrases such as “Agenda 21” and the “New World Order” stand in for elaborate and longstanding conspiracy theories rampant on the right.
In the 1990s, at the height of the armed Militia movement, politicians allied with right-wing populist movements were elected to public office, including Helen Chenoweth and Steve Stockman. Grassroots support for the Republican-led call for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton came from the Patriot movement and its reliance on conspiracy theories.
John Sepulvado and Dave Blanchard at Oregon Public Broadcasting (1/10/16) report: “Nevada, Oregon State Reps Meet With Armed Occupiers.” Is this the scenario we will face through 2016 as the Republican Party becomes unhinged from its conservative mooring and continues to tolerate demonizing, demagogic and often bigoted rhetoric? Aren’t we as journalists supposed to be the Fourth Estate, guarding against damage to civil society in the face of the “fragility of democracy?”
Our previous century as a nation struggling to implement democracy for all witnessed the following: The Ku Klux Klan briefly held the reins of state politics in Ohio and Indiana. White supremacist eugenics was an academic sub-discipline in the Ivy League and other colleges for children of “proper breeding.” Charles Lindbergh flew off in defense of futuristic fascist discipline, while Father Charles Coughlin took to the air to excoriate the Jewish menace. The Dies and McCarthy hearings inculcated a paranoid Cold War mentality while suppressing postwar union and civil rights activism. Segregationist intransigence caused federal troops to once again march South for federalism.
Talk to the folks at Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project or the Montana Human Rights Network, or national groups such as Sister Song, the Highlander Research and Education Center, Political Research Associates or the Center for New Community, about what we as a nation face right now in 2016 from the growing Patriot movement.
Let’s Talk About Something Else
German Lopez on Vox (1/4/16) manages to trivialize the armed protesters and their seizure of federal property while shifting the story focus to buttress the phony Patriot narrative that it was mandatory minimum sentencing that caused the confrontation. “Militia Antics Aside, the Mandatory Minimum Given to the Oregon Ranchers Is Absurd,” suggests the headline. According to Lopez, “What led a militia to take over a federal building in Oregon? Behind the tense standoff is a legitimate protest over a troubling law.”
No, that claim was a ruse, as was repeatedly pointed out by local citizens after their protest over the Hammonds being forced back to jail was used as a cover for seizing federal property by activists primarily from outside the state. Local folks have overwhelmingly signaled their lack of support for the building seizure.
Mandatory minimums are a rigid and heartless way to punish people. They recall the Dickensian legal system in England before religious social conscience movements forced reforms in criminal justice. Some writers who focused on mandatory minimums, though, seemed more concerned with finding a news peg using a subject familiar to them rather than digging deeper in their reporting on the Oregon standoff.
In The Atlantic (1/5/16), Conor Friederdorf played the same hand without blushing, but added in the dubious claim that “in theory, those on the left who care about vanquishing mandatory minimums could have used the news story about the Hammonds to broaden awareness and opposition to the practice.” The subhead claims “Members of America’s political left share far more concerns in common with the armed protesters than many apparently realize.”
The fact is, advocates for reforms in the criminal justice system and for more humane prison conditions have been working together with folks in the religious right and other political tendencies for over a decade. Few social or political movement organizers across the political spectrum are so dense as to think it would be advisable to form an ongoing alliance with “armed protesters.”
It was the uber-conservative Heritage Foundation that published a thoughtful story on the Oregon standoff and mandatory minimums on its Daily Signal page (1/6/16).
Bashing Liberals and Leftists for Noting Black and White Militant Protesters Are Treated Differently by Law Enforcement
For some, the standoff provided a platform for bashing liberals and leftists. Boston Globe columnist Michael A. Cohen (1/5/16) writes that “it’s been liberals, in the days since the militia seizure, who have been loudly calling for blood–and pointing out alleged double standards.” I have been unable to find persuasive evidence that this claim is true. There were a few such responses, notably by former syndicated talkshow host Montel Williams on Twitter (1/3/16). Most statements “calling for blood” are to be found on social media, not serious news sites.
Cohen then moves on to a broader assertion:
Liberal news site Think Progress compared the muted response of federal officials to the seizure in Oregon by armed with whites with the more aggressive 1985 standoff between Philadelphia police and the black nationalist group MOVE – as if Waco and Ruby Ridge, in which dozens of white Americans were killed, had never happened.
The statements separated by a dash are in reality only linked only by an unproven assertion. A number of liberal and left journalists and scholars condemned the aggressive and deadly federal actions at Ruby Ridge and Waco, including me. The article being criticized is by Carimah Townes on Think Progress (1/4/16). Townes accurately noted that some 30 years ago,
a similar standoff between police and a black anti-government group in Philadelphia played out very differently. Armed members of a fringe liberation group called MOVE were bombed and burned alive for directing their weapons at police. The bombing highlighted the stark contrast in the way cops treat black and white radicals.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement has called attention to disparate treatment of black and white citizens by law enforcement in the United States. As the Washington Post noted after analyzing 2015 data on police shootings, “Looking at population-adjusted rates, unarmed black men were seven times as likely as unarmed whites to die from police gunfire.”
But some writers objected to those who applied this observation to the Oregon standoff. “No, There Isn’t a Racial Double Standard at Work in Oregon” was the headline of a National Memo piece by columnist Gene Lyons (1/6/16)–arguing that it’s “clearly false that armed white crackpots are always given a pass.” Lyons rejected the argument that in Oregon, police showed more restraint than they did toward less-threatening African-Americans like Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black child shot while carrying a toy gun; he calls such comparisons “tempting, but specious,” because “everybody acknowledges the boy’s death was a pointless tragedy.”
Meanwhile, at Slate, the headline over a Jamelle Bouie column (1/4/16) answers the question, “Is the Oregon Standoff Evidence of a Racial Double Standard?” with “Not Really”–because the shootings of unarmed African-Americans “are fundamentally different from that of a standoff between armed fanatics and federal law enforcement.”
US Government Treatment of Militant Protests and Standoffs
The Oregon standoff has a backstory that involves government policy toward standoffs and confrontations.
A senior US Justice Department official during the 1993 standoff with the Branch Davidian religious sect outside Waco, Texas, recalls that there was conflicting advice on how to handle the situation. The Justice Department policy was being pulled in two opposite directions, according to the former official, who requested anonymity.
On one side, hardliners inside and outside the government were urging that the Branch Davidians in the compound building be forced into submission through psychological warfare, including blaring loud rock music and flashing bright lights. This was accompanied by the compound being surrounded by a highly visible, heavily armed force of law enforcement agents.
At the same time, the Justice Department was receiving phone calls from scholars of apocalyptic religious and political movements (including myself) warning that the approach being followed by law enforcement could create a dynamic of militant violence. Why? Because the Branch Davidians believed they were living in the End Times of Biblical prophecy. During this period, the Branch Davidians believed they would be tempted by Satan to renounce their loyalty to Jesus Christ. They came to believe that the federal government was allied with the Satanic End Times Antichrist system, and if they surrendered, they were literally surrendering their everlasting souls to eternal damnation. Far better to die as faithful Christians so their souls would be embraced by God in Heaven. That was their apocalyptic belief system.
The violence was ultimately turned inward when a military tank was used to breach the walls of the main building. At least 76 people died in a conflagration. Later, 12 surviving members of the Branch Davidian sect were indicted for the unlawful possession of firearms and the deaths of federal law enforcement officers.
Anger over the government response to the Branch Davidians, and to the standoffs with Randy Weaver and his family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, increased the size and militancy of the Patriot and armed Militia movements. Pushing these movements to insurgent rebellion was the purpose of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. According to the senior Justice Department official, some experts affiliated with national human relations groups were so appalled by the bombing they were actually suggesting that the federal government should round up everyone in the armed militia movement–which would have created a huge civil liberties nightmare. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed inside the Justice Department.
The standoff with the Montana Freeman in 1996 saw the implementation of a new Justice Department strategy of waiting out the occupants and negotiating for a peaceful settlement. This was a step forward, but federal policy now seems inconsistent and misguided.
The failure of federal officials to indict scofflaw Bundy after the Nevada standoff was a serious policy error that may well have emboldened those who seized the federal building in Oregon. David Neiwert, an expert on right-wing movements, argued in a Washington Post column (1/7/16) that not punishing the Bundy family and its associates, who pointed loaded weapons at federal officers, helped lead to the Oregon occupation.
The US government has failed to effectively deal with the consistent pattern of violence from within the Patriot/Militia movement. This confusion over policy has reignited a controversy over an earlier report issued by the US Department of Homeland Security on domestic threats. The headline in the New York Times (1/9/16) reads “Homeland Security Looked Past Antigovernment Movement, Ex-Analyst Says.” This happened in part because a Department of Homeland Security report was suppressed under pressure from the Republican Party and conservatives, a factor examined by the WGBH program “Defining Domestic Terrorism, Part Three: Conservative Politicians Downplay Threat From the Far Right”(1/4/16).
The DHS report contained much reliable research, but as the ACLU (5/8/08) and other civil liberties groups pointed out at the time, it was flawed by a failure to make a distinction between ideology and rhetoric–protected by the First Amendment–and criminal acts. This is embedded in a controversy of the new rhetoric of political repression developed by the US government.
Violence is not caused by “extremism” or “radicalization.” This is an outdated concept. Many social scientists now argue that other factors such as humiliation, a compulsion to exact revenge or a need to be perceived as a hero are the important factors. Today the phrases “homegrown terrorism” and “violent radicalization” are often used to justify intrusive and abusive surveillance and political repression of suspect groups. Political centrists and law enforcement use these vague terms to demonize dissent on the left and right.
Sue Udry, the executive director of the Defending Dissent Foundation and Bill of Rights Defense Committee (recently merged), gave me the following statement on the subject:
We defend the right of people in the US to protest peacefully, no matter what the cause. We urge law enforcement to seek to de-escalate the situation in Oregon and seek a peaceful resolution.
Unfortunately, elements of US law enforcement have a tragic history of over-reacting to protesters, responding with unnecessary force and violence. The list is long: the crushing of anarchists and union workers at the dawn of the 20th century; the fire hoses turned on civil rights marchers, the infiltration and forceful removal of Occupy activists in cities across the country; and the militarized response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
History reveals that government surveillance, disruption and repression overwhelmingly target activists on the political left. However, we do not condone seeking to level the playing field by mistreating those on the political right, as some have suggested. We urge that the government respect the right to protest of all people; and defuse confrontations with the absolute minimum of force required.
Mormon Mania Stereotyping
The headline for Alex Beam’s report in the Boston Globe (1/5/16) is “Oregon Standoff Has Roots in Mormon Fanaticism.” According to Beam:
Most mainstream news accounts of antigovernment protesters’ occupation of a Fish and Wildlife Service facility in Oregon have ignored or downplayed the group’s religious beliefs. Ammon Bundy’s small band of armed followers turn out to be religious fanatics, and – inconveniently for the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – Mormon religious fanatics.
This is an overbroad claim and appears to suggest all members of the LDS faith could be painted as fanatics.
Some of the participants in the Nevada and Oregon standoffs are Mormons. There is no social science evidence that the Mormon church contains more conspiracy cranks or members of Patriot movement groups than any other religion in the United States. This is a fallacy of statistical analysis, based on the fact that a lot of the Patriot movement activists in the news lately are self-identified Mormons. They are also white and men. Most white men are not in the Patriot movement, although the movement is largely composed on white men.
Many Patriot movement confrontations occur in the Rocky Mountain States, the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest, where there are also significant concentrations of Mormons. The connection works, however, when reporters point out that the single-most influential supplier of Patriot movement conspiracy theories nationally is media huckster Glenn Beck, who highlights his conversion to the Mormon faith. Beck gets many of his lurid conspiracy theories from the John Birch Society, relied on as a trusted source by many in the Patriot movement and far too many Republicans.
Beck also relies on the late W. Cleon Skoussen, an ultra-conservative Mormon and leading Birch Society ideologue. This is explored in detail in Alexander Zaitchik’s 2010 book Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance. Skoussen is a major influence on the Patriot movement. In 2010, Mother Jones noted:
Right-wing historian W. Cleon Skousen has seen a posthumous rise in popularity thanks to Fox News host Glenn Beck, who has praised Skousen’s book The 5,000 Year Leap and said that the nine principles and 12 values of his 912 Project were inspired by Skousen’s “28 principles of freedom.” As MoJo‘s Stephanie Mencimer reports, demand for the constitutional seminars offered by Skousen’s National Center for Constitutional Studies has more than tripled since the Tea Party movement took off. A new edition of The 5,000 Year Leap (with a foreword by Beck) is flying off the shelves.
The LDS church, however, has not converted to Beck’s or the Bircher’s crackpot yarns about the federal government being run by a vast perfidious conspiracy. The church issued a statement clarifying its position on the Oregon standoff:
While the disagreement occurring in Oregon about the use of federal lands is not a Church matter, Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles. This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis. We are privileged to live in a nation where conflicts with government or private groups can – and should – be settled using peaceful means, according to the laws of the land.
Many other fascinating tidbits about Utah and Mormon history are found in Salt Lake City Weekly (1/13/16), “Militias and Public Lands: A Utah Story,” which explains “How Two Right-Wing Movements Became Inseparably Joined in Bountiful, Utah.” The article is by local staffer Eric Ehterington, who also works for PRA.
Finally, high-profile Christian Right Protestant conspiracy theorists outnumber Mormon conspiracy theorists in national public discourse. Leading the pack is author and Christian Right icon Tim LaHaye, whose fiction and “non-fiction” books warn of a vast federal government conspiracy to impose tyranny on behalf of Satan in the End Times prophesied in the Bible. This apocalyptic fear-mongering appears in the form of sign, and leaflets warning of the United Nations’ “Agenda 21,” the “New World Order” and federal “gun grabs.” Republican hopefuls Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are competing for support from the Christian Right, which makes up some 15 percent of the electorate in presidential elections–and is as a social movement the largest single organized ideological voting bloc in the Republican party.
Republican Rhetoric and Patriot/Militia Movement Resurgence
There is a dynamic relationship between the alarming rhetoric of the current crop of Republican presidential contenders and the resurgence of the Patriot/Militia movement, and it is fueled by a widespread belief in conspiracy theories. The Southern Poverty Law Center has issued two reports on the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories, one by Alexander Zaitchik (8/1/10), and a recent staff report by Mark Potok and Don Terry titled “Margins to Mainstream” (10/27/15).
Patriot movement conspiracy theories about the Feds emerged from the white supremacist movement. That most current members of the Patriot Movement do not seem to be aware of this fact is a sad commentary of the absorption of ideology without critical thinking. Back in the 1990s, there were Republicans elected to public office who echoed or even endorsed Patriot/Militia conspiracy theories–Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R.-Idaho) being a prime example. According to a Washington Post obituary (10/4/06), “Chenoweth attracted much support from the militia fringe movement that found a home in the interior West during the 1990s.” Chenoweth also
scolded Congress after the Oklahoma City federal building bombing for not trying to understand anti-government activists. She also held hearings on “black helicopters,” which militia members believed were filled with United Nations—sponsored storm troopers eager to swoop into the broken-down ranches of the rural West and impose international law.
The conspiracist attacks on President Bill Clinton by Republican elected officials and their supporters made primetime news, even though the claims were later revealed to be specious.
Tacit and overt approval of conspiracy theories within right-wing political and social movement subcultures helped build a constituency in the Republican Party, which relied on Fox News and Glenn Beck for further proof of Democratic Party and liberal perfidy. The current leading Republican presidential hopefuls–Donald Trump and Ted Cruz–are both appealing to right-wing conspiracist social movements. Trump pulls ideas from the white nationalist subculture, while Cruz pulls ideas from the Christian nationalist subculture. In the electorate, these subcultures overlap in the Tea Parties. Much of the anti-Federal sentiment in the US can be traced to these two social movement ideologies.
Old Sociology vs. New Sociology
In a nutshell–no pun intended–the old sociology was that people who joined radical social movements on the left or right were addled dysfunctional misfits who played no serious role in mainstream politics, but primarily disrupted the ideal political center. Not so, say more recent social movement scholars in sociology. There is a dynamic relationship between social movements and the two mainstream political parties. When there is a large, angry and activist social movement outside the Democratic or Republican parties, electoral politicians move in the direction of the movement on their flank.
In our book Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, Matthew N. Lyons and I traced the influence of this form of ideology in the United States. We explained how the Ku Klux Klan emerged after the Civil War as a right-wing populist movement seeking to prevent black people from exercising their newly granted rights. The Klan’s legacy still haunts the South. Sociologists Rory McVeigh, David Cunningham and Justin Farrell (American Sociological Review, 12/14) found that a significant predictor of current Republican voting patterns in the South is the prior existence of a strong chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s.
While the participants in the Patriot Movement (which includes the Tea Party movement) frequently garble the messages about sinful abortion and euthanasia, secular society and healthcare in their signs and slogans, the stories are part of a narrative toolkit used by movement conservatives for decades.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild is working on a book tentatively titled Strangers in Their Own Land: A Journey Into the Heart of the Right. She explains that many of the Tea Party activists she interviewed doubted that Obama was American, even after the publication of his long-form birth certificate; some still suspect that he is Muslim and harbors ill-will toward America.
Hochschild observed that this and other dubious beliefs were widely shared among people who otherwise seemed reasonable, friendly, accepting. How, she wondered, could this be? Her explanation is that amid a rising gap between the rich and poor, the middle class has been pressed out–“especially blue-collar men, the bottom of the middle.” With few other alternatives, they search for ways to restore their lost sense of honor and dignity. Hochschild feels their emotional need to reclaim a more respected place in society is the underlying crisis mobilizing Tea Party members into political action. And as they do this, they encounter resistance, in the form of criticism, disrespect and insult, from upper-middle class liberals and the mass media, who look down on them as “rednecks.”
Folks who support the Tea Party and other right-wing populist movements are responding to rhetoric that honors them as the bedrock of American society. These are primarily middle-class and working-class white people with a deep sense of patriotism who bought into the American dream of upward mobility. Now they feel betrayed. They feel the government is allowing them to be shoved aside, displaced, dispossessed and disrespected by newcomers, outsiders, immigrants and other people they don’t see as proper citizens. Trump and his Republican allies appeal to their emotions by naming scapegoats to blame for their sense of being displaced by “outsiders” and abandoned by their government.
Jason Wilson in the British Guardian (1/14/16) nailed down the story better than most journalists in the United States when he wrote that the very real anger in rural Oregon
will hardly be reduced by the circus that has attended the Bundys’ occupation, or the tendency to focus on their stunts, rather than the real pain this community has felt over decades. What are the kindnesses we can offer communities like Burns? As the siege drags on in the Malheur national wildlife refuge, the question has become far more urgent.
Sociologist Rory McVeigh argues that shifting power dynamics that disrupt traditional hierarchies in economic, political and social power relationships launch the processes by which right-wing groups mobilize a mass base large enough to intrude into public debates in the larger society. Earlier social movement theories that were based on studying left-wing movements had much value in explaining the patterns and practices of right-wing movements, says McVeigh, but some theories, including Resource Mobilization and the Political Process Model, were less useful for the study of the right. These latter theories worked best when studying left-wing liberation movements and movements in which relatively oppressed groups are seeking equality.
Nella Van Dyke and Sarah A. Soule explained variance in levels of participation in state-based Patriot movements and armed citizen militias in the 1990s by measuring the degree of “structural social change” in the various states. Change makes some people nervous or anxious. Building a base of support for a social movement mobilization by constructing fears of a serious threat is very effective, according to Charles Tilly. It is the perception of the threat that matters, not the reality, although both can exist simultaneously. This phenomenon is known within sociology as the Thomas Theorem, which states that situations defined as real are real in their consequences.
The late scholar Jean Hardisty, the founder of Political Research Associates, argued in 1995 that this situation resulted from a confluence of several historic factors:
- white racial resentment and bigotry;
- a conservative religious revitalization of the Christian Right;
- economic contraction and restructuring via “Free Market” neoliberalism;
- organized right-wing backlash movements–involving gender, race and class–generating widespread cleavages and social stress; and
- a network of foundation-funded national and grassroots right-wing organizations.
“Each of these conditions has existed at previous times in US history,” wrote Hardisty. While they usually overlap to some extent, they also can be seen as distinct, identifiable phenomenon.” Hardisty concluded that “in this period they not only overlap, but reinforce each other. This mutual reinforcement accounts for the exceptional force of the current rightward swing.” I explained this in my recent article, “‘Trumping’ Democracy: Right-Wing Populism, Fascism and the Case for Action,” published in PRA’s magazine, the Public Eye (12/12/15).
Law Enforcement Cover-Ups of Misconduct or Misfeasance
Some of the anger on the political right is shared on the political left and stems from the longstanding and growing political repression of dissent in the United States by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Repression often spawns coverups of official misconduct, which can occur when the targets are on the left, right or are non-ideological suspects. There is a long and tawdry tradition of the “Thin Blue Line” standing together to cover up inappropriate or criminal behavior.
While in Chicago, I helped start a legal newsletter on police misconduct that grew out of the corrupt practices of the city of Chicago police and the country sheriffs. Both were complicit in setting up the execution of radical activist and Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton and others in a raid predicated on a false report from an FBI informer about illegal gun possession–part of the massive, secret and illegal FBI COINTELPRO operations from 1956 to 1971. (This is detailed in the book The Assassination of Fred Hampton by attorney Jeffrey Haas.)
Federal authorities tried repeatedly to sweep under the rug their errors in handling the deadly raid on the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge and the disastrous handling of the Waco standoff. This incensed activists in the Patriot and Militia movements, and convinced Timothy McVeigh, a Patriot tuned neo-Nazi, to punish the government by bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
As detailed in the book Patriots, Politic, and the Oklahoma City Bombing by sociology professor Stuart A. Wright, federal authorities mishandled a probe of a right-wing anti-federal criminal conspiracy prior to the Oklahoma City bombing, and then prematurely gave federal immunity to Michael Fortier, indicted in the bombing plot along with Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. A critical legal analysis of the McVeigh trial details the conspiracy and cites court testimony. A reading of trial transcripts reveals that some witness testimony changed and contradicted itself between the trials of McVeigh and Nichols.
Nichols told his trial attorneys that he was willing to name the other unindicted co-conspirators in the Oklahoma City bombing if the federal authorities would agree to shield him from the death penalty in the federal and state trials. The feds refused and Nichols, in prison for life, remains silent.
Law enforcement cover-ups of misconduct or misfeasance increases the paranoid-sounding conspiracy theories on both the right and left. In addition, there is ample evidence of historic law enforcement collaboration with right-wing movements to target left-wing movements. This is detailed in two books by Frank Donner: The Age of Surveillance: The Aims & Methods of America’s Political Intelligence System, and Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America.
One problem of the 24-minute online news cycle is that too often the first content spotlights the unverified claims of the protagonists in an unfolding drama, which sets the dominant narrative in their favor. That’s what happened in the Oregon Standoff story. Early sympathy for the supposedly beleaguered heroic ranchers often was based on shallow, ahistorical reporting, as detailed in FAIR’s early commentary (1/4/16).
New media technologies, however, have real value in covering fast-breaking news. There has also been timely coverage posted in Twitter feeds, especially by Forbes magazine contributor JJ MacNab (aka @jjmacnab) who covered the Patriot scene in 2014 and 2015 from a more conservative perspective. St. Martin’s Press, the publisher of McNabb’s forthcoming book, touts her as “the nation’s leading expert on the various right-wing” movements. This is hype, but her reporting is solid and she is one of a handful of genuine experts, some of whom are mentioned in this article, that span the political spectrum. These experts should be interviewed and their work studied as background for serious reporting.
Between now and the 2016 presidential election, the role of the news media as the Fourth Estate will become increasingly crucial. The advertising budgets for the Republican and Democratic candidates will be huge. Serious reporting, including factchecking advertising claims, will help our buffeted ship of state through to a port where democracy and civil society are valued and have a safe and strong mooring.
Chip Berlet has written about bigotry for over 40 years, much of it while an analyst at Political Research Associates. He is co-author with Matthew N. Lyons of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, and has published scholarly articles on civil liberties, the dynamics of right-wing social movements and fascism. Berlet is collecting additional updated resources online for this story.