Somewhere back in February, about three weeks into the Obama Administration, everybody on the left suddenly noticed that there was something different going on with the conservatives. The outrageous screeds and paranoid delusions sounded pretty much as they always had — but there was a new fury behind them, a strident urgency that hadn’t been there before, and a very audible shift of the gears in right-wing behavior and rhetoric. None of this came as a surprise to veteran right-wing watchers — we’d been predicting a bad backlash since the 2006 election — but three months into the new administration, it’s increasingly hard to ignore the fact that this ominous new trend is taking on a momentum of its own.
On April 7, the Department of Homeland Security ratified some of those observations. Fueled by bone-deep racism, an unnatural terror of liberal government, frustration over the economic downturn, and fears about America’s loss of world standing, they said, the militant right wing is indeed rising again. Their numbers are up, their talk is turning ugly, and it’s not unthinkable that we could be in for a wave of domestic terrorism unseen since the mid-90s.
I’ve been meaning for a while to talk about what changed after the Inauguration, and why, and what it means to the country going forward. Our observance of the end of the First 100 Days seems to be a good time to do that.
The DHS report laid out the history and the current drivers in straight factual terms, and made some safe predictions about what might make the situation worse. (Interestingly, the nightmare scenario for most right-wing watchers — a white-hot backlash in the wake of another major terrorist attack — appears nowhere in the DHS assessment. Perhaps they didn’t want to put ideas into paranoid right-wing heads.) But the report stopped short of taking the next step. We need to look at what long experience has taught us about the past escalation patterns of right-wing rhetoric and violence, and figure out where we currently stand within those patterns.
We actually know quite a bit about this. Most national agencies tasked with keeping tabs on political and religious extremist groups look for specific signs that help them sort out who’s just talking the talk, and who’s actually getting ready to walk the walk. The criteria vary from agency to agency; and our collective insight into these patterns changes and deepens every year. But there are some generally-accepted principles — and applying them to the current state of conservatism gives a clearer view what’s changed in the past 100 days, what the shift really means, and what could be coming next if the right keeps going down this road.
I want to make it clear: the DHS report emphasizes that there’s no specific evidence that any particular group is planning any particular action. At the same time, what’s equally clear from the pattern analysis is that the upshift we heard was the right wing going into overdrive — the speed at which talk about revolution (which has been going on for years, but intensified after 2006) accelerates into concrete preparation for action. Here’s why.
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The far right wing has been laying the groundwork for violent action for decades. Long before they turn dangerous, political and religious groups take their first step down that road by adopting a worldview that justifies eventual violent action. The particulars of the narrative vary, but the basic themes are always the same. First: their story is apocalyptic, insisting that the end of the world as we’ve known it is near. Second: it divides the world into a Good-versus-Evil/Us-versus-Them dualism that encourages the group to interpret even small personal, social, or political events as major battles in a Great Cosmic Struggle — a habit of mind that leads the group to demonize anyone who disagrees with them. This struggle also encourages members to invest everyday events with huge existential meaning, and as a result sometimes overreact wildly to very mundane stuff.
Third: this split allows for a major retreat from consensus reality and the mainstream culture. The group rejects the idea that it shares a common future with the rest of society, and curls up into its own insular worldview that’s impervious to the outside culture’s reasoning or facts. Fourth: insiders feel like they’re a persecuted, prophetic elite who are being opposed by wicked, tyrannical forces. Left to fester, this paranoia will eventually drive the group to make concrete preparations for self-defense — and perhaps go on the offense against their perceived persecutors. Fifth: communities following this logic will also advocate the elimination of their enemies by any means necessary, in order to purify the world for their ideology.
All these ideas have been part of the discourse on the right for decades. You can trace their genesis all the way back to the 1950s, starting with the overheated apocalypticism of the anti-Communist movement. Over time, it came to include the dualism of the John Birch Society and assorted white supremacist groups; the persecution complex of Nixon and his Silent Majority followers; the anti-liberal eliminationism that’s been gathering force for the past decade; and the war on evidence-based science and reason that’s always been at the heart of conservative arguments. As J. Peter Scoblic argues in Us vs. Them, narratives that justify violence have always been deeply ingrained in the right-wing belief system.
Since the Inauguration, all of these themes are being played far more loudly and openly. And somewhere between November 4 and this 100th day, the right wing has also begun to act on these beliefs in ways that push the whole process to the next level — the level where thoughts and beliefs begin to crystallize into action.
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What’s different now? Plenty of things — all of which, taken together, strongly suggest a group that’s just about done talking, and is beginning to organize itself to act.
First, there’s been a shift in rhetoric. Over at Orcinus, Dave Neiwert and I have argued for years (with plenty of expert support from social psychologists) that strong words are often a thought rehearsal, a premonition of possible strong action to come. It’s not that people always act on the rhetoric — they don’t. It’s that when the actions do come, you find that there’s usually been plenty of very hot rhetoric tossed around in the run-up, as people psych themselves up for battle.
That’s why agencies watching worrisome groups keep their ears open, and listen carefully for a specific shift in tone. A lot of groups seeking change establish the lines of conflict by constantly naming and accusing their enemies, and insisting on their essential evilness. This isn’t great politics, but it’s not usually a problem — unless it moves to the next stage, where the group starts expressing a clear intention to eradicate those perceived enemies. This can be a signal that they’ve accepted the need for violent action in their own minds, and may be actively planning something. It’s a shift that should never be ignored.
When Sean Hannity runs a poll asking whether his viewers prefer a military coup, secession, or armed rebellion — and armed rebellion wins — that’s evidence of this kind of shift. Right-wing talkers have built careers out of demonizing liberals; but when they start talking about what specific steps should be taken against them, that’s not something we should ignore.
Second, there’s been a quantum leap in the sheer down-the-rabbit-hole surreality of their beliefs about the world. Bloggers have been pointing out for years that conservatives have zero compunction about Making Shit Up; but in the past, their prevarications were almost always built around a kernel of fact, wrapped in thick layers of distortion, misattribution, or lies of omission. What’s new in the past 100 days is that we’re now seeing stories that are just flat-out fabulation, without even so much as a nod to factual reality. They’re not even bothering to try to attach these claims to any kind of truth. Their fantasies are so much truthier to them.
Up is down. Black is white. Obama’s not a citizen, he’s going to take our guns, Congress is about to legalize incest….this we believe, and there’s no expert and no amount of real-world evidence that can ever convince us otherwise. The right wing’s retreat from consensus reality has finally left them living in an Orwellian alternative universe all their own.
Third, they’ve been humiliated by their election losses. And that’s hugely dangerous, because authoritarian leaders react uniquely badly to being humiliated. Experts tell us that their huge egos and insatiable need for control make them very brittle — and that the shattering point is often a specific event that publicly repudiates their authority, or makes it obvious to the world and their followers that they are no longer in control. Decisively losing both the White House and the Congress has been all that, and then some.
This overweening humiliation is growing every day that the Democrats and their new president stay in power. It’s a pain that will not go away, and it’s likely to curdle into something far more venomous in time. The result, unfortunately, is probably going to be more violent attacks on government authority like the one in Pittsburgh last month.
Fourth, there’s that new sense of urgency. Groups heading for violent confrontation are often pushed past the brink by the belief that the apocalypse is unfolding before their very eyes, and that they have no choice but to seize the moment and act. For many on the right, January 20 was the day the trumpet sounded. Obama’s going to turn the country over to the Commies. He’s going to take away your guns. He’s going to open the borders, turn the country into a welfare state, and give all our tax money to lazy minorities. And it’s no idle threat — they’re quite convinced that he’s going to do all this any day now. This panic is new, and it’s palpable. It’s also worrisome, because these would-be revolutionaries have been preparing themselves for years for just this moment.
Fifth, the demagogues have seized conservatism’s center stage. Violent groups typically organize around a leader who promotes the apocalyptic visions, the dualism, the persecution complex, the eliminationist fantasies — and the sense that True Patriots can no longer wait another minute to act. In some groups, this leader exerts total control over every aspect of their followers’ lives, like Koresh and Jim Jones did. In others, the leader is simply a figurehead who puts the ideology out there, leaving the followers to figure out how to implement things on their own. (The followers also bear full responsibility for the results, leaving the leader relatively unscathed.) Osama bin Ladin runs his show this way.
Either way, these leaders are invariably amoral, ego-driven high social-dominance men who gain power by hijacking their followers’ moral systems. When they succeed — which is to say, when they finally override the ethical ballast provided by tradition, customs, laws, and conscience to become the dominant moral authority in their followers’ lives — they can gain a stunning degree of influence, and lead people into doing things they’d never have considered on their own.
The right wing has never been short of these guys. Still, in the past, the paranoid stylings of media ideologues like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck were simply background ranting to the more reality-based lead vocal of the party’s actual politicians. But now the election is over. The candidates have all gone home. And the GOP’s party structure is in tatters. There are no credible political leaders left to drive the conservative conversation. That leaves a power vacuum on the front line that the right-wing hate talkers are now rushing forward to fill.
When Rush Limbaugh is considered the GOP’s spiritual leader and Glenn Beck is its leading prophet, the conservative movement’s entire discourse is now driven by whatever outrageous rhetoric seems most likely to boost Fox’s ratings. The moral hijacking of the movement has begun, and nobody should be surprised when these folks finally end up in the same moral abyss these kinds of leaders always bring their followers to.
Sixth, they’re putting themselves in direct opposition to state power — and identifying that power as their primary enemy.
All groups headed for a violent confrontation eventually come to believe that their enemies are somehow aligned with the government — and the government is out to get them. Conservatives are coming up hard against this one now that they no longer control the government themselves. Back when they were gleefully dismantling the Constitution and building a surveillance state, it never occurred to them that they might someday be out of power. Now, of course, they’re terrified to find all that unleashed, unaccountable power in the hands of Libruls and That Black Guy.
Weirdly, they seem to have almost total amnesia about their role in all this. To hear them tell it, Barack Obama seized all this power for himself in just the past three months. Given that epic memory failure, there’s not much hope that they’ll draw the right lessons from this reversal. It’s far more likely that their newfound terror of government power will lead them to resent — and eventually overreact to — even casual encounters with government authority.
Seventh, they’re arming up. Back in 2006, right-wing watchers warned that white supremacist groups were encouraging their members to join the military in order to get the weapons training they’ll need to execute their racial holy war. And for the first time ever, the recruit-starved military wasn’t doing much to cull them out. The DHS’s concern about returning veterans was no doubt partly based on this recent history, which has given racist groups unprecedented access to propagandize troops at the front.
At the same time, the past 100 days have seen record gun sales and nationwide ammo shortages as terrified conservatives buy up guns in anticipation of a total weapons ban. This seems like just another curious only-in-America news story — until you realize that the far right is already sporting most of the earmarks of a group that’s gearing up for violent action. Given the rest of the pattern, we should take this trend very, very seriously.
Eighth, they’re flexing their muscles. Groups who are flirting with terrorist action will usually start by experimenting with threats and petty violence. Learning that they can successfully intimidate others adds to the group’s sense of invincibility, and teaches them the dangerous lesson that violence works. Both these discoveries increase the chances they’ll resort to violence more quickly, and in greater magnitude, in the future.
The Southern Poverty Law Center carefully tracks hate incidents around the country, and they’ve seen a significant uptick in violence and threats since the inauguration. While we can hope this will die down in time as people make their peace with the new status quo, we also need to be aware that there’s a pattern where things go the other way — that these events will embolden the right to commit bigger acts of thuggery, and organize on a broader scale for actual domestic terrorism.
If our national terrorism watchers were tracking a religious or political group that had suddenly escalated on all eight of these fronts in a matter of three short months, they’d be seriously concerned. They’d be asking the question we need to ask: Now that we’re here, what comes next?
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Let me start this last piece of the discussion with a warning. This isn’t a prediction. It’s just a description of how things typically play out when any authoritarian group arrives at the place where the American right now stands. If they keep going this way, this is where the road leads — but the people now in that movement still have a choice about whether or not they’re actually going to make the trip. If they do, here’s what lies ahead:
Further separation. One of the watershed moments in the development of a religious or political radical group is the day they decide to go upcountry, building some sort of secluded retreat or community away from the prying eyes of the authorities. The Aryan Nations, the Fundamentalist Mormons, Jim Jones….the list is long, because this is such a universal moment in the radicalization process. It’s also the next place the gears shift.
The American right is too big to just all go off into the woods together — but they’re obviously trying hard to retreat from the rest of us in other ways. The complete break with factual reality is one part of this. The growing talk of secession is another overt sign that they’re desperately looking for someplace to escape to.
Given that impulse, it’s very likely that land is already being quietly bought up, and that some people are beginning to plan their moves to various locations around the country where they believe they’ll be safer. It’s not unreasonable to expect that over the next year or two, we’ll start to hear about a new round of separatist compounds; and that a few states will become right-wing havens where secessionist talk will turn more serious.
This is a dangerous development. Groups that try to separate always claim that they’re retreating to “live in peace” — but too often, peace is about the last thing that results from this. Goin’ up to the country is an overt declaration that the group believes that the mainstream culture is “out to get us,” and is now asserting its right to live outside the law. There’s an unquestioned conviction that the outside world means them harm — and that they must organize and arm themselves for the coming showdown.
The isolation also allows high-dominance leaders to concentrate their power over group members, without any pesky social or legal recourse to fairness. Suspicion and dependency flourish. People learn that might makes right, and come to accept violence as a natural and proper way to deal with conflict. This is why law enforcement groups consider the moment of physical retreat as sort of Rubicon beyond which the likelihood of violence increases dramatically. We should be very concerned that the right wing seems determined to go there.
Overt lawlessness. A group that is separated from society, living in its own world, telling itself stories that justify violence, gripped with paranoia, perfectly willing to engage in petty thuggery and intimidation, and armed to the teeth has pretty much everything required to turn into a first-rate criminal cartel. Members come to believe that they answer to a “higher law,” and express that new-found “freedom” by overtly and deliberately defying laws passed by a government they don’t respect as legitimate.
At this point, it’s common to see people who’ve never been in trouble with the law before suddenly coming into contact (and confrontation) with the authorities. Lawlessness is a sign of an increasingly open contempt for and defiance of the larger society — and a hint that that the group is moving into the openly oppositional stance that precedes a large-scale attack or confrontation.
Furthermore: once they get to where they’re brazenly breaking laws, you can bet they’re especially breaking weapons laws. Gathering guns and bomb-making materials is seen as necessary to either defend their home turf from their perceived enemies, or make offensive plans to eradicate those enemies.
Picking fights with authorities. A decade ago, law enforcement and government officials too often blundered into bloody showdowns with radical groups because they simply didn’t understand the central role they played as The Enemy in the group’s unfolding eschatological drama. These days — following several disastrous confrontations in the 1990s — government officials are being trained to move slowly, to avoid backing would-be revolutionaries into humiliating corners, and to work within their worldview and belief structure wherever possible to defuse a possible confrontation.
That’s important, because a group that’s gone all the way to the end of the road arrives at a place where it’s armed, barricaded, mentally and physically prepared, and spoiling for a fight. From that point, any excuse — a routine business inspection, a traffic stop, a custody hearing that didn’t go the right way — can become the catalyst that leads the group to take out after its government persecutors. As the group becomes more dug in and angry, these confrontations become harder to avoid. And all too often, they end in disaster.
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From here, the most likely case is that vast majority of the folks now drunk on right-wing hate talk will ultimately sober up just soon enough not to follow the movement’s emerging leaders down this road. But, if the 1990s were any guide (and the DHS report seems to think that they are), there will also be a small but significant fraction of hardcore right-wingers who will zoom right through the flashing red lights and ride all the way to the bloody end. Without the moderating influence of the saner voices among them, they’ll quickly turn violent — and we could be in for an interesting few years before it all burns itself out.
And, in the end, it probably will burn itself out. In the 1990s, the violence escalated up until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 — an event so gruesome and dramatic that it discredited the movement even among its own followers. Tim McVeigh’s capture and execution also scared tough-talking movement leaders with the threat of real consequences. And so that round ended.
What we’ve seen the past 100 days strongly suggests that, to at least some degree, we will be going there again. The right wing long ago accepted a foundational narrative that justifies violence. Now, the leaders of the movement are inciting their followers to take many (if not most) of the intermediate steps that signal a group actively gearing up for violence. From this point, it’s only a short slide to further separation, disengagement, and finally confrontation. What we’ve seen so far has been intense and surprising — but we should also recognize it as the first warning gusts of a rapidly gathering storm.
Sara Robinson will be on leave for the next few weeks. Her next column will appear the week of May 25.