Two apparently unrelated pieces of news caught my eye last week. One you simply couldn't avoid – the spate of unruly town hall meetings over President Barack Obama's still unfinished plans for healthcare reform. How can people get so steamed up over so abstruse a subject, especially when just about everyone agrees that change is essential?
The other was a fascinating study by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the respected organisation that monitors America's extreme right, suggesting a resurgence of fringe militias and racist hate groups. Pure coincidence? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.
The hate groups are by definition loathsome. But it's easy to laugh at the far-right militias, with their crackpot theories about secret government plans to lock the citizenry up in camps and place the country under foreign control, and dismiss this as the harmless fantasising of a few wingnuts, a distraction from the Islamic terrorism that really does want to destroy the US. The fantasising, however, wasn't so harmless when people of that mindset bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children.
Thereafter things quietened down. Criminal prosecutions sapped the strength of an extremist movement already uneasy at the violence it had unleashed, and the angry public backlash. Then the Democrat Bill Clinton left office, replaced by a conservative and unabashedly America-first president, who did not hide his disdain for the UN and all things multilateral.
But now the tide seems to be turning again. The fanatical ultra-right is usually considered as two, sometimes overlapping parts: the hate groups out to destroy, and the "patriots" who believe they are saving the country from itself. The SPLC reckons that the number of hate groups has jumped by 50 per cent since 2000, to 900 or more. Meanwhile 50 new militias have been formed since 2007 alone, according to one government estimate. Threats against judges and prosecutors have doubled in the past six years. The militia groups may not be as menacing as they were in the mid-1990s. But they're getting there. One federal law enforcement official quoted by the SPLC says: "This is the most significant growth in 10 or 12 years. All that's lacking is a spark. It's only a matter of time before the threats turn into violence."
They already have. Some incidents have made international headlines, like the shooting of abortion doctor George Tiller at his church in Wichita, Kansas, in May, or the murder of a guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington a few days later by a white supremacist. Others are less well known but if anything more alarming: for instance the killing of three police officers in Pittsburgh in April by a man who believed in a "Zionist occupation" of the US.
Meanwhile, America's gun culture (in which, it goes without saying, the far right is steeped) is thriving, as evidenced by the sudden shortages of ammunition, about which I wrote a few weeks ago, when gun-owners stocked up for fear a new "liberal" administration would clamp down on their weapons. If one lobbying group is on a roll these days, it is the National Rifle Association.
The overall pattern should be no surprise. As one SPLC official puts it, every element is in place for a "perfect storm" of home-grown extremism. For the first time, the detested federal government is run by a black man. A struggling economy fuels discontent, with illegal immigrants accused of stealing American jobs. The military, long a breeding ground of the far right, is sending home veterans in vast numbers. Finally there is the internet, which simultaneously propagates and intensifies the feelings of true believers – and the conspiracy theories they devour.
The US has always had a taste for conspiracy theories, but rarely as now. The place is awash with them – from the "birthers" who defy incontrovertible evidence to claim that Obama was not born on US soil in Hawaii (and thus is disqualified from being President), to nativists convinced that Mexico is planning military action to seize the south-west of the US.
Conservative radio luminaries like Rush Limbaugh have long spouted such stuff. The difference now is that presenters on "mainstream" cable TV, fighting to improve their ratings, do so as well. They wouldn't be peddling this nonsense if no one was listening.
Now it's a huge leap from public healthcare meetings and intricate discussion of a government-run option to challenge private insurers, to militiamen in remote training camps honing skills needed to survive the "New World Order" or stop the US surrendering its birthright to Canada and Mexico in a "North American Union". But common threads links them: a suspicion and fear of anything that smacks of bigger government, and a sense that the American way no longer has all the answers.
As Charles Grassley, Iowa senator, moderate Republican and epitome of Midwestern level-headedness, put it at a town hall in his home state last week: "People are scared for the country, not just about healthcare. They feel things aren't going in the right direction." He was speaking, it might be added, in Winterset – birthplace of the actor John Wayne, unscareable emblem of the American way, but now just another town in the Iowa heartland, uncertain of what the future holds.
Heathcare reform is now squarely in the sights of the "Tea Party Coalition", an anti-tax, anti- federal spending alliance that has blossomed since Obama's election, amid the proliferation of government bailouts, the ballooning of the federal deficit and the inescapable truth that taxes will have to go up to pay for it all. So might not elements even further to the right enter the fray – "sovereign citizens" who believe they are above the law, or the new "Oath Keepers" movement, of soldiers and police officers past and present, who believe their duty is to the constitution, not to elected politicians? Perhaps the healthcare rallies and the SPLC report were no coincidence, after all.