Rupert Cornwell: The right-wing crackpots taking over the mainstream

Out of America: The resurgence of militias and race-hate groups at the same time as President Obama's healthcare reforms are coming under attack may not be mere coincidence

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner - Night Shift

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A leading Leicestershire based chilled food ma...

Ashdown Group: Senior Accountant - ACCA, ACA or ACMA - Construction Sector

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Accountant (ACCA, ...

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Executive - PR and Broadcast - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has an exciting op...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor - Shifts

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This European market leader for security...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I'd champion the young and hold a cabinet meeting on top of Ben Nevis

Bear Grylls
 

i Editor's Letter: The five reasons why I vote

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot