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: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
RIP Voicemail?  

Voicemail has got me out of some tight corners, so let's not abandon it

Simon Kelner
A sculpture illustrating the WW1 Christmas Truce football match in Liverpool  

It's been 100 years since the Christmas Truce, but football is still changing the world

Jim Murphy and Dan Jarvis
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there