The Right and the Politics of Rage

Kent Worcester

[from New Politics, vol. 5, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 19, Summer 1995]

Kent Worcester is a member of the New Politics editorial board and the author of C. L. R. James: A Political Biography (SUNY Press), November 1995.

THE CARNAGE OF THE OKLAHOMA BOMBING PUTS A NEW SPIN on what has been called the politics of rage. Before Oklahoma, the most visible expression of the country's march to the right was the construction of a hard Republican majority in Congress. In the wake of Oklahoma, the putschist fantasies of a radical, sometimes "revolutionary" right have come into sharper focus. The bombing not only highlights the dangers posed by domestic neo-fascists, but raises questions about the porous borders dividing mainstream conservatives from the radical fringe. For this reason, the potential significance of Oklahoma is that it represents a rare opportunity to recast the terms of political debate.

The paramilitary unit that took out the main Federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19 had its sights trained, not only on federal agencies, but also on public employees, their children, and passersby whose only connection was their physical proximity. (The fact that many federal employees are African-American or Hispanic is unlikely to have escaped their attention.) The bombers were almost certainly inspired by the Aryan tract The Turner Diaries (1978), which recounts the activities of a racist organization that detonates an ammonium nitrate fertilizer bomb in front of the FBI headquarters just after 9 am. The Order, as they call themselves, intend for the bomb to serve as a wake-up call to white America -- and they succeed, to the point of turning most of the country into a charnel house.

The Turner Diaries offers a particularly grisly example of what has become a genre of books, tapes, tactical manuals, and so on, denouncing the feds, railing against "enemies within," and calling for a "second violent American revolution." Virulent strains of right-wing thought have always enjoyed a presence in American life, but reactionary propaganda has found an especially appreciative audience in the last ten to fifteen years, and particularly since the Democrats recaptured the White House in 1992. Two events -- the immolation of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993, and the siege of the home of tax resister Randy Weaver a year earlier -- have heightened rightist anxieties about an imminent government take-over of arms and private property.

ThE RADICAL RIGHT IS COMPRISED OF AN EMBATTLED SUBCULTURE of fundamentalists and conspiracists conjoined by the usual litany of grievances. Most conservatives broadly sympathize with many of their concerns, but distrust their new world order paranoia and malevolent rhetoric. Radical rightists are also tied together by newspapers (Spotlight, Human Events), organizations (Klan groups, Aryan sects, Reconstructionist ministries), and informal media (fax, internet, short wave radio). The information age has facilitated greater international outreach, while permissive gun laws have allowed racist groups (and extreme anti-abortion groups) to stockpile guns, ammo, and explosives.

The militias are a recent innovation, concocted by savvy political entrepreneurs who have launched themselves as saviors of the Second Amendment with the aid of armed camps of weekend warriors. They provide a context where enraged gun-nuts and credulous Ditto-heads can be inducted into an explicitly racist and supremacist milieu. As a war veteran and foot soldier in the army of white supremacy, Timothy McVeigh attached himself to the militia movement, selling weapons, exchanging information, and gaining reassurance that a massive confrontation was indeed brewing between "patriotic Americans" and an illegitimate state.

What does all of this obsessive madness have to do with today's triumphant conservatism? Absolutely nothing, to judge by responses to Clinton's timid suggestion that "purveyors of hatred and division" fostered a climate that helped facilitate the Oklahoma bombing. George Will found the president's words "contemptible." William Safire said that Clinton was indulging in a "form of extremism." Rush Limbaugh blamed liberals for whipping up "national hysteria." Gingrich, for his part, said that efforts to link his self-proclaimed "revolution" with the Oklahoma bombing were "grotesque and offensive." For these critics, the perpetrators of the Oklahoma attack are merely lawbreakers. "Responsibility rests on the criminals themselves," intoned Safire, "not on chosen motivators or root causes.'"

A more common response has been to attack "extremists on both sides." In this spirit, Jacob Weisberg, in New York magazine, drew parallels between McVeigh and the Weather Underground, and Newt Gingrich and Leonard Bernstein, who hosted a 1970 fundraising benefit for the Black Panthers. Several pundits played up the fact that the northern Californian wood-fetishist Unabomber killed his third victim within hours of the Oklahoma disaster. After chiding the hard right in his New York Times column, A.M. Rosenthal lashed out at his real targets -- "intellectuals of the movie business who make big money portraying America as viciously as any militiaman...lobbyists who cry out that if antiterrorism is tightened, hundreds of thousands of Arab-Americans will be dragged off to concentration camps...[and] the campus Bullies for Hatred across the country."

JUST AS THIS HYSTERIA WAS REACHING A HIGH-PITCHED CRESCENDO, fresh revelations emerged about the real world co-mingling of the radical fringe and more respectable elements. It turned out, for example, that at least two new members of Congress, Helen Chenoweth (Idaho) and Steve Stockman (Texas), are aligned with the militia movement. The Militia of Montana, led by former members of the Aryan Nation, merchandise a video in which Chenoweth explains that more than fifty percent of the United States is under "the control of the New World Order." Along with Stockman and Chenoweth, Senators Lauch Faircloth (North Carolina) and Larry Craig (Idaho), wrote militia-inspired letters to Janet Reno prior to the bombing to complain that nefarious agents of a one-world dictatorship were mobilizing troops and black helicopters against ordinary citizens. Reports have also come out about radio call-in hosts who incite listeners to engage in acts of violence against liberals and public officials. Chuck Baker, Bob Mohan, and other talk show personalities provide listeners with the addresses and phone numbers of radical right groups. G. Gordon Liddy, said to be the nation's second most popular talk show host, gleefully offers on-air suggestions about how to inflict maximum damage against political targets. Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, and others have been regular guests on Liddy's show.

The bombing has brought to light a dense network of racist activists working to restrict immigration, fight gun control, illegalize abortion, and combat federal tyranny. One columnist cited the example of Lawrence Pratt, who heads both Gun Owners of America and the Committee to Protect the Family Foundation, a fund-raising front for Operation Rescue. Pratt regularly speaks alongside Mark Koernke, the notorious leader of the Michigan Militia, and funnels money into the coffers of House member Steve Stockman and other friends of the movement. One of Pratt's collaborators is the survivalist guru Bo Gritz, who characterized the Oklahoma bombing as "a Rembrandt -- a masterpiece of science and art put together." While these people are not as well known as, say, Jesse Helms or Robert Dornan, their strategy of "leaderless resistance" resonates more effectively in some quarters than either Jack Kemp's opportunity conservatism or Gingrich's crackpot futurism.

At the local level, there are a number of causes that blur the distinction between conservatism and right-wing radicalism. One is the anti-gun control movement, led by the National Rifle Association, which has extensive ties to the militia movement. Another is the Wise Use movement, which views private property as sacred and opposes all forms of land use planning. The most significant, perhaps, is the anti-abortion movement. From the 1980s on, militant anti-abortionists have engaged in numerous acts of arson, bombing, intolerable harassment of clinic workers, and even murder. While each of these movements contains a wide range of activists -- most of whom were appalled by the Oklahoma bombing -- each offers critical points of contact between grassroots conservatism and the radical right.

Another key point of contact is the Christian Coalition of Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed, which is currently amassing power within the Republican Party. Fueled by Robertson's theories of a New World Order headed by financiers (who happen to be Jews), the Christian Coalition is working overtime to transform the country into a straight-jacketed theocracy.

The tragedy of Oklahoma is that it took an act of mass murder to show that the right is infested with homicidal crazies who want to turn Patrick Buchanan's "culture war" into a bloodbath. Even now, most pundits, as well as Clinton and the Democrats, view Oklahoma as an aberration, or an opportunity to roll back individual liberties through counter-terrorism measures. The sad fact is that Oklahoma was exceptional only in terms of scale. Placed in the context of escalating levels of anti-abortion clinic violence, and the emergence of a militia movement that has effectively tapped into the politics of vengeance, Oklahoma becomes a potent symbol of the right's capacity to engage in acts of unspeakable barbarism.

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