Only a fool would try to foretell the course of U.S. politics a few months in advance, let alone several years in the future. The fact that Democrats are riding high after their electoral triumph last November does not necessarily mean that they will win the White House in 2008. But just suppose that January 2009 opens with a new Democratic president. What can we predict about that new regime, and what, if anything, can we do right now to prepare for those events?
I would suggest one near certainty: Around 2010-11, the United States will be facing a florid national panic over right-wing militias, paramilitary groups, and domestic terrorists. Such a prediction extrapolates plausibly from American political history over the past century. Whenever a long-established Republican regime is replaced by a liberal Democratic successor, concern about rightist militias and paramilitaries normally surfaces within two or three years, especially when the nation faces grave external dangers.
Such a sequence has occurred repeatedly. In the mid-1930’s, the extreme-right mobilization took the form of “shirt” groups inspired by Italian or German fascism, movements such as the Silver Shirts, the German-American Bund, and the Christian Front. Two years after JFK stole the presidency, the media were presenting dire warnings about the Minutemen, ultrarightists who reputedly had close ties with the military. The first Clinton term was marked by a national scare over militias and assorted Patriot groups, such as the common-law courts. That particular concern peaked after the Oklahoma City bombing, and, through the late 1990’s, the neo-Nazi terrorist became a staple villain of films and television series.
It is not too difficult to understand why rightists and conservatives should feel deeply nervous about such a transition of power, and bitter electoral conflicts regularly produce charges that a new regime might betray the nation to her external foes. FDR recognized the Soviet Union; JFK apparently betrayed the Cuban anticommunists; and Clinton—well, Clinton was Clinton. Paramilitary movements are deeply rooted in American history and political culture, since long before the time of the original Minutemen, and so are ideas of resistance to government. In areas of the Northwest, for instance, we easily trace a continuity over decades and generations, as former Silver Shirts became Minutemen leaders, and their sons and grandsons led militias and organized common-law courts.
A similar pattern might very well recur, particularly if a Democratic administration were seen as being soft on terrorism and Islamic dangers—if, for instance, the new political order severely restricted the right to hold and interrogate terrorist suspects. We can only hope that the next Democratic president will be a profoundly religious person: She—or, conceivably, he—will have to pray every night that another September 11 does not occur on the Democratic watch, or the political consequences will be frightful. The spur to militia organization would be all the greater if any new attack could plausibly be connected to failures of immigration control—if, for instance, terrorist cells entered the country via Mexico. Any linkage between the issues of terrorism and immigration would be deadly dangerous for liberals.
Rightist paramilitary movements are authentically a feature of the U.S. political landscape; but so are politically induced panics that vastly exaggerate the scale and danger of such groups. Such panics are invaluable in tainting mainstream conservatives, by falsely linking them to violence or racist extremism. If communists are undermined by Red Scares, then the right has repeatedly been subjected to Brown Scares, in which activists are linked to terrorists and foreign spies. FDR succeeded superbly in manipulating publicity about the domestic far right of his day to present all opponents as Nazi stooges, awaiting their opportunity to stage a putsch in Washington. And his efforts paid rich dividends in promoting the U.S. entry to war: Who, apart from Nazi puppets, could conceivably oppose his policies? In their respective eras, JFK, LBJ, and Clinton all painted conservatives as crypto-extremists. Barry Goldwater, of course, was a threat to liberty because he was somehow affiliated with Birchers and the even darker paramilitary forces further to the right. In the 1990’s, the post-Oklahoma City militia scare contributed mightily to winning Clinton his second term.
Conspiracy paranoia about the far right is thoroughly embedded in the DNA of the American left, and that quality is greatly magnified by the contemporary culture of blogging and the internet. Just think of the September 11 conspiracy theorists, who see the World Trade Center attacks as a modern-day Reichstag Fire.
We can also predict how these revived militias will be treated by the media. Fed constant stories by the White House and by activist groups, television programs will soon be telling us incessantly about the vast networks of racists and antisemites endangering this country. I would like, here and now, to patent the label “The American Al Qaeda,” which should be entering circulation ere too long. Does the Southern Poverty Law Center already have its antimilitia jeremiads drafted?
Adding to the combustible political mix would be a type of individual who will shortly be receiving disproportionate attention—namely, the angry and disaffected Iraq War veteran determined to avenge the betrayal of his cause and his comrades in Baghdad. All good Brown Scares need to imagine trained berserkers willing to undertake the wishes of the vast right-wing conspiracy.
Once the conspiracy theory is in place, it can be used to discredit any conservative cause or movement, from opposition to immigration to support for gun-owners’ rights. This time, though, one thing will be different: The Justice Department will have at its disposal all the antiterrorist and antisubversive laws passed to combat Islamic terrorism, and it will have no hesitation about deploying them against domestic opposition. Generally, the situation for civil liberties looks alarming. Fortunately, though, I am just a fool.