In the early 1960s, William Buckley wrote a 5,000-word evisceration of the John Birch Society and its founder, Robert Welch, in the National Review. At the time, the society was a major embarrassment for the respectable right. It called Dwight Eisenhower a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” the same conspiracy that, according to Bircher lore, put fluoride in the water in an attempt to poison Americans.
“How can the John Birch Society be an effective political instrument while it is led by a man whose views on current affairs are, at so many critical points... so far removed from common sense?” Buckley asked. The attack on the Birchers, he wrote later, “proved fatal over time.” After Buckley’s attack, the John Birch Society became unwelcome in mainstream conservative circles.
On the weekly, hour-long Freedom Watch, which began airing in February, Fox gives its imprimatur to the kind of rhetoric once confined to the short-wave radio broadcasts of militia movements.
That is, until recently. On July 1, John Birch Society President John McManus was a guest on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s online-only Fox News show Freedom Watch, which airs every Wednesday at 2 p.m. Their chat was friendly, ranging over the “abominable doctrine of collectivism,” the malevolent influence of “government schools,” and the fraud of manmade global warming. Napolitano seemed to be actively trying to rehabilitate the John Birch Society’s reputation. Untouchable as it once was, the group’s old-right ideology fits well with the tenor of his show, which is full of figures previously dismissed as cranks—not just Birchers but 9/11 truthers and secessionists as well.
The July 1, 2009 episode featuring John McManus of the John Birch Society
In its anti-Obama hysteria, Fox has mainstreamed voices once relegated to the fever swamps. This is most immediately clear in the apocalyptic buffoonery of Glenn Beck, and in the way the network has indulged the delusions of the so-called birthers, who insist that Obama was born in Kenya and thus can’t legally be president. Yet that’s just scratching the surface. On the weekly, hour-long Freedom Watch, which began airing in February, Fox gives its imprimatur to the kind of rhetoric once confined to the short-wave radio broadcasts of militia movements. After eight years of championing increased executive power, the network now hosts a show whose anti-government fixation sometimes leads to cheerful talk of dissolving the United States and dark warnings of impending tyranny.
Putting the show online, says Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at Media Matters, gives Fox the “best of both words. They can really feed the far right all this paranoid stuff, but even folks at Fox realize they can’t go quite that far on TV.”
On the Internet, with fewer people paying attention, they’re willing to go quite far indeed. On March 18, for example, Freedom Watch did a joint broadcast with the prolific conspiracy theorist Alex Jones—or, as Napolitano introduced him, “the one, the only, the great Alex Jones”—so that the show aired simultaneously on the Fox News Web site and on Jones’s radio program. It was an extraordinary collaboration, because Jones is best known as a leader of the 9/11 Truth movement. In his documentary 9/11: The Road to Tyranny, Jones argued that the attacks on the World Trade Center were orchestrated by the U.S. government as a pretext for the “power-mad megalomaniacs” of the New World Order to “usher in their corrupt world government, a world government where populations, their own documents show, will be herded into compact cities, will be issued national ID cards, and yes, even implantable microchips.”
Freedom Watch gave Jones a mainstream venue to warn that the banks had engineered the financial collapse in order to establish a global government that would collect carbon taxes to fuel its evil designs. Rather than challenge him, Napolitano said, “I appreciate what you’re exposing.” There was a time, he continued, “when the types of things that you are warning against were not discussed openly and publicly.” Referring to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s call for a “global New Deal,” Napolitano asked, “What under the sun is a global New Deal unless it consists of the type of thing that you have just warned against?”
To be sure, Napolitano’s profound suspicion of the government has often been a salutary thing. As a commentator on various Fox programs, he was frequently a lone voice objecting to the constitutional trespasses of the Bush years and speaking out against torture. On Monday, he appeared on the network to argue that Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s rights were violated by the policeman who arrested him, a theme he took up again on Freedom Watch on Wednesday. He really does take liberty seriously.
A solidly built, silver-haired former New Jersey Superior Court judge, Napolitano can seem likeable and reasonable in much the same way as his political soul mate Ron Paul, who appears on his show nearly every week. Paul was one of the fiercest, most consistent critics of Bush’s ruinous foreign policy, which made it easy for some to overlook the far-right parts of his ideology. Likewise with Napolitano. He’s considerably less grating and authoritarian than bombastic bullies like Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. Yet in some ways he’s even more radical. By giving him free rein, Fox seems to have decided that with Obama in office, no attacks on government are too outlandish.
On the July 29 episode, Napolitano hosted Sheriff Richard Mack, a popular figure on the militia circuit and a member of The Oath Keepers, a group of military and police officers who have sworn to disobey orders they consider unconstitutional. At times, The Oath Keepers’ subversiveness is almost refreshing. On their Web site is a list of commands they won’t follow, including, “We will NOT obey any order to detain American citizens as ‘unlawful enemy combatants’ or to subject them to trial by military tribunal.” More worrying is their sympathy for secessionist movements, and intimations of a second civil war. Should any state assert its sovereignty, they say, “[W]e will not obey orders to force that state to submit to the national government.”
Secessionism is a frequent theme among Napolitano’s guests. Fox was once the most ardent supporter of expanding government authority. Now, with Freedom Watch, it provides a platform for those who loathe federal power so much they’re willing to see the United States unmade. In a matter of months, outrage over Obama has driven the network to a flirtation with treason.
Thomas Woods Jr., author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History and a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, an Alabama-based think tank, has been a guest on Freedom Watch several times. Woods was a founding member of the neo-Confederate League of the South, and while he vehemently denies any racial animus, he doesn’t deny that he wants to see the United States broken up. “At this point the United States, to me it’s just obvious that it’s completely ungovernable,” he says. “It’s composed of people who have such dramatically different outlooks on the universe, outlooks on the role of government, on social policy, and everybody’s fighting over which nine of us get to make social policy for the entire country.” Woods continues, “I don’t believe the union of states is a god that I worship.”
Other Freedom Watch regulars share his antipathy to the union of the states. Lew Rockwell, the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s founder, is on almost every week. Rockwell, who describes himself as a “libertarian anarchist,” says, “I don’t believe in the nation state. I despise the nation state. I despise nationalism.” His politics mix unfettered capitalism with more than a little sympathy for the old Confederacy. On his Web site, LewRockwell.com, there’s a whole section, titled “King Lincoln,” devoted to articles excoriating the Civil War president.
Rockwell served as Paul’s congressional chief of staff between 1978 and 1982. When news of racist articles in Ron Paul’s various newsletters broke last year, the libertarian magazine Reason fingered Rockwell as the ghostwriter. He denies the charge. “That whole campaign against me was The New Republic, which is a major league war promoter,” he says. “Always in its entire history, they’ve promoted every single rotten war that the U.S. has been engaged in.” Pressed further, he says, “I’ve said all I’m going to say on that topic.”
Before Napolitano’s show started, Rockwell had been invited on Fox News a few times, but always by hosts who were attacking his views on American foreign policy. Now, he’s given a respectful hearing nearly every week. “I guess because their man is not in office, therefore they’re willing to consider dissenting voices,” he says of the network.
On the same March program that Alex Jones appeared on, Napolitano and Rockwell discussed secessionism. “I would love to see a state legislature secede and basically say to the federal government, get the heck out of our state, and see what happens!” said Napolitano. Rockwell replied, “As the crisis deepens, I think we’re going to see that… [W]e’re going to see parts of the United States seceding from Washington, D.C. It’s going to be a great thing.” During the last eight years, Fox News has made a mission of hunting down any hint of anti-Americanism, no matter how subtle or trivial. It no longer has to look very far.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the Worldand Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.