Town-hall protesters may say they’re angry about health-care plans, but their battle cries echo those of the militias that terrorized America in the '90s.
In the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Americans began organizing against what they believed was imminent totalitarianism. They saw the president as a criminal and a traitor, and they regularly compared him to Hitler. They stocked up on weapons and warned that gun control was merely the first step toward mass enslavement. They broadcast warnings about FEMA-built concentration camps and spoke of the coming of a new civil war.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the current militia resurgence and the ’90s version is that racial grievance now plays a much more explicit role.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because the militia movement is back. “Almost a decade after largely disappearing from public view, right-wing militias, ideologically driven tax defiers and sovereign citizens are appearing in large numbers around the country,” says a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The report cites one law-enforcement-agency estimate that 50 new militia-training groups have appeared in less than two years. It quotes a federal law-enforcement official saying, “They’re not at the level we saw in ’94-’95. But this is the most significant growth we’ve seen in 10 to 12 years. All it’s lacking is a spark. I think it’s only a matter of time before you see threats and violence.”
This is the context in which the furious outbursts at health-care town halls should be understood. “I think things clearly have gotten worse even in the last couple of weeks,” says Mark Potok, a staff director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Legally or not, we have angry people with guns showing up at town-hall meetings with U.S. congressmen. It’s quite astounding. While these people aren’t necessarily directly connected to militias, they are operating on the basis of essentially the same ideas.”
This obviously does not mean that everyone who protests the Democrats’ plans for a health-care overhaul is a militia type. It simply means that the rhetoric dominating the protests comes straight out of the militia milieu. The militia movement was convinced that sinister elites were plotting to force murderous collectivism on an unwilling populace. They hated a federal government that they saw as being in thrall to foreign agents. The town-hall mobs’ cries about standing against despotism, their warnings of mass euthanasia, and their red-faced excoriations of the president owe much more to longstanding tropes of the far right than to anything contained in actual health-care bills.
There’s nothing, for example, in any version of health-care plans to support rumors of “death panels.” But they echo notions from militia culture. “There was a militia in Montana [in the 1990s] that said the government, in league with the New World Order, was devising and was going to implement a system in which human beings in the United States were going to be divided into seven classes,” says Potok. “One of those classes would be people permanently put on life-support systems so their organs would be harvested for the children of the elites.”
“This anger that you see taking place at town halls, this is similar to what we saw in the early ‘90s when these common-law courts would convene,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, and a former police officer who often consults with law enforcement. So-called common-law courts were fixtures of the militia movements; they were set up by people who claimed to be “sovereign citizens” free from federal jurisdiction. Their ideology presupposed that the federal government had become evil, dictatorial, and illegitimate—and that it was close to cracking down on ordinary, patriotic Americans.
One can hear the same terror in the voices of town-hall protesters railing against government plans to “put them down.” “These people have come to believe, aided and abetted by certain mainstream commentators, that the United States is on the brink of martial law, that 'socialism' is about to take over the country,” says Potok. “People have been frightened to the point where they’re willing to arm themselves and talk about revolution.”
Outbreaks of this sort of thing often happen when conservatives are out of power. With Republicans in office, the right wing doesn’t generally mind expanding government. During the Bush years, the dominant movements on the right were neoconservatism and a nationalist evangelical Christianity that was more interested in merging with the government than overthrowing it. Now, with the Obama administration, we’re seeing the emergence of an older, perennial style of American reaction that often accompanies periods of liberal ascendancy. It is isolationist and defensive, paranoid about government, and prone to conspiracy theories about subversive global elites.
“It helps to step back and see the militias as a particular manifestation of a form of right-wing populism known as the Patriot movement,” says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a think tank that studies the right wing. “The Patriot movement has been around a long time. Probably the best-known precursor in recent times was the John Birch Society, which was big in the '60s. They made pretty much all of the claims you’re hearing now—tyranny, income tax as socialism, the United Nations, gun control. There’s nothing new in any of this except the Obama birth-certificate stuff.”
And even that has precedents. With FDR, Berlet points out, there were rumors that his name was really Franklin Delano Rosenfeld. “The idea that aliens are secretly taking over—it’s the same narrative writ much larger [now] because of white fear.”
Race adds a particularly combustible element to the mix. “A key difference this time is that the federal government—the entity that almost the entire radical right views as its primary enemy—is headed by a black man,” says the Southern Poverty Law Center report. “That, coupled with high levels of non-white immigration and a decline in the percentage of whites overall in America, has helped to racialize the Patriot movement, which in the past was not primarily motivated by race hate.”
Essentially the anti-immigrant movement, the Patriot movement, and old-fashioned Dixiecrat racism are all merging. “The fast growth of the militias is troubling, but it’s in the context of something that’s more broad, and that’s in some ways more troubling,” says Levin. “This underlying stuff—whether it’s manifested at town halls, manifested on talk radio, manifested by lone wolves, it’s all part of a spectrum of the same phenomenon.”
In the past, the combination of fury, dispossession, wild suspicion, and weaponry has led to serious violence, and few who study the right wing expect things to be different this time around. “I’m not sure we’re at the same point we were right before the Oklahoma City bombing, but certainly things are continuing to heat up and could really become explosive,” says Potok.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and 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.