Since the New Deal, fears of terrorism and subversion have played a central role in U.S. political life. But the ways in which government and media conceive those menaces can change with astonishing speed. Such tectonic shifts usually occur because of the ideological bent of the administration in power. When a strongly liberal administration takes office, it brings with it a new rhetoric of terrorism, and new ways of understanding the phenomenon.
Based on the record of past Democratic administrations, in the near future terrorism will almost certainly be coming home. This does not necessarily mean more attacks on American soil. Rather, public perceptions of terrorism will shift away from external enemies like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah and focus on domestic movements on the Right. We will hear a great deal about threats from racist groups and right-wing paramilitaries, and such a perceived wave of terrorism will have real and pernicious effects on mainstream politics. If history is any guide, the more loudly an administration denounces enemies on the far Right, the easier it is to stigmatize its respectable and nonviolent critics.
It’s difficult to understand modern American political history without appreciating the florid conspiracy theories that so often drive liberals, and by no means only among the populist grassroots. Time and again, Democratic administrations have proved all too willing to exploit conspiracy fears and incite popular panics over terrorism and extremism. While we can mock the paranoia that drives the Left to imagine a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, such rhetoric can be devastatingly effectiveas we may be about to rediscover.
Long before Sept. 11, 2001, America experienced repeated outbreaks of concern over terrorism. In terms of shaping liberal perceptions, the most important was that of the FDR years, when anti-government sentiment spawned a number of extremist organizations. Some were “shirt” groups, modeled on European fascistsAmerica, too, had its Black Shirts and Silver Shirtswhile the German-American Bund attracted Hitler devotees. Isolationism and anti-Semitism drew some urban Irish-Americans into the Christian Front, while the Klan experienced one of its sporadic revivals. Beyond doubt, far-Right extremism did exist, and these movements had their violent side, to the point of organizing paramilitary training. A few plotted real terrorist acts.
But the public response was utterly out of proportion to any danger these groups posed. From 1938 through 1941, the media regularly presented stories suggesting that the U.S. was about to be overwhelmed by ultra-Right fifth columnists, millions strong, intimately allied with the Axis powers. (Actual numbers of serious militants were in the low thousands at most.) Reportedly, the militant Right was armed to the teeth and plotting countless domestic terror attacksbombings in New York and Washington, assassinations and pogroms, the wrecking of trains and munitions plants. Plotters were rumored to have high-placed allies in the military, raising the specter of a putsch. The ensuing panic was orchestrated by newspapers and radio and reinforced by films, newsreels, and comic books. Historians characterize these years as the Brown Scare.
If the more bizarre accusations sound like the common currency of the show trials in Stalin’s Russia in these very years, that is no coincidence. The main exposés of fascist conspiracy emanated from Communist Party journalists like Albert Kahn and John Spivak. (Spivak himself was an operative for the Soviet NKVD.) Charges circulated through Kahn’s newssheet The Hour before being picked up in the liberal press. The Red agenda was straightforward in that the Brown Scare allowed the Left to discredit any opponent of radical New Deal policies. Scratch the surface of any enemy of the Left, they claimed, and you would find a fascist spy, a lyncher, a storm trooper.
Leftist scaremongering worked to the advantage of a Roosevelt White House anxious to promote U.S. intervention in the coming war. The administration supplied many of the leaks that supported the Brown Scare, through Roosevelt aides like Harold Ickes and also the FBI. In 1940, the FBI announced that it had broken what it touted as a looming coup d’état by the Christian Front that would have been accompanied by murders, bombings, and pogroms. Meanwhile, FBI mole Avedis Derounian undertook the research that would lead to his 1943 bestseller, Under Cover, published under the pseudonym of John Roy Carlson. In both cases, however, the terrorist conspiracies were much less terrifying than they initially seemed. Try as it might, the government could never connect the Christian Front plot to more than a couple of dozen activists with no access to significant weaponry. Nor did Derounian’s revelations point to any serious conspiracy, and the government glaringly failed to convict national farRight leaders on sedition charges.
However thin the underlying charges, the Brown Scare clearly helped to promote a New Deal agenda at home and interventionism overseas. For interventionists, the Terror Crisis suggested that fascist powers already were attempting to subvert America, forcing the nation to confront the foreign danger. Above all, the scare provided a powerful weapon for defaming anyone on the Right who opposed FDR’s drift to war. Targets included not only isolationist senators and congressmen but also the potent antiwar organization America First, which drew support from a broad and reputable cross-section of public opinionconservative, liberal, and socialist, Catholic and Protestant. By 1941, though, the antiwar movement was battered by allegations of fascist and anti-Semitic ties. Under Cover portrayed America First as an aboveground front for the most extreme and lethal paramilitary fascist groups. As so often before and since, a burgeoning antiwar movement was crippled by charges that it was covertly allied with the nation’s enemies. So successful was this tarring that in popular memory, America Firsters stand alongside Nazis and Klansmen as traitors, subversives, and bigots. In terms of achieving its goals, the Brown Scare worked superbly.
Such scares have occurred twice since FDR’s dayin the 1960s and again in the 1990s. So similar are these later events that we can offer a kind of historical rule: whenever a liberal administration replaces a long-established conservative predecessor, that change will give rise to right-wing populist and paramilitary movements. And within a couple of years, those movements will provide the basis for grossly exaggerated panic over domestic terrorism.
After JFK’s election in 1960, the devoutly anti-Communist Minutemen took first place in liberals’ demonology. As in the 1930s, the far Right was supposed to be closely tied to out-of-control military officers. Remember fictional treatments of the time like “Dr. Strangelove” and “Seven Days in May”? Once more, too, the supposed threat from far-Right extremism surfaced in mainstream politics, especially during the 1964 elections. Most political observers know that Barry Goldwater was denounced for advocating “extremism in the defense of liberty.” Few know exactly what kind of extremism he was supposedly invoking. The ensuing controversy makes no sense except in the context of the John Birch Society, which was pushing the Republican Party to harder anti-Communist positions, and also the well-armed Minutemen. As in the 1930s, the extremists existed, and some hotheads contemplated violence. But once again, a yawning gulf separated the reality of the threat from the public perception.
The most recent right-wing terror crisis followed Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, when citizen militias attracted hundreds of thousands of sympathizers. Media warnings about armed extremism were already widespread by the time of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, a genuine far-Right atrocity that had nothing to do with the militias. Although neo-Nazi Timothy McVeigh scorned the political and religious values of the militias, they nevertheless bore the brunt of public outrage and media denunciation. Militia numbers swiftly collapsed, leaving only a tiny core, although one would hardly realize this from the press and television coverage of the years that followed.
Between 1995 and 2001, America suffered the Great Militia Panic, when exposés of ultra-Right violence became a media staple. For liberal press outlets, America was facing a clear and present danger from the militias, from Nazis and skinheads, and even from dissident elements within U.S. Special Forces. Liberals accused the anti-Clinton Right of providing extremists with ideological aid and comfort. An impressive outpouring of bookspeaking in 1996warned of an imminent terrorist disaster. Typical titles raised the shadow of America’s Militia Threat, Terrorists Among Us, or The Birth of Paramilitary Terrorism in the Heartland. One book warned of the Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City is Only the Beginning. The news media was open to the most improbable charges of right-wing atrocities. In 1996, television news shows discovered a (wholly spurious) wave of arson attacks in which white extremists were allegedly wiping out the nation’s black churches.
As recently as a decade ago, “terrorism” in the American public consciousness meant, almost entirely, domestic right-wing activism. This was certainly the case in the fictional media, where filmmakers discovered to their cost that any treatment of Muslim or Middle Eastern misdeeds could provoke boycotts. How much easier, then, to choose notorious villains who lacked defense groups and antidefamation organizations. That generally meant white right-wingers. Militias, skinheads, and neo-Nazis became stock villains in the popular culture of the era. On television, countless police and detective shows dealt with ultra-Right villains, who were usually on the verge of releasing weapons of mass destruction against a decent, liberal America too naïve to realize the forces arrayed against it. The high-water mark of fictional far-Right villainy occurred in the 1999 film “Arlington Road,” in which a terrorism expert comes to suspect that his too-perfect neighbors are in fact the masterminds of a deadly fascist conspiracy. (He should have known: after all, they listen to country music.) As the film’s publicity warns, “Your paranoia is real!”
Ideas have consequences, even if those ideas are dreadfully, embarrassingly wrong. In terms of American national interests, by far the worst consequence of the Militia Panic was the massive underplaying of Islamic terrorism in U.S. public discourse and the disproportionate focus on the domestic far Right. Liberal columnists scoffed knowingly at terrorism experts who warned about foreign militants like al-Qaeda, when every informed observer knew that the real menace was internal. That attitude naturally had its impact on policymakers and on intelligence agencies, who recognized just how sensitive investigations of Middle Eastern-related terror plots might be. Those overcautious attitudes go far to explaining the otherwise perplexing neglect of all the blaring alarm bells that the agencies should have heard in the lead-up to Sept. 11.
Belief in the extremist menace also had domestic political consequences. After Oklahoma City, attacks on the political Right helped re-elect President Clinton in 1996 with over 49 percent of the popular vote (up from 43 percent in 1992). When impeachment loomed two years later, it seemed only natural to rally the faithful by invokingwhat else?a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Notably, one prominent Clinton adviser in these years was Harold Ickes, son and namesake of FDR’s Brown Scare hatchet man.
The prospects for a fourth round of panic in the Obama years seem excellent. Militias and rightist groups have never entirely vanishedeven the Minuteman name survives, in the form of anti-immigration vigilantesand they will probably enjoy a resurgence. No less probable is the over-interpretation they will receive from an administration deeply imbued with liberal conspiracy theories. The administration contains plenty of Clinton-era veterans who well recall the triumphant success of the earlier Militia Panic, and this time round, Obama’s ethnicity gives added credibility to charges of racist plotting.
Law-enforcement agencies, too, have everything to gain from a terrorism panic, whether it is rooted in the ideological Left or Right. Agencies usually have wish-lists of laws they would like to see passed to expand their powers, and periods of intense concern over terrorism offer a natural opportunity to get these measures onto statute books. Liberals complain bitterly about the Patriot Act of 2001, but Democratic administrations have also used fears of terrorism and subversion to expand official powers. Sweeping federal gun-control measures passed in 1938 and 1968, during the Brown Scare and the Minuteman era. In 1996, the Anti-Terrorism Act gave federal agencies all the powers they could reasonably have demanded up until then. The existence of such a potent body of laws gives police and prosecutors a strong vested interest in applying the terrorism label as widely as possible in order to secure all possible legal advantages. If public opinion permits, they will assuredly use anti-terrorism laws against unpopular right-wing sects.
Private organizations also provide an institutional foundation for a war on domestic terror. Plenty of liberal pressure groups are only too willing to offer their services in identifying far-Right activists and painting them in the most damaging and alarming colors. Some of the most successful through the years have been the Anti-Defamation League, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), with its affiliated Intelligence Project (formerly Klanwatch). While there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of their convictions, such groups would gain immensely from a new political emphasis on militias or rightist groups. If the government declares a domestic terror crisis, the media will automatically turn to the SPLC, for instance, giving that group added visibility and prestige. For the media, the SPLC and its ilk can be endlessly valuable. They supply convenient maps and lists of militias, broken down by state and region, as well as providing knowledgeable speakers to discuss militia history and ideology. This results in publicity for the group and its causes and encourages public support and donations. If a full-fledged right-wing terror network is not available, such pressure groups have every interest in hyping one into existence.
Paying proper attention to terrorist threats is laudable, whatever their source, and some right-wing extremists have through the years demonstrated their potential for violence: they need to be watched. Yet almost certainly, a renewed focus on the far Right will develop more out of an ideological slant than any reasonable perception of danger. Once again we will be dealing with a groundless social panic of the kind we have encountered so often in the past. Listening to official claims about terrorist dangers in the years to come, we need to exercise real critical skillsand never forget the lessons of history.
Philip Jenkins is a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University and the author of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asiaand How It Died.
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