Anti-Defamation League Special Report
Note: Sidebars and graphics added; not part of ADL report
Introduction: A Year of Growing Animosity
Since the election of Barack Obama as president, a current of anti-government hostility has swept across the United States, creating a climate of fervor and activism with manifestations ranging from incivility in public forums to acts of intimidation and violence.
Hate groups including neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan have grown since Barack Obama was elected president. (Image: NBC News)
What characterizes this anti-government hostility is a shared belief that Obama and his administration actually pose a threat to the future of the United States. Some accuse Obama of plotting to bring socialism to the United States, while others claim he will bring about Nazism or fascism. All believe that Obama and his administration will trample on individual freedoms and civil liberties, due to some sinister agenda, and they see his economic and social policies as manifestations of this agenda. In particular anti-government activists used the issue of health care reform as a rallying point, accusing Obama and his administration of dark designs ranging from “socialized medicine” to “death panels,” even when the Obama administration had not come out with a specific health care reform plan. Some even compared the Obama administration’s intentions to Nazi eugenics programs.
Sidebar: Bachmann: “Slit Our Wrists” (Sept. 2, 2009)
Some of these assertions are motivated by prejudice, but more common is an intense strain of anti-government distrust and anger, colored by a streak of paranoia and belief in conspiracies. These sentiments are present both in mainstream and “grass-roots” movements as well as in extreme anti-government movements such as a resurgent militia movement. Ultimately, this anti-government anger, if it continues to grow in intensity and scope, may result in an increase in anti-government extremists and the potential for a rise of violent anti-government acts.
Part One: Anger in the Mainstream
The rapid growth of anti-government anger in the wake of Obama’s election first became apparent in the spring of 2009, when conservative groups and grass-roots activists organized a nationwide series of anti-government rallies dubbed “Tea Parties.” At these events, and later sequels, anti-government sentiments and conspiracy theories proliferated, with a common theme being that somehow Obama had “stolen the country” from Americans.
Sidebar: Bachmann Heads Teabaggers (Sept. 13, 2009)
Rep. Michele Bachmann speaks at a Tea Party at Lake George in St. Cloud after a town hall meeting, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2009. (Photo credit: Jason Wachter / St. Cloud Times)
More evidence of anti-government animosity appeared in the summer of 2009, when a variety of anti-government protests and disruptions occurred at town hall meetings organized by senators and representatives across the country to discuss healthcare reform. These events became a fertile ground for anti-Obama protests and stunts, with some protesters angrily launching verbal attacks against the president as well as other officeholders. A number of protests explicitly compared the Obama administration and its policies to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
The angry protests at town hall meetings seemed to give a “green light” to expressions of anti-government and anti-Obama hostility, as when South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” to Obama himself during a speech to Congress in September. Tea Party events in September, especially a large rally in Washington, D.C., itself, were characterized by extreme sentiments, including Nazi imagery, racist imagery, and imagery that implicitly or explicitly promoted violence. Other events, such as a “How to Take Back America” conference in Missouri and the rally against health-care reform held by conservatives in D.C. on November 5, 2009, saw similar expressions of anger.
Sidebar: Bachmann Rebuked for Nazi Image (Nov. 12, 2009)
Sign displayed at U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s “House Call on Congress” anti-health care reform rally in Washington, D.C., Nov. 5, 2009. The sign reads, “National Socialist Health Care: Dachau, Germany – 1945.” (Photo credit: Lee Fang / ThinkProgress)
More troubling than general expressions of anti-government hostility or anger has been the proliferation of anti-government conspiracy theories. One of the newest such theories, the so-called “birther” movement, which rapidly spread during and after the 2008 election campaign, targeted Obama himself. “Birthers” claim that Obama is not a legitimate president because he allegedly was not born in the United States (as the Constitution requires), but rather in Kenya. Especially disturbing are the mainstream media figures and politicians who implicitly or explicitly endorse the “birther” conspiracy theory, or refuse to condemn it. Two attorneys, Philip Berg of Pennsylvania and Orly Taitz of California, have been particularly active in spreading the “birther” arguments, as has an on-line right-wing newspaper, World Net Daily.
Though much of the impetus for anti-government sentiment has come from a variety of grass-roots and extremist groups, segments of the mainstream media have played a surprisingly active role in generating such sentiment. Though a number of media figures and commentators have taken part, the media personality who has played the most active role has been radio and television host Glenn Beck, who along with many of his guests have made a habit of demonizing the Obama administration and promoting conspiracy theories about it. Beck has acted as a “fearmonger-in-chief,” raising anxiety about and distrust towards the government.
Part Two: Anger on the Fringe
Further out into the extremist fringe, one person in particular has been responsible for stirring up anti-government and anti-Obama conspiracy theories in the United States. Alex Jones, a Texas-based radio show host, has created a radio- and Internet-based conspiracy-oriented media empire, most of the content of which is devoted to promoting the notion of an over-arching conspiracy by malevolent globalists to take over the world and create a “New World Order” with high-tech slavery. Jones claims that the United States government itself is part of this conspiracy, building concentration camps and preparing to implement tyrannical measures such as martial law and gun confiscation. Jones has been effective in promoting his conspiracy theories and has even appeared on some mainstream media shows.
One of the most disturbing trends in the rise of anti-government animosity in 2009 has been the resurrection and proliferation of anti-government conspiracy theories, many of which had their origins in the early- to mid-1990s. More extreme than “birther” conspiracies, these theories allege dark, violent designs on the part of the federal government to declare martial law and end democratic government, to confiscate firearms from American citizens to render them defenseless, and to build hundreds of concentration camps to house “dissidents and other liberty-loving Americans.” Internet social media, including Web sites such as Myspace, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, have allowed these theories to spread far and wide very rapidly.
Though many anti-government conspiracy theories seem wild and fantastical, anti-government activists may nevertheless act on them as if they were true. The Iowa National Guard experienced this in early 2009 after a planned training exercise was reinterpreted by conspiracy theorists as an exercise in confiscating firearms from American citizens.
Conspiracy theories also play in important role in radicalizing people, drawing them further towards extreme causes, and increasing their willingness to take extreme, even violent, action. A tragic example of this phenomenon occurred in Pittsburgh in April 2009, when a young man, radicalized by anti-government and white supremacist ideologies, especially since Obama’s election, allegedly murdered three Pittsburgh police officers responding to a 911 call.
Rep. Michele Bachmann’s “House Call” protest against health care reform at the U.S. Capitol, Nov. 5, 2009. (Photo credit: Graham Moomaw / The Washington Independent)
Since Obama’s election, an increasing number of people have urged that he and his administration must be resisted. Some groups have even implicitly or explicitly urged armed resistance of some sort. Many of these groups have appropriated an idealized version of Revolutionary War history for their own purposes, stressing the armed resistance of the American colonists to British “tyranny” and suggesting that Americans today should act as their revolutionary forebears did.
Sidebar: Bachmann Call for Armed Revolt? (March 24, 2009)
One manifestation of the ideology of resistance was the creation in March 2009 of the Oath Keepers, an anti-government group that tries to recruit police and military personnel and veterans. Members refuse to obey hypothetical “orders” from the government, “orders” that speak more to their own paranoid and conspiratorial beliefs than to any realistic government action.
The Three Percenters are a loosely organized movement whose adherents portray themselves as modern-day counterparts to Revolutionary-era patriots “committed to the restoration of the Founders Republic” and “willing to fight, die, and if forced by any would-be oppressor, to kill.”
One of the most troubling aspects of the rise of anti-government sentiment in 2009 has been a corresponding resurgence of the militia movement, an anti-government extremist movement that has had a long history of criminal activity and violence. Within the past two years, the movement has almost quadrupled in size, growing to more than 200 groups across the United States. It is also the most receptive audience for the extreme anti-government conspiracy theories and their radicalizing potential. Because of its history of criminal activity, the revival of this movement is of serious concern.
© 2009 Anti-Defamation League. All rights reserved. The Anti-Defamation League is a not-for-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).
Resurgence in part coincides with the arrival of Obama administration
Ray Southwell, left, and Norm Olson, members of the Alaska Citizens Militia, stand by the woods near their home in Nikiski, Alaska, on Sept. 29, 2009. Olson’s militia is small at the moment, but there has been a resurgence of the militia movement nationwide. (Photo credit: Rachel D’Oro / AP)
By Rachel D’Oro
Nov. 20, 2009
NIKISKI, Alaska – Norm Olson’s genial tone belies his reputation as a radical militiaman, yet here he is, at 63, an affable grandfather explaining why Americans should arm themselves against their government.
Walking stick in hand, clad in military fatigues, he strolls a trail in the woods near his home, located on 22 acres near Nikiski, a small, unincorporated community with isolated roads and no local government. The nearest state trooper post is two towns away.
A fellow militiaman, armed with an assault rifle, walks along as Olson – a man whose conspiracy theories were so extreme that he was kicked out of the group he founded, the Michigan Militia, 15 years ago – discourses on the need for a paramilitary Alaska Citizens Militia.
He lays out his ideas about imminent economic collapse and social chaos incited by federal bailouts and other forms of intrusion by a tyrannical government.
Olson’s militia is minuscule at the moment, but there has been a resurgence of the militia movement nationwide, in part coinciding with the advent of the Obama administration. At least 50 new right-wing militia groups have been identified by the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization. All have formed within the last two years, many spreading their speeches and combat exercises on YouTube.
“It’s the response to fear,” Olson says.
Olson lets that sink in. Then he adds: “The federal government can roll into your driveway in the middle of the night and snatch you up and take you away and you’ll never be seen again.”
If the words sound familiar, there is good reason. It is rhetoric that was typical of the so-called patriot movement of the 1990s, amid similar circumstances: A Democrat, Bill Clinton, was in office. There was heightened interest in gun control legislation. Veterans were returning from the first Gulf War. Elaborate conspiracy theories were spreading.
Today’s troubled economy and the perception that other countries are rising in influence might also be fueling activity among white supremacist and militia groups, according to an intelligence assessment by the federal Department of Homeland Security.
A significant difference this time, according to the April analysis, is that the nation has its first black president. “Right-wing extremists,” the report says, “are harnessing this historical election as a recruitment tool.”
There is a violent edge to this movement. Lone wolves and small groups who are “embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat,” according to the report. It cited an April shooting in Pittsburgh that left three police officers dead at the hands of a gunman reportedly influenced by racist ideology and fears that a gun ban was imminent with Barack Obama in charge.
In the first five months of Obama’s presidency, racist, right-wing extremists killed at least nine people, according to Chip Berlet, senior analyst with Political Research Associates, a Somerville, Mass., think tank.
Such attacks are a vent for racial anxiety and outrage at the perceived liberal government by people who feel powerless to reach the political elites, according to Berlet. Instead, they target those within reach.
“It’s a perfect storm for violence,” Berlet said. “You ignore it at our peril.”
But Jonathan White, a professor at Allendale, Mich.-based Grand Valley State University who has done extensive research on violent extremism and terrorism, says most militia members are “rhetoric only” – and that’s where he puts Olson. The danger comes, he said, when these ideologies prompt paranoid “Alamo” groups to gear up for a standoff with the perceived enemy. …
July 26, 2011
Conservative commentator Glenn Beck compared the victims of the shooting spree at a Norway summer camp to Nazi’s youth movement, drawing international ire.
“There was a shooting at a political camp, which sounds a little like the Hitler Youth, or whatever,” Beck said on his radio show Monday, which is broadcast on more than 400 stations.
“I mean, who does a camp for kids that’s all about politics? Disturbing,” Beck said about the Labour Party youth camp on the island of Utoya where 68 people, mostly teens, were killed. …
Former press secretary to Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, Torbjorn Eriksen, swiftly condemned the U.S. broadcaster for his remarks about the Utoya camp.
“Young political activists have gathered at Utoya for over 60 years to learn about and be part of democracy, the very opposite of what the Hitler Youth was about,” Eriksen told the Daily Telegraph. “Glenn Beck’s comments are ignorant, incorrect and extremely hurtful.” …
Eriksen told the Daily Telegraph Beck’s remarks were a “new low” for the former Fox News pundit, who left the network earlier this year after sagging ratings and a litany of controversial quotes. …
Despite his harsh words, Beck actually has some involvement in political youth camps himself. His 9/12 Project — which aims to unite Americans as much as they were on the day following the Sept. 11 attacks — has been running camps for kids this summer. The Utah camp, for example, seeks to provide “heritage-based education for youth, with special focus on the Constitution and the Founding generation.” …
Related reports on this site
Bachmann’s Blooming Paranoia (Oct. 23, 2010)
Bachmann Threatens Witch Hunts (July 24, 2010)
Bachmann and Violent Extremism (March 25, 2010)
MN-06 Endorses Conspiracy Nut (March 22, 2010)
Extremism Explodes in America (March 3, 2010)
Bachmann Conspiracy Nation (Feb. 20, 2010)
Glenn Beck’s Fake Crying Routine (Feb. 15, 2010)
Bomb-Throwing Bachmann (Sept. 18, 2009)
Bachmann’s Census Paranoia (June 27, 2009)
Economy and Obama Volatile Mix (April 16, 2009)
Bachmann Brainwashing Paranoia (April 8, 2009)
Obama, Economy Fuel Hate Groups (Feb. 28, 2009)
Obama Racist Backlash (Nov. 16, 2008)
FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — November 19, 2008
Chuck Hagel and Aubrey Immelman
One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported that U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), at a November 2008 forum at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, leveled harsh criticism at the GOP, the lack of intellectual curiosity among some Republican members of Congress, the Bush administration’s handling of nearly every aspect of governance, and the conservative radio voices that dictate the GOP agenda.
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