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Late Night FDL: Transmitting Extremism

Aryan Nations Compound, Winter 2000 

 (Tonight’s guest poster is David Neiwert of Orcinus.)

The snow crunched loudly beneath my feet in the winter of 2000 when I walked the short distance from the roadway back to the Aryan Nations compound near Hayden Lake, Idaho. At least, it seemed loud, because the place was so quiet: an eerie quiet, really, considering the noisy gatherings I’d seen here in years past.

There were still plenty of reminders: the large swastika on the roof of one of the storage sheds, the AN shield imbedded in the stained-glass window of the compound’s "church," the high watchtower where armed guards with swastika armbands had patrolled. But they were all gone, this time for good. 

The stillness, more than anything, brought an almost overwhelming sense of relief.  Part of that was the knowledge that the neo-Nazis who had operated the place since the mid-1970s had, finally, been put out of business by the Southern Poverty Law Center. For those of us who had watched a procession of hate and criminality come marching out of the compound gates in the intervening years, it was a moment that couldn’t have come too soon.

In a sense, it represented the end of an era for white supremacy. But it hardly meant the end of it. Whatever relief we may have felt, it was tempered by that knowledge.

The compound represented an era when white supremacists were relegated to the fringes of American society. And while their tireless efforts to promote racial hatred were now muted, their simultaneous efforts to gain mainstream acceptance — particularly by disguising themselves and muting their core beliefs — had obviously begun to take root.

What was most disturbing was, even in 2000, the way the mainstream conservative agenda was beginning to resemble the politics of longtime racists like David Duke and Richard Butler, the Aryan Nations leader: bashing welfare recipients, attacking affirmative action, complaining about "reverse discrimination," calling for the elimination of immigrants. Since then, this trend has only accelerated, to the point that old-fashioned haters like Duke and the National Alliance are finding their ranks thinned by followers who just become Republicans.

Conservative-movement bloggers have not only played a critical role in this trend, they have proven to be the most reliable way of transmitting ideas from the racist far right by repackaging them in mainstream clothes, and even worse, generating sympathy for racist beliefs. This is why, as Atrios suggests, so much of the right blogosphere has the appearance of a "racist freak show."

Even before there were blogs, however, it had become clear that white supremacy was finding ways to creep back into the mainstream. This was particularly evident in the popularity of the so-called "militia" (or Patriot) movement of the 1990s, which was a direct offshoot of the Aryan Nations’ "Christian Identity" belief system, which promoted the notion of seemingly mainstream "Christian Patriots" as their ideal followers.

I had occasion over the years to talk with a number of these "Christian Patriots," and was struck by their seeming normalcy. As sociologist James Aho demonstrated in the stereotype-busting text The Politics of Righteousness, most of them were reasonably well educated (if narrowly so; humanities education was notably lacking) and lived as most of us do: in suburban neighborhoods, raising kids, paying taxes, voting, attending the PTA. Their racist beliefs were something that came out only when you began asking the right questions.

Beyond this core, many of the recruits for the Patriot movement were strikingly similar: deeply conservative, susceptible to conspiracy theories, and hateful of the very idea of liberalism. Many of them rejected racism and white supremacy, at least overtly; and they rejected the notion that they were being recruited into a movement with racist roots and intentions, especially since these realities were well disguised.

The same phenomenon can be observed in today’s Minutemen, only on a massively broader scale, and perhaps more importantly, with the blinkered cooperation of the mainstream press, which has continually failed to explain to readers its permeation by racist elements, beginning at the top. 

The main mechanism for converting mainstream conservatives into right-wing extremists and white nationalists is a process I call transmission: extremist ideas and principles are repackaged for mainstream consumption, stripped of overt racism and hatefulness and presented as ordinary politics. As these ideas advance, they create an open environment for the gradual adoption of the core of bigotry that animates them.

This strategy was first enunciated by Patrick Buchanan back in 1989, in a nationally syndicated column that expressed a level of kinship with David Duke, who at that point was building momentum in a bid to win the Louisiana governorship. Buchanan thought the GOP overreacted to Duke and his Nazi "costume" by denouncing him; he urged:

Take a hard look at Duke’s portfolio of winning issues and expropriate those not in conflict with GOP principles, [such as] reverse discrimination against white folks.

It was a simple formula: Look at the issues that attract white supremacist votes, strip out the racism (or anything inimical to good public relations for the GOP) and present them to the public as fresh, "cutting edge" ideas. In the process, you’ll attract a lot of middle-class white voters who harbor unspoken racial resentments.

Back when Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations operation was being shut down, I interviewed Michael Barkun, one of the nation’s leading experts on Christian Identity, and he predicted that this trend would become more common as traditional white-supremacist organizations fell by the wayside. "Obviously, Butler is just about the last of his generation and certainly the group by all appearances seems to be moribund," Barkun told me. "In a sense, while it has a high public profile, it is in many respects the old order, and in that sense the victory may not mean a huge amount, because I suspect that the problems are going to come from groups that are much more adroit in the managing of their public image than Aryan Nations ever was."

As I observed previously, the nature of Butler’s demise — through his culpability for others’ actions — forced the radical right to go in two different directions, according to Barkun, since the success of groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center at driving outfits like his out of business "puts even more pressure on the organized groups to distance themselves from culpability, and therefore have no organization at all or radically decentralized organizations, or organizations that look to be simply avenues for presenting their views to the public.

"One way of protecting yourself was to advocate leaderless resistance, and another was to take the kind of position that Butler and his fellow defendants did at Fort Smith, saying, ‘All we’re doing is presenting opinions, and therefore we can’t be held accountable. This is all either protected speech or free exercise of religion.’ So I think that these groups will go in one of two directions — they will either fragment into small cells that are even more difficult to trace and monitor, or they’re going to try to look like interest groups and therefore claim that whatever they’re doing constitutes not the advocacy of violence but simply the expression of ideas."

As Max Blumenthal explained in some detail recently in The Nation, the increasing reliance of the mainstream right on repackaging old racist-right appeals has forced those traditional racists to amp up their appeal in new directions: 

Back in those good old times, in 1982, explaining the Klan’s anti-immigrant advocacy, Duke said, "Every new immigrant adds to our crime problems, our welfare rolls and unemployment of American citizens…. We are being invaded in the southwest as if a foreign army were coming over the border…. They’re going to take more and more hard-earned money from the productive middle class in the form of taxes and social programs." And Duke called for the deportation of all undocumented immigrants and harsh penalties for businesses that employ them. "I’d make the Mexican-American border almost like a Maginot line," he said, referring to the militarized barrier France constructed between itself, Italy and Germany after World War I.

At the time, Duke was widely dismissed as little more than a turbo-charged version of the paranoid style–"the Klan’s answer to Robert Redford," as reporter Patty Sims described him in 1978. But today his anti-immigration rhetoric sounds not so remote from one of top-rated CNN host Lou Dobbs’s fulminations during his daily "Broken Borders" segment. Duke’s Klan Border Watch, meanwhile, served as the forerunner and inspiration of the Dobbs-touted Minutemen groups that have proliferated from the Mexico border to Herndon, Virginia, the city that hosted the American Renaissance conference, where disgruntled locals hold regular protests outside a day-labor center. Under pressure from Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, chair of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, and with sponsorship from House Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner (tough-talking heir to the Kotex fortune), the Republican-dominated House has approved a bill that makes it a felony to be in the United States illegally, mandates punishment for providing aid or shelter to undocumented immigrants and allocates millions for the construction of an iron wall between the United States and Mexico. Duke may have fallen short on the national stage, but his old notions have gained a new life through new political figures.

"Tancredo, he’s pretty good. I would probably vote for him for President," Duke told me.

For self-proclaimed white nationalists, however, the mainstreaming of some of their ideas has created new challenges. "Immigration was the white nationalist movement’s hot issue, but it’s really left beyond them," said Devin Burghart, director of the Building Democracy Initiative at the Center for New Community, a Chicago-based civil rights group. "They’ve gone through this before, where they’ve had to reinvent themselves. Now, they’re searching for a new issue to take them forward."

Right-wing bloggers have played a central role in this, but in a way that reflects the extent to which they are simply another cog in the conservative-movement propaganda machine. Carefully examing how the right blogosphere operates, as such, reveals important truths about the nature of the larger movement.

So let’s take a good look at how it’s structured. The first thing you’ll notice is that right-wing bloggers are generally careful to never express any overt or naked racism. Instead, what they do is act as a transmitter, taking an old far-right appeal or idea and present it as a fresh, if "politically incorrect," way of thinking.

Michelle Malkin — certainly one of the leading lights of the right-wing blogosphere — provided us with a vivid example of this in a recent column, with a charge that she later repeated on national television and on her blog: 

Aztlan is a long-held notion among Mexico’s intellectual elite and political class, which asserts that the American southwest rightly belongs to Mexico. Advocates believe the reclamation (or reconquista) of Aztlan will occur through sheer demographic force. If the rallies across the country are any indication, reconquista is already complete.

But as Alex Koppelman at Dragonfire pointed out:

You might expect Malkin to give her readers some evidence that Aztlan really is "a long-held notion among Mexico’s intellectual elite and political class," but she never does.

Why? Because Aztlan and reconquista these days aren’t, for the most part, ideas held by Mexicans: they’re ideas held by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. The myth of reconquista stems from a misreading of one of the founding documents of the Chicano movement, "El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan."

In much the same way that the Black Power movement meant the words "Black Power" in a metaphorical sense, that is, as a call to African-Americans to recognize after years of being stigmatized that they too were people with something to contribute to society, "El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan" was an appeal to nationalism as a means to achieve a greater self-awareness and self-esteem.

But that’s not the way some white supremacists, fearful of a brown mass ready to take over the United States, has interpreted it.

A simple Google search shows that the people talking about Aztlan and reconquista are predominantly not Mexican (though there are some radical fringe groups) but white supremacists.

Malkin, in truth, was simply following in the footsteps of the most prominent right-wing blogger, Instapundit Glenn Reynolds, who for several months in 2004 was likewise promoting the "reconquista" notion while arguing, groundlessly, that the student organization MEChA was a pack of "fascist hatemongers" comparable to the Klan.

But in Malkin’s case, the thread from far-right extremism to mainstream consumption is especially pronounced, since she herself has a considerable history of dalliances and associations with extremists and far-right organizations, most notably VDare, the SPLC-designated hate group that publishes not just Malkin’s work but that of Steve Sailer and Jared Taylor.

Malkin, of course, has never explained her association with VDare, just as Reynolds never recanted his groundless smearing of MEChA. Similarly, they never confront the effects of their reliance on old appeals from the far right, because that would undermine the whole enterprise.

Rather, they trot them out for consumption and play coy about any of the deeper implications of what they’re saying. Then, they leave it up to their readers to complete the connection.

Thus, the editors at sites like Little Green Footballs, Free Republic, or RedState provide few substantive instances of outright racism — but plenty of examples of repackaged extremism. Their commenters, however, are another story altogether; as we’ve seen, their audiences are all too glad to revel in the underlying bigotry.

The end result is a poisonous environment in which not merely the ideas, but the endemic attitudes and worldview, of the racist right receive not just fresh clothes but a whole new generation of adherents. This is why, for instance, so much naked eliminationism aimed not just at illegal immigrants and Muslims but, generically, "treasonous" American liberals has become inextricably interwoven with right-wing rhetoric in recent years.

The old way of the neo-Nazis gathered in remote woods and burning crosses has, thankfully, mostly melted away with the crunching snow. But the residue that has remained, unfortunately, is much more difficult to confront because it is far less obvious. And this, in truth, makes it potentially much more dangerous for us all.

Previous posts in the series:

Educating Wolfie by Pam Spaulding 
Right Wing Racism: Steve Sailer by Armando
Let’s Go Real Far Right… by Matt Stoller

Matt O. over at The Great Society has been compiling racist quotes from right-wing websites.  It is quite a resource.

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David Neiwert

David Neiwert

David Neiwert is the managing editor of Firedoglake. He's a freelance journalist based in Seattle and the author/editor of the blog Orcinus. He also is the author of Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community (Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, June 2005), as well as Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America (Palgrave/St. Martin's, 2004), and In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999, WSU Press). His reportage for on domestic terrorism won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000.