December 11, 1995 in Nation/World

The Ragged Edge Roots Or Resentment Militant Groups Nothing New To American Political Scene

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Perspective was the hidden casualty of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Suddenly it seemed that a new, paranoid, violent political movement was sweeping America.

Paranoid? Sometimes. Violent? Occasionally. New? Absolutely not.

Anti-government sentiment, the politics of paranoia and the politics of downright hate are as old as the Republic itself.

At its most innocent, the anti-government strain of American politics is simply a desire to be left alone - more specifically, to be left alone to make a living without onerous regulations and taxes.

That’s what 30 or 40 farmers in the Whiskey Rebellion were seeking back in 1794. They didn’t want to pay an excise tax on their distilled products, nor did they believe the new federal government had the authority to collect it.

The rebellion ended in bloodshed during a confrontation with federal agents.

Does this sound familiar?

Devotion to personal liberty and undying opposition to tyranny is a consistent trait in the American character. Many colonists came over to escape governmental and religious tyranny; later, many shed blood to escape British tyranny; later still, many moved West to live free on the land.

The anti-federal government impulse can be seen in many issues throughout the 1800s, including states’ rights and the Civil War.

It took on a new impetus with the passage of the income tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913, and with the tightening of federal gun control in the 1960s.

In the West, distrust of the government has been a particularly common theme.

“The amount of anti-government sentiment is directly proportionate to the amount of your state which is owned by federal land,” says Philip Jenkins, a Pennsylvania State University professor of history and religious studies.

Listen to what a U.S. Forest Service ranger in North Idaho said about the dangers of being a federal agent around 1910: “We had a swarm of timber homesteaders to check on, and most of those so-called claims we knew to be fraudulent, but it was our job to get evidence. In the Little North Fork, Marble Creek and Big Creek, we were extremely unpopular as rangers, and had to use discretion and diplomacy. We never knew when a bullet might meet us in a thicket or on the trail.”

Here’s one of those same timber homesteaders, giving her opinion of federal authority: “They sent out one of these little - we called them patent leather men - from Washington, D.C. Patent leather shoe men that didn’t know a darn thing about timber or living in the woods or even living! And he’d come in and look over your little cabin and say, ‘It’s not a suitable habitation.”’ (Both of these passages are from “Up the Swiftwater,” a history of the St. Joe River, by Sandra A. Crowell and David O. Asleson.)

Sometimes this distrust has gone a step further, into downright paranoia.

Conspiracy politics are imbedded so deeply in U.S. history that even by 1828, when the Anti-Masonic movement hit its stride, Americans already had “demonstrated a marked disposition to see conspiracies everywhere,” writes the late historian Page Smith in his book “The Nation Comes of Age.”

The Anti-Masonic movement was dedicated to exposing an anti-democratic and anti-Christian conspiracy of Freemasons.

Why are Americans so susceptible to conspiracy theories?

Smith explains it like this: “Americans have been generally inclined to think of themselves as being in control of their individual and collective destinies. Inexplicable or irrational events, hard times, or even natural disasters must, it was thought, be capable of explanation. Better a shaky conspiracy theory than no explanation at all.”

Historian Richard Hofstadter writes that paranoid theorists not only believe a sinister conspiracy is afoot to destroy our way of life, they also believe the conspiracy is the motivating force behind almost every historical event.

He describes John Robison, who in 1798 wrote a treatise condemning the Illuminati, a small group of European philosophers who some influential Americans thought were plotting to create a one-world government. Robison documented plenty of factual evidence about the group; then he made the leap that the Illuminati single-handedly caused the French Revolution.

“What is missing is not veracious information about the organization, but sensible judgment about what can cause a revolution,” says Hofstadter, in his 1965 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

This paranoid style was also evident in the 1800s, with the anti-Catholic movement and the anti-immigrant movement - movements that spawned the Native American Party and the American Party, more commonly known as the Know-Nothing Party.

These parties’ animosity toward America’s mostly Catholic immigrants stemmed from the fear that huge waves of foreign-babbling newcomers would undermine American culture. It also stemmed from a fear that Catholics owed allegiance to what amounted to a one-world government.

“The common view is that it was an authoritarian religion, taking orders from Rome, entirely incompatible with American democracy,” writes Smith.

By the turn of the century, most of the major anti-Catholic themes were transferred to anti-Semitism and anti-Communism.

The paranoid style reached full flower during the Cold War, Hofstadter believes, with worries that top U.S. government officials were acting under orders from Moscow.

Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, said President Dwight Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.”

Even a U.S. senator announced in 1951 that “men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster,” and that post-war events “must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

The speaker was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and at the time, many Americans believed him.

Sometimes in American history, paranoia merges with hate.

The Ku Klux Klan sprang up after the Civil War, and even though it was forced underground in 1877, it reemerged in the 1920s to be the most influential hate group in American history.

It had millions of members nationwide by 1925, and was powerful enough to “run whole states,” says Jenkins, a nationally known expert on home-grown terrorism. “You couldn’t get elected in Indiana in the ‘20s without being a Klansman.”

The “new” Klan revived a familiar theme, anti-Catholicism.

“The Klan was popular in places like Indiana and Oregon, less for violence than for its overt patriotism and Americanism and Protestantism,” says Bill Woodward, a Seattle Pacific University history professor.

“In fact, Oregon attempted to ban parochial schools in order to undercut the Catholic influence. The Klan was active in advocating that.”

In the 1930s, American hate groups began to take on the colors of Nazism, especially the Silver Shirts (aping Hitler’s Brown Shirts), a group led by William Dudley Pelley. The group had many occult ideas, but plain old anti-Semitism was the major theme.

“The phrase ‘President Rosenfeld and his Jew Deal,’ that was a Silver Shirt term,” says Jenkins.

Though Pelley was based in North Carolina, the Silver Shirts were particularly strong in Idaho, Washington and California.

But the movement vanished after Pearl Harbor, when Nazism became hateful to almost all Americans. Many of the Silver Shirts’ leaders were ordered out of the West Coast states for fear they had links with Japanese intelligence.

Occasionally, paranoia and hate have fused explosively.

The Ku Klux Klan crossed the line into violence soon after its founding, and used violence and intimidation throughout its long history.

Between 1890 and 1930, the KKK lynched 100 blacks each year, says Jenkins. “That’s in excess of 3,000 people. It was political violence intended to create a state of terror.”

One pro-Nazi group of the 1930s bears a resemblance to some of today’s most extreme anti-government groups, in that it was armed, anti-Semitic, and inflamed by a radio host. It was the Christian Front, founded and led by Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Catholic priest with a weekly radio show.

The group aimed to form a “national militia” 5 million strong, says Jenkins. They trained under the guise of sporting or gun clubs. They made plans to “bomb selected buildings, seize public utilities, blast bridges, terrorize Jews, appropriate Federal Reserve gold, assassinate 14 Congressmen and set up a dictatorship,” according to an informant’s account that Jenkins cites.

The only thing that stopped them was FBI infiltration. Like the Silver Shirts, which was an off-shoot, the movement vanished with America’s entry into World War II.

In the 1960s, much of America’s home-grown terrorism came from the far left, which bombed ROTC buildings and other targets. Ultra-right-wing terrorism also emerged in the ‘60s with a group called the Minutemen. In New York in 1966, police seized a Minutemen cache of bombs, guns, and rockets, supposedly intended for use on “Communist, left-wing and liberal” installations.

The Minutemen were strong in California and the Northwest, too. In Seattle in 1968, seven Minutemen were convicted of a plot to dynamite a police station and rob four banks during the confusion.

“The last holdouts were in Idaho and Washington,” Jenkins says of the Minutemen.

Meanwhile, men such as Wesley Swift, influenced by the Silver Shirts, and Swift’s follower Richard Butler, were developing their white supremacist ideas in California. Butler migrated to North Idaho in the mid-1970s, where he founded the Aryan Nations.

Today’s extremist groups are “only the most recent manifestation of a long tradition,” Jenkins says. Such groups have emerged in a political climate similar to what spawned the pro-Nazi groups of the ‘30s, he says: “an extremist political culture that sees the American government and social order as so corrupt and dangerous, it is the primary threat to the well-being of its citizens.”

In addition, there is a widespread feeling that society is not working properly. Many people were convinced of the same thing during the Great Depression.

But there are enormous differences between then and now. For the first time, says Jenkins, many of these groups are united under a common religious ideology: Christian Identity, a white separatist doctrine that says Aryans are the Lost Tribes of Israel and Jews are demonic pretenders.

In addition, people in earlier anti-government movements felt they were guarding a nation and culture that still belonged to them. Today, many believe “America has largely been taken away from them, though they are determined to try to repossess it,” Hofstadter writes.

Jenkins believes today’s extreme movements are actually less frightening than many from our past. He says militia groups are far smaller, far less mainstream and far less politically influential than the Klan in its heyday.

“It is absolutely out of the question that they’ll get any substantial political foothold,” he predicts.

Maybe not across the entire country, but they have gained influence in the Northwest, where some politicians - at the county and the national levels - are openly sympathetic to militia beliefs.

History gives us at least two hints about the trajectory of America’s fringe or extreme political movements.

On one hand, most of these groups have flamed out quickly. The Anti-Illuminatists, the Anti-Masonics, the Christian Front, the Silver Shirts - all are now merely footnotes in American history.

But history also shows that the impulses which give rise to these groups are rooted firmly in American political culture. When one wave dies out, another wave comes rumbling up from behind.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 5 Photos

MEMO: 3 Sidebars appeared with story:

1. Another declaration of government distrust If you think today’s anti-government rhetoric sounds harsh, consider this: “When a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce (people) under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government.” “(King George) is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.” Both of those quotes come from The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.

2. America has seen other extremist groups FLASHBACK: A radical militia group, fired up by an inflammatory radio host, collects arms and makes plans to blow up buildings, terrorize Jews and assassinate members of Congress and the president. The FBI infiltrates the group and smashes the plot. The year was 1940. The group was the Christian Front, led by Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Catholic priest.

3. A part of the system that he resents “Free the Slaves, Abolish the IRS and the Federal Reserve” says the bumper sticker on the red compact. While you’re at it, says the driver, look at threats to privacy, the burden of regulations and no-fault divorce. Government should exist to protect society, says Rick Hess, but government today is more about regulating and controlling. “We’re very close to a police state,” he says. Hess doesn’t believe a word the president says. He works in Spokane, but lives in Lincoln County with his wife and seven children. He distrusts Spokane city and county officials and finds himself chafing under new legislative mandates at work. Where? At the Washington state Department of Transportation, where he’s been a purchaser for 17 years. “I’m very much part of the system.”

3 Sidebars appeared with story:

1. Another declaration of government distrust If you think today’s anti-government rhetoric sounds harsh, consider this: “When a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce (people) under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government.” “(King George) is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.” Both of those quotes come from The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.

2. America has seen other extremist groups FLASHBACK: A radical militia group, fired up by an inflammatory radio host, collects arms and makes plans to blow up buildings, terrorize Jews and assassinate members of Congress and the president. The FBI infiltrates the group and smashes the plot. The year was 1940. The group was the Christian Front, led by Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Catholic priest.

3. A part of the system that he resents “Free the Slaves, Abolish the IRS and the Federal Reserve” says the bumper sticker on the red compact. While you’re at it, says the driver, look at threats to privacy, the burden of regulations and no-fault divorce. Government should exist to protect society, says Rick Hess, but government today is more about regulating and controlling. “We’re very close to a police state,” he says. Hess doesn’t believe a word the president says. He works in Spokane, but lives in Lincoln County with his wife and seven children. He distrusts Spokane city and county officials and finds himself chafing under new legislative mandates at work. Where? At the Washington state Department of Transportation, where he’s been a purchaser for 17 years. “I’m very much part of the system.”

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