EIGHT YEARS AGO, tales about FEMA concentration camps, President Obama’s forged birth certificate, and grandpa-killing death panels (some of the more popular conspiracy theories in the Tea Party universe) would have been relegated to the most ill-lit hollows of the political spectrum or considered plotlines worthy of The X-Files, but they are now treated as legitimate talking points. Far-right-wing radio has given them a voice, and thanks to constant regurgitation in prime time (mostly on Fox News), the idea that something like the successful Cash for Clunkers program was really a government plot to infiltrate our private computers now has legs. Enter Glenn Beck, the white-haired wonder boy from Mount Vernon, Washington, whose red-faced, tearful pontificating about love of America and fears of a socialist takeover has become the defacto PR machine for Tea Party gatherings. Nothing better illustrates Beck’s growing influence than his successful promotion of the Taxpayer March on Washington, DC, in September 2009. It drew a staggering crowd of at least 75,000.
Even someone as mild mannered and well intentioned as Krause, who fancies himself more of a Mark Levin man (a conservative radio host and author who’s described by Krause as “semi-caustic and funnier than shit”), subliminally sprinkles his political conversation with Beck-isms. “[This country] is like a frog in a pot of water,” he says, echoing one of Beck’s infamous analogies. “The heat’s being turned up, and people aren’t jumping out.”
“I’m hearing Glenn Beck say things to his audience of millions that I used to hear Bo Gritz and John Trochmann tell small crowds of maybe a hundred,” Neiwert says, referring to two of the most well-known and controversial militia leaders of the 1990s. “It’s a toxic environment, and it’s creating a toxic response.”
For the most part, the extreme Right’s anger gurgles up relatively harmlessly on the Internet as virtual trash talk. The MySpace site of the Rogue Nation Eternal Militia, Oregon Chapter, serves as a typical example: videos of armed training exercises, antigovernment screeds, members posing with their guns, quotes from the Founding Fathers, and, of course, the perfunctory staple of many of these sites, chicks in bikinis. The Western Oregon Militia’s site has all of those things, as well as a doctored photo of President Obama dressed as a witch doctor—complete with a bone through his nose.
But in other cases, the rising anger has taken more ominous forms. In April, a man in Pittsburgh opened fire on police officers, killing three. His friends said he feared that Obama would take his rights and his guns away. In September, Newsmax, which bills itself as one of the nation’s leading independent news sites—former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin cited it as one of her preferred news outlets—posted and then quickly pulled a column suggesting a military coup against Obama was in order. In October, a group identifying itself as the National Militia, Soldiers for Freedom posted a video warning the president to leave the country immediately. “If you stay,” read the video message, “‘we the people’ will systematically dismantle you, destroy you, and reclaim what is rightfully ours.”
Most of the people behind these tactics are “incompetent bumblers,” Neiwert says. “But they have the capability to attract people who are competent—usually people with military training. That’s when they become dangerous.”
Of course, the best-known example of such fevered hate meeting ice-cold skill might be Timothy McVeigh—the decorated veteran of the Gulf War with a fierce antigovernment bent who killed 168 fellow Americans in Oklahoma City in 1995. Just six months earlier, the Southern Poverty Law Center had contacted then Attorney General Janet Reno with concerns very much like those the group raised this past August—that the rise of armed groups and those who hate was a “recipe for disaster.”