By Frank Moraes
Yesterday, Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon wrote that “Radical-Right Wing Groups Reach All Time High.” It is based upon a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center that shows that militia and “patriot” groups are at an all-time high. According to the group, this is due to “the resurgence on the down economy (hate and radicalism always tick up when things seem desperate), along with the election and reelection of Barack Obama, a push on gun control, and racial tensions over immigration and the declining power of white America.” I’m sure that’s true, but I think there is something else going on here.
Look at the following graph and see if you don’t perceive something a little more cyclical:
I see high levels of these groups when Clinton is president, followed by low levels when Bush is president, and then an explosion under Obama. The details make it look even worse. Note that 9/11 didn’t cause the number of these groups to grow. Instead, there were actually fewer groups in 2002 than there had been in 2001, after one of the worst attacks on American soil in our history. Also, there was no spike at all in 2008; we had to wait until 2009 when you know who was president. Also, as the economy has gotten better, the numbers have only climbed since 2009, which was by far the worst year. Finally: the economy was even worse in the year 2002-2004 than it was 1995-1996, and yet: no spike in these groups during the Bush years.
Even the one trouble spot on the graph proves my point. At the end of Clinton’s presidency, the numbers dove. Part of this had to do with the strong economy. But another part of it can be attributed to the embarrassment of Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. And not only that (this gets to my main point): how right wing media covered it. I remember this clearly. No one on the right would admit that they had any culpability in that terrorist attack, but they became less reckless in their rhetoric. No longer did one hear diatribes about the tyranny of the BATF and the heroes of Ruby Ridge.
My point is that these groups are primarily driven by the incendiary rhetoric that people hear especially on conservative talk, but also very much Fox News. As long as a Republican is in the White House, all is calm. The moment a Democrat steps into the White House, no matter how conservative he may be (and the last two have been quite conservative), suddenly the “Tyranny!” rhetoric starts. The president is pushing us toward socialism! The president is destroying the Constitution! The president is drowning adorable kittens!
One thing is for certain: the Southern Poverty Law Center is correct that this is a disturbing trend. What’s more, thanks in large part to the Republican House, it is likely that we won’t see much improvement in the economy for a couple of years. It is possible that the right wing talkers will calm down a bit. But I don’t see these numbers falling by much anytime soon. Last night Bill O’Reilly showed the true believers the way: ignorance and rage. Of course, if something bad does happen, Bill-O will just claim that it had nothing to do with him. How could those people think he was calling for violence?
My brief perusal of the conservative press indicates that they are thrilled with O’Reilly’s behavior the other night. The liberal press is mostly just ignoring it because it is entirely “dog bites man.” This is a big part of the problem with our media: everyone expects Fox News to be crazy. And the conservatives don’t get embarrassed by the ignorance someone like O’Reilly shows, because they are just as ignorant. “Look! Friend Bill done yelled at a lib’ral!”
(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)