Today’s Huff Post story about KKK Grand Wizard and Bonner County, Idaho sheriff candidate Shaun Winkler hosting a cross burning got me on a rant today. Clearly, we’ve got a problem with populism of the right wing variety in America.
According to a 2011 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in the U.S. has been steadily climbing for the last 10 years. White nationalist Patriot groups, first organized in reaction to the violent government crackdown on dissident groups at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas in the early 90s, went from 149 groups in 2008 to 1274 groups in 2011.
Add to that the recent stories of Idaho State’s only black lawmaker receiving a hand addressed invitation to join the KKK, a couple of murder-suicide cases involving white supremacist leaders in Arizona and Pennsylvania, and the bust of 10 white supremacists in central Florida for stockpiling weapons and training for a “race war,” and the evidence starts to pile up.
The 2010s are starting to look like the 1980s all over again.
According to veteran right wing watcher (and a greatly admired friend) Chip Berlet,
“We are in the midst of one of the most significant right-wing populist rebellions in United States history. We see around us a series of overlapping social and political movements populated by people [who are] angry, resentful, and full of anxiety.”
Those overlapping movements include a resurgent neo-Nazi faction, Tea Parties, anti-immigrant vigilantes, Christian jihadists, assorted white nationalists, and a big chunk of the Arizona State Legislature.
Back in the late 1980s and through the 90s, my activism was mainly pointed at exposing and countering vigilante white supremacists and the religious right wing. Grassroots groups representing both wings of the white right were on the rise back then. But toward the end of the 20th century, things changed. The white supremacist movement went underground, and the religious right had won so much, including taking over much of the grassroots infrastructure of the Republican Party and electing George W. Bush president, that they became the mainstream and lost momentum, even as their power and influence was greater than ever.
But the combination of the election of an African American president, the economic crisis, including a bail out of elites by the government, and the changing demographics of our country has the right surging again. Top that off with a heaping helping of post-9/11 Islamophobia and a side of anti-Chinese sentiment and that rebellion is beginning to look like a movement.
I know that to a lot of people, the litany of groups I listed looks pretty fringe-y. And I agree that it’s not as though anything as exotic as neo-Nazism is likely to amount to a major movement in the U.S., especially given our history with Nazi’s in WWII.
However, don’t discount the fringe. The violence they represent is a very real threat and they have a powerful impact on our political culture.
Remember the role the KKK played in the collapse of Reconstruction and enforcing Jim Crow? The chilling affect of vigilante groups is not to be underestimated. Border patrols are today’s Night Riders of the KKK. They don’t just scare the bejeezus out of undocumented immigrants, they also up the ante for immigrant rights activists who must face an opposing side that includes folks with guns who have designs on mining the border.
When extremist groups parade, protest, burn crosses, and distribute hate literature, they’re testing the public consensus on bigotry. They define “hate” as the most extreme and genocidal ranting, making more conservative expressions of bigotry appear mainstream and acceptable by comparison.
Here’s an example. my first entry in this blog was inspired by a marathon of TV news watching I undertook in order to see how people of color are portrayed in liberal media. What I discovered was that even on MSNBC, supposedly the liberal alternative to Fox News, Native Americans are rarely if ever mentioned. Asian Americans nearly received the same treatment, while Latinos and African Americans were almost exclusively represented by sports stars and entertainers. I’d call that racist, but then what do you call Fox?
You see how the presence of something far worse makes what is problematic appear mainstream and, by extension, pretty normal? Just think of the radical racist fringe as the Fox News to more conservative racism’s MSNBC and you’ll see why I say, we’ve got a major problem on our hands.