Right-wing Extremism in the United States

Darren J. Mulloy is an Associate Professor of History at Wilfrid Laurier University and the author of American Extremism: History, Politics and the Militia Movement and The World of the John Birch Society: Conspiracy, Conservatism, and the Cold War. In the following interview, Darren Mulloy speaks about the danger of American extremism, the Christian Right, and right-wing terrorism.


John Wisniewski: Could you name some books and writings used by militiamen, and other extremists that attempt to establish separate homelands in the USA?

extremismDarren Mulloy: Unlike certain white supremacist groups, the idea of establishing a separate homeland within the U.S. is not something that is particularly associated with militia groups. What is often referred to as the Northwest Territorial Imperative—a whites-only homeland based somewhere in the Pacific Northwest—was really popularized by the founder of the Aryan Nations, Richard Butler, in numerous pamphlets and speeches, beginning in the mid-1980s.

JW: Which Constitutional Amendments are most quoted and appropriated by militiamen?

DJM: The Second Amendment and the Tenth Amendment. The right to bear arms is absolutely central to the belief system of the militia movement. After all, it’s the Second Amendment that gives the movement its name because of its reference to “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state…” The less well-known Tenth Amendment is also really important to militias though. It states that, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” Militia members see this as acting as a brake or check on what they regard as the overweening power of the federal government. The Tenth Amendment was also a particular favorite of segregationists and other advocates of states’ rights in the US during the 1950s and 1960s, of course.

JW: Has the government strayed away from what our Constitution should be? Do the extremists have valid points?

DJM: Well, that depends on what you think the Constitution “should be,” which is itself a matter of interpretation and debate! But it’s a good question, one that gets to the heart of many of the militia movement’s concerns—and not just militia members; this is a complaint that’s often been voiced by Tea Party members and many members of the Republican Party in recent years.

On one level, given that it’s been over 225 years since the Constitution was drafted, it would be very surprising if there were not some major differences between the world the Founders sought to provide a system of government for and the world we now find ourselves in. There’s little doubt, for example, that the powers and reach of the federal government are much more extensive today than they were at the end of the eighteenth century. But that doesn’t mean—as many militia members would maintain—that the government has somehow “betrayed” or “ignored” the Constitution. What it means is that the system has developed and adapted in response to the various challenges the nation has faced—industrialization, the Civil War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, the Great Recession, and so on. In other words, the changes that have taken place with respect to the increasing powers of the federal government have taken place within the constitutional system established by the Founding Fathers, not against it.

But certainly there are points of analysis that “extremists” get right about history or the Constitution, and it’s important to acknowledge when this is the case. The crucial thing is to look at the belief system as a whole.

JW: Has extremism led to violence in some cases? Timothy McVeigh was known to read the extremist literature and may have visited the encampments of militiamen.  

DJM: Absolutely. Extremist ideas can definitely lead to violence, and McVeigh’s example is a good one. He immersed himself in the world of the radical right in the United States, including but not limited to the militia movement. He attempted to join the Michigan Militia, for example, but was rejected.

The key text that influenced McVeigh’s decision to bomb the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City was not a militia one though. It was William Pierce’s novel, The Turner Diaries, about a racist group’s campaign of terror and bombings against the U.S. government, in the name of a white supremacist revolution. Pierce was the founder of an organization called the National Alliance, which McVeigh tried to contact before he carried out the bombing. After the bombing, another group that McVeigh tried to contact, apparently in the hope of hiding out there, was a Christian Identity settlement called Elohim City, on the border of Arkansas and Oklahoma, although he never actually got there.

But things are a bit more complicated than this suggests, because despite these racist associations, the reason McVeigh gave for carrying out that bombing was not to advance the white supremacist cause in the US; it was, he said, an act of “retaliation” for what had happened to the Branch Davidian sect of David Koresh at Waco, Texas, in 1993. McVeigh had actually visited Mount Carmel during the siege, where he tried to sell copies of The Turner Diaries, and the Oklahoma City bombing took place on the second anniversary of the ending of the siege. And both his defense attorney and McVeigh himself tried to argue that his experience in the US Army also influenced his decision to carry out the bombing. Knowing what “triggers” someone to carry out an act of violence is not necessarily easy.

JW: Is the John Birch Society the Old Right and not Neo-Conservatism? Do they pose a danger to civil rights?

birch_DVDJM: The case of the John Birch Society is a really interesting one. It’s an organization that many people don’t know about today, but during its heyday in the 1960s it was the largest, most formidable and most significant radical right-wing group of the time, the subject of enormous amounts of attention and controversy. And one of the really important roles the Society performed was to operate as a kind of bridge between the older conservatism of the post-war period—the old isolationist right, as well as the virulently anti-communist right of the McCarthy years—and the New Right that helped get Ronald Reagan elected in the 1980s and then on to the modern Republican Party and Tea Party movement.

In fact there are some really striking parallels that can be drawn between the Birch Society of the 1960s and the contemporary Tea Party movement, including their shared tendency towards conspiracy theories, their doubts about the bona fides of the president—many Birchers thought President Eisenhower was a secret agent of the Communist conspiracy in the United States, just as many Tea Partiers suspect President Obama is a secret socialist masquerading as a liberal—and their hostility to “big government” in all forms. There was also concern that each in its time was maneuvering to try to “take over” the GOP. Then there is the fact that Fred Koch, the father of Charles and David Koch, two of the key financial backers of the Tea Party movement, was one of the founding members of the John Birch Society and sat on its National Council. The current version of the Birch Society although much smaller and less significant than it was in the 1960s also forms part of the current Tea Party phenomenon.

In terms of civil rights, the Birch Society certainly strongly opposed the civil rights movement of the 1960s and tried to get its members to prevent the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It did so because it believed that the Communist Party was directing the civil rights movement behind the scenes, which was something the Society had in common with J Edgar Hoover and some very senior members of the Kennedy administration, of course.

JW: Could you tell us what Dominion Theology is and why it is associated with The Christian Right?

DJM: Dominion Theology gets its name from that part of the book of Genesis in which God tells Adam and Eve to exercise “dominion” over “every living thing that moveth upon the earth” and to “subdue it.” Adherents of Dominion Theology basically believe that this passage of the Bible authorizes or instructs them to take control of all secular institutions until Christ returns. But although it’s a belief system that’s strongly associated with the Christian Right, it’s also one that takes a number of different forms, and so scholars have made a distinction between what they call “soft” and “hard” dominionists. On the “softer” side of the scale, for example, are evangelical Christians who simply see the United States as moving too far in a secular direction and want to get involved in political activity in order to set country back on to what they regard as the “right”—or biblically determined—path. So they oppose things like gay rights, abortion rights, same-sex marriage, “attacks” on school prayer and so on. This doesn’t go far enough for the “hard” dominionists however, for whom the end goal is the creation of a Christian theocratic state in the US. For them, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are clearly secondary to divinely sanctioned Biblical law, and American society and the polity should be completely reorganized to reflect this.

John Wisniewski is a freelance writer who resides in West Babylon NY. He has written for L.A. Review of Books, Toronto Review of Books, Paraphilia Magazine, and other publications. Read other articles by John.