Bill Clinton's election in 1992 gave rise to the American "militia movement": hordes of overwhelmingly white, middle-aged men from suburban and rural areas who convinced themselves they were defending the American way of life from the "liberals" and "leftists" running the country by dressing up in military costumes on weekends, wobbling around together with guns, and play-acting the role of patriot-warriors. Those theater groups -- the cultural precursor to George Bush's prancing 2003 performance dressed in a fighter pilot outfit on Mission Accomplished Day -- spawned the decade of the so-called "Angry White Male," the movement behind the 1994 takeover of the U.S. Congress by Newt Gingrich and his band of federal-government-cursing, pseudo-revolutionary, play-acting tough guys.
What was most remarkable about this allegedly "anti-government" movement was that -- with some isolated and principled exceptions -- it completely vanished upon the election of Republican George Bush, and it stayed invisible even as Bush presided over the most extreme and invasive expansion of federal government power in memory. Even as Bush seized and used all of the powers which that movement claimed in the 1990s to find so tyrannical and unconstitutional -- limitless, unchecked surveillance activities, detention powers with no oversight, expanding federal police powers, secret prison camps, even massively exploding and debt-financed domestic spending -- they meekly submitted to all of it, even enthusiastically cheered it all on.
They're the same people who embraced and justified full-scale, impenetrable federal government secrecy and comprehensive domestic spying databases conducted in the dark and against the law when perpetrated by a Republican President -- but have spent the last week flamboyantly pretending to be scandalized and outraged by the snooping which Bill Moyers did 45 years ago (literally) as part of a Democratic administration. They're the people who relentlessly opposed and impugned Clinton's military deployments and then turned around and insisted that only those who are anti-American would question or oppose Bush's decision to start wars.
They're the same people who believed that Bill Clinton's use of the FISA court to obtain warrants to eavesdrop on Americans was a grave threat to liberty, but believed that George Bush's warrantless eavesdropping on Americans in violation of the law was a profound defense of freedom. In sum, they dressed up in warrior clothing to fight against Bill Clinton's supposed tyranny, and then underwent a major costume change on January 20, 2001, thereafter dressing up in cheerleader costumes to glorify George Bush's far more extreme acquisitions of federal power.
In doing so, they revealed themselves as motivated by no ideological principles or political values of any kind. It was a purely tribalistic movement motivated by fear of losing its cultural and demographic supremacy. In that sense -- the only sense that mattered -- George Bush was one of them, even though, with his actions, he did everything they long claimed to fear and despise. Nonetheless, his mere occupancy of the White House was sufficient to pacify them and convert them almost overnight from limited-government militants into foot soldiers supporting the endless expansion of federal government power.
But now, only four weeks into the presidency of Barack Obama, they are back -- angrier and more chest-beating than ever. Actually, the mere threat of an Obama presidency was enough to revitalize them from their eight-year slumber, awaken them from their camouflaged, well-armed suburban caves. The disturbingly ugly atmosphere that marked virtually every Sarah Palin rally had its roots in this cultural resentment, which is why her fear-mongering cultural warnings about Obama's exotic, threatening otherness -- he's a Muslim-loving, Terrorist-embracing, Rev.-Wright-following Marxist: who is the real Barack Obama? -- resonated so stingingly with the rabid lynch mobs that cheered her on.
With Obama now actually in the Oval Office -- and a financial crisis in full force that is generating the exact type of widespread, intense anxiety that typically inflames these cultural resentments -- their mask is dropping, has dropped, and they've suddenly re-discovered their righteous "principles." The week-long CNBC Revolt of the Traders led by McCain voter Rick Santelli and the fledgling little Tea Party movement promoted by the Michelle Malkins of the world are obvious outgrowths of this 1990s mentality, now fortified by the most powerful fuel: deep economic fear. But as feisty and fire-breathing as those outbursts are, nothing can match -- for pure, illustrative derangement -- the discussion below from Glenn Beck's new Fox show this week, in which he and an array of ex-military and CIA guests ponder (and plot and plan) "war games" for the coming Civil War against Obama-led tyranny. It really has to be seen to be believed.
Before presenting that to you, a few caveats are in order: There is nothing inherently wrong or illegitimate with citizens expressing extreme anger towards the Government and the ruling political class. There isn't even anything wrong or illegitimate with citizens organizing themselves into a movement that -- whether by design or effect -- is threatening to entrenched elites. If anything, we've had too little of that. In fact, it's only a complete lack of fear of a meek, passive and impotent citizenry on the part of political and financial rulers -- a certainty that there will be no consequences no matter what they do -- that could have given rise to the endless corruption, deceit, lawbreaking, destruction, and outright thievery of the last eight years. A political and financial elite that perceives itself as invulnerable from threat or consequence will inevitably vest itself with more power and more riches. That's what we've had and, largely, still have.
But this Rush-Limbaugh/Fox-News/nationalistic movement isn't driven by anything noble or principled or even really anything political. If it were, they would have been extra angry and threatening and rebellious during the Bush years instead of complicit and meek and supportive to the point of cult-like adoration. Instead, they're just basically Republican dead-enders (at least what remains of the regional/extremist GOP), grounded in tribal allegiances that are fueled by their cultural, ethnic and religious identities and by perceived threats to past prerogatives -- now spiced with legitimate economic anxiety and an African-American President who, they were continuously warned for the last two years, is a Marxist, Terrorist-sympathizing black nationalist radical who wants to re-distribute their hard-earned money to welfare queens and illegal immigrants (and is now doing exactly that).
That's the context for this Glenn Beck "War Games" show on Fox News this week -- one promoted, with some mild and obligatory caveats, by Michelle Malkin's Hot Air. In the segment below, he convened a panel that includes former CIA officer Michael Scheuer and Ret. U.S. Army Sgt. Major Tim Strong. They discuss a coming "civil war" led by American "Bubba" militias -- Beck says he "believes we're on this road" -- and they contemplate whether the U.S. military would follow the President's orders to subdue civil unrest or would instead join with "the people" in defense of their Constitutional rights against the Government (they agree that the U.S. military would be with "the people"):
They don't seem very interested in bipartisanship and in transcending ideological divisions.
Immediately prior to that segment, Fox viewers were warned (as usual) that the unruly, uncivilized, violent Muslims are coming, and only Benjamin Netanyahu will be able to subdue them with a massive attack:
In one sense, all of this drooling rage is nothing more than the familiar face of extreme right-wing paranoia, as Richard Hofstadter famously described 45 years ago:
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)
But it's now inflamed by declining imperial power, genuine economic crises, an exotic Other occupying the White House, and potent technology harnessed by right-wing corporations such as Fox News to broadcast and disseminate it widely and continuously. At the very least, it's worth taking note of. And I wonder what would happen if MSNBC broadcast a similar discussion of leftists plotting and planning the imminent, violent Socialist Revolution against the U.S. Government.