Why Is the Far Right Growing?

— Christopher Phelps

IN THE NEXT issue of Against The Current, a follow-up article will explore the contradictory but complementary relationship between the far right and Republican conservatism and evangelical Christianity, a critical source of its dynamism. Here, I offer five additional factors underneath the far right’s recent growth.

1. Economic Dislocation

The social base of the militia movement is white, rural and male. It has grown fastest in the past two years in regions and areas, like Idaho and Montana, where an economy of logging, mining and ranching is giving way to low-wage tourism and recreation that caters to out-of-state professionals and elites, and in hard-pressed conservative farm communities in states like Michigan.

Anxiety and despair over the deterioration of regional patterns of life, and the resentment of interest and taxation by small property owners, create rural audiences ripe for far right theories.

Economic crisis and the effects of the globalization of capital are explained by the far right as the result of a "globalist" conspiracy to install "one-world socialism." A small property owners’ "wise use" movement, similarly, scapegoats environmentalism for job loss in the timber and mining industries.

The far right’s social theory is distorting and simplistic. Fixated on currency and precious metals, it sees economics in sheerly monetary terms. It speaks politics in quasi-constitutional legalese. It cannot comprehend elite rule except by recourse to an imagined host of conspiracies. It explains social deterioration as a sign of moral degeneracy and impending apocalypse.

Yet such ideology, precisely because of its simplicity, is effective propaganda for desperate minds in desperate times.

2. The Corruption of American Politics

The widespread perception that the political system is unresponsive, corrupt and deeply undemocratic, despite its electoral rituals, has been shrewdly tapped by the far right. Self-constituted militias would have little appeal were it not for a generalized sense of powerlessness and alienation among large sectors of the population.

The far right overcomes conservative hesitations to insurrectionary dissent by bathing its militant opposition to federal power in patriotism and individualism, rote themes of American political culture.

3. Airwaves Outreach

All movements must develop their own culture and institutions. The "patriot" movement has done so by exploiting the possibilities of shortwave radio. Shortwave, mainly used for religious and governmental broadcasting, permits long-range reception at night, delivering an international audience at a fraction of the cost of commercial stations.

Paramilitary leader Mark Koernke’s show, "The Intelligence Report," was yanked from World Wide Christian Radio in Nashville after it was widely reported that Timothy McVeigh had been a fan. "We’ve got to get the gasoline off the fires," said the station’s general manager.

But the station still carries many far right programs, including Tom Valentine’s "Radio Free America," a nightly call-in talk show sponsored by the Liberty Lobby, one of the nation’s oldest and largest anti-Semitic groups, whose paper The Spotlight has strongly supported the militia movement.

In the past month, Valentine has promoted the book Black Helicopters Over America: Strikeforce for the New World Order and the major Holocaust "revisionist" journal, The Barnes Review. He interviewed Ted Gunderson, a purported FBI veteran who claims that whoever planned the Oklahoma City bombing "would need to possess knowledge of research classified at the very highest level of top secret by the U.S. government, in addition to a vast array of chemical and electronic components."

New Orleans station WRNO is another important far right shortwave outlet, featuring Holocaust denier Ernst Zandell’s weekly program and "American Dissident Voices," hosted by neo-Nazi William Pierce.

The far right is adept at electronic networking via fax and the Internet. Its literature tables are well stocked with pamphlets, cassette tapes, periodicals and other material. Video, too, is an important far right tool. Two videos by Indiana militia leader Linda Thompson helped make her claim that federal agents used flamethrowers at Mount Carmel (the Branch Davidian Waco compound) a staple of far right conspiracy theory.

4. International Momentum

Although the overthrow of the apartheid system in South Africa was a setback for white supremacists, the demise of the Eastern European bureaucratic regimes left behind a whirlwind of ethnic strife and economic restructuring, perfect conditions for the far right.

Reactionary tendencies all over Europe have encouraged and fed each other, from German neo-Nazis to national chauvinists in Russia to the French fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen. Like 1968-70 for the left, this simultaneous momentum has given the international far right courage, boldness, and a feeling that opportunity has struck.

5. Vacuum on the Left

A viable revolutionary left might have won to radicalism many of the alienated, disgruntled people now turning to the far right. But the labor movement’s steady decline and inability to organize an effective fightback against the decline of wages has left a large, angry segment of the populace that does not see working class action as the way to address its problem.

The failure of many radicals to distinguish themselves from Democratic Party liberalism and the retreat of many into identity politics have only compounded the retreat of labor.

Much of the left has dropped class politics at exactly the moment it is most needed. A socialist economic program that challenged budgetary favoritism for the Pentagon, corporations and the rich, for example, might persuade the angry that their interests would best be served by the left.

Labor’s decline makes the situation today unlike the 1930s, when fascism fought dynamic workers’ movements. The problem today is closer to the 1920s, when a quiescent labor movement dominated by business unionism was dwarfed by a conservative political climate and anti-immigration sentiment, facilitating the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

The American far right is more individualist than corporatist. It is deeply anti-communist, and smears the whole left with the crimes of Stalinism and the condescension of liberalism; but its primary rage is directed above, at the state, which the far right claims is in the grip of some combination of the Trilateral Commission, Freemasons, Illuminati, the Council on Foreign Relations, Rothschilds, Rockefellers, Bolsheviks, Zionists and the United Nations.

Its opposition to elite rule gives the far right a demagogic veneer of libertarianism. It would be a mistake, however, to see the far right as "anti-government" or anarchist. The far right opposes current civil law, but seeks to "restore" its theoretical interpretation of the original Constitution.

Despite its talk of "liberty," moreover, the far right is shot through with cultural authoritarianism. Were the far right to take power, it would outlaw abortion and homosexuality, reinstate school prayer, and make life hell on earth for people of color.

Any flirtation with the far right, therefore, any suggestion that the left collaborate directly with the militias to win them over, is folly – particularly given the enfeebled state of the left and the dynamism of the right.

The left must counterpose itself to the far right, present itself as the real revolutionary force, and explain how the far right is merely the bastard twin of an imperialism deep in crisis, not a genuine alternative.

The right is reacting to the social and political upheavals brought about by capitalist globalization and restructuring, but its program of property rights, superpatriotism and bigotry holds no promise for a left that can only succeed by defending egalitarianism, internationalism and libertarianism, and repudiate the right’s impoverished idea of "freedom" in favor of genuine liberation.

ATC 57, July-August 1995