By Heather Cox Richardson
Since right-wing insurrectionists stormed the Capitol on January 6 with the vague but violent idea of taking over the government, observers are paying renewed attention to the threat of right-wing violence in our midst.
For all our focus on fighting socialism and communism, right-wing authoritarianism is actually quite an old threat in our country. The nation’s focus on fighting “socialism” began in 1871, but what its opponents stood against was not government control of the means of production—an idea that never took hold in America—but the popular public policies which cost tax dollars and thus made wealthier people pay for programs that would benefit everyone. Public benefits like highways and hospitals, opponents argued, amounted to a redistribution of wealth, and thus were a leftist assault on American freedom.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that fight against “socialism” took the form of opposition to unionization and Black rights. In the 1920s, after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had given shape to the American fear of socialism, making sure that system never came to America meant destroying the government regulation put in place during the Progressive Era and putting businessmen in charge of the government.
When Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt established business regulation,
a basic social safety net, and government-funded infrastructure in the 1930s to combat the Great Depression that had laid ordinary Americans low, one right-wing senator wrote to a colleague: “This is despotism, this is tyranny, this is the annihilation of liberty…. The ordinary American is thus reduced to the status of a robot. The president has not merely signed the death warrant of capitalism, but has ordained the mutilation of the Constitution, unless the friends of liberty, regardless of party, band themselves together to regain their lost freedom.”
The roots of modern right-wing extremism lie in the post-World War II reaction to FDR’s New Deal and the Republican embrace of it under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Opponents of an active government insisted that it undermined American liberty by redistributing tax dollars from hardworking white men to those eager for a handout—usually Black men, in their telling. Modern government, they insisted, was bringing socialism to America. They set out to combat it, trying to slash the government back to the form it took in the 1920s.
Their job got easier after 1987, when the Fairness Doctrine ended. That Federal Communications Commission policy had required public media channels to base their stories on fact and to present both sides of a question. When it was gone, talk radio took off, hosted by radio jocks like Rush Limbaugh who contrasted their ideal country with what they saw as the socialism around them: a world in which hardworking white men who took care of their wives and children were hemmed in by government that was taxing them to give benefits to lazy people of color and “Feminazis.” These “Liberals” were undermining the country and the family, aided and abetted by lawmakers building a big government that sucked tax dollars.
In August 1992, the idea that hardworking white men trying to take care of their families were endangered by an intrusive government took shape at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Randy Weaver, a former factory worker who had moved his family to northern Idaho to escape what he saw as the corruption of American society, failed to show up for trial on a firearms charge. When federal marshals tried to arrest him, a firefight left Weaver’s fourteen-year-old son and a deputy marshal dead. In the aftermath of the shooting, federal and local officers laid an 11-day siege to the Weavers’ cabin, and a sniper wounded Weaver and killed his wife, Vicki.
Right-wing activists and neo-Nazis from a nearby Aryan Nations compound swarmed to Ruby Ridge to protest the government’s attack on what they saw as a man protecting his family. Negotiators eventually brought Weaver out, but the standoff at Ruby Ridge convinced western men they had to arm themselves to fight off the government.
In February of the next year, during the Democratic Bill Clinton administration, the same theme played out in Waco, Texas, when officers stormed the compound of a religious cult whose former members reported that their leader, David Koresh, was stockpiling weapons. A gun battle and a fire ended the 51-day siege on April 19, 1993. Seventy-six people died.
While a Republican investigation cited “overwhelming evidence” that exonerated the government of wrongdoing, talk radio hosts nonetheless railed against the Democratic administration, especially Attorney General Janet Reno, for the events at Waco. What happened there fit neatly into what was by then the Republican narrative of an overreaching government that crushed individuals, and political figures harped on that idea.
Rush Limbaugh stoked his listeners’ anger with reports of the “Waco invasion” and talked of the government’s “murder” of citizens, making much of the idea that a group of Christians had been killed by a female government official who was single and— as opponents made much of— unfeminine (reactionary rocker Ted Nugent featured an obscene caricature of her for years in his stage version of “Kiss My Glock”).
Horrified by the government’s attempt to break into the cult’s compound, Alex Jones, who would go on to become an important conspiracy theorist and founder of InfoWars, dropped out of community college to start a talk show on which he warned that Reno had “murdered” the people at Waco and that the government was about to impose martial law. The modern militia movement took off.
The combination of political rhetoric and violence radicalized a former Army gunner, Timothy McVeigh, who decided to bring the war home to the government. “Taxes are a joke,” he wrote to a newspaper in 1992. “More taxes are always the answer to government mismanagement…. Is a Civil War Imminent? Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn’t come to that. But it might.”
On April 19, 1995, a date chosen to honor the Waco standoff, McVeigh set off a bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children younger than six, and wounded more than 800. When the police captured McVeigh, he was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Abraham Lincoln and the words “Sic Semper Tyrannis.” The same words John Wilkes Booth shouted after he assassinated Lincoln, they mean “thus always to tyrants,” and are the words attributed to Brutus after he and his supporters murdered Caesar.
By 1995, right-wing terrorists envisioned themselves as protectors of American individualism in the face of a socialist government, but the reality was that their complaints were not about government activism. They were about who benefited from that activism.
In 2014, Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy brought the contradictions in this individualist image to light when he fought the government over the impoundment of the cattle that he had been grazing on public land for more than 20 years. Bundy owed the government more than $1 million in grazing fees for running his cattle on public land, but he disparaged the “Negro” who lived in government housing and “didn’t have nothing to do.” Black people’s laziness led them to abort their children and send their young men to jail, he told a reporter, and he wondered: “are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life… or are they better off under government subsidy?”
Convinced that he was a hardworking individualist, Bundy announced he did not recognize federal power over the land on which he grazed his cattle. The government impounded his animals in 2014, but officials backed down when Bundy and his supporters showed up armed. Republican Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) called Bundy and his supporters “patriots”; Democrat Harry Reid (D-NV), the Senate Majority Leader at the time, called them “domestic terrorists” and warned, “it’s not over. We can’t have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it. So it’s not over.”
It wasn’t. Two years later, Bundy’s son Ammon was at the forefront of the right-wing takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, arguing that the federal government must turn over all public lands to the states to open them to private development. The terrorists called themselves “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.”
For the past four years, Trump and his enablers have tried to insist that unrest in the country is caused by “Antifa,” an unorganized group of anti-fascists who show up at rallies to confront right-wing protesters. But the Department of Homeland Security this summer identified “anarchist and anti-government extremists” as “the most significant threat… against law enforcement.” According to DHS, they are motivated by “their belief that their liberties are being taken away by the perceived unconstitutional or otherwise illegitimate actions of government officials or law enforcement.” Those anti-government protesters are now joined quite naturally by white supremacists, as well as other affiliated groups.
Right-wing terrorism in American has very deep roots, and those roots have grown since the 1990s as Republican rhetorical attacks on the federal government have fed them. The January 6 assault on the Capitol is not an aberration. It has been coming for a very long time.