How the far right spreads its 'wacky' ideas

  • M.O.M.'s 1997 Preparedness Catalog

  • Notice to Public Servants

  • Militia of Montana catalog

  • All in favor of "Gun Control" raise your hand

  • Ken Toole is with the Montana Human Rights Network in Helena


I'm standing at a podium in the back room of the Elks Lodge in Libby, Mont., in front of about 40 Democrats. The event is their annual Jefferson-Jackson Day fund-raising dinner. I've been invited to speak at several of these things over the last several months, and it occurs to me that somewhere along the line I have become dinner.

I've just finished my presentation on the radical right wing, in which I mildly criticized a Democratic elected official. (Point of interest to those who may be speaking at political events such as these: Unless it is really central to your purpose, avoid criticism of the party leadership.) I'm thinking the whole thing has gone pretty well, except for that little thing about the senator. Now it's time for questions. This moment is accompanied by the usual twinge of anxiety. Virtually every time I do a public presentation, at least one right-winger is there. I just never know which ones they are. I learned long ago that you can't tell militia guys by the clothes they wear (unless they are on maneuvers). But they reveal themselves by their questions: usually a long statement followed by, "Wouldn't you agree, Mr. Toole?" Generally, I answer either "Yes" or "No." They, of course, are ready with a follow-up question, which I don't let them ask because it's someone else's turn for a question. It makes some of them really mad.

So this transition from presentation to questions always has me on guard. If you lose the initial volley, they come at you like a swarm of maggots, your face gets red, mouth goes dry, sweat beads up on your forehead ... you get the picture. While these animated encounters make great copy for the local media, they are very hard on my cardiovascular system.

Anyway, here in Libby on this warm, pleasant evening, after a dinner of little hot dog things, chicken wings and three-bean salad, I look out at the people who have their hands up (all three of them). I know this is a safe crowd. How many right-wingers are willing to pay for a dinner where they have to eat with a bunch of Democrats and listen to a liberal? I look at the people with their hands up and I choose one.

She stands and faces the audience to make her remarks. Usually when a person stands to address the audience it is to call me a jerk and to urge the audience to read the Constitution for themselves. This is not so good; I've learned that wresting control from an "organic sovereign citizen" waving the Citizen's Rule Book over his or her head can be difficult.

Much to my relief, this question is not the beginning of a confrontational statement. But, in some ways it's even worse. It goes something like this, "I want to thank the Human Rights Network for the work they do countering right-wing groups here in Montana. What Ken has not mentioned is that he is a Montanan. He didn't move here from somewhere else. The fact of the matter is that the political ideas which are foreign to Montana are the politics of these right-wingers. They come here fleeing whatever and, now, by God, they are going to live exactly how they want. They don't understand our communities. Wouldn't you agree, Ken?"

All eyes turn to me. I look at my watch. I look out at the room. Three or four people are quietly napping, chins on their chest. I say, "Yes ... somewhat ... it's an interesting question. We should be careful about making sweeping assumptions about these things. The right wing has always found an audience which transcends geography." I may as well have shrugged and said, "Yes and no." I take a few more questions and thank the Libby Democrats for inviting me.

Exploring the "common wisdom"

On the drive home the next day the question stayed in my mind. (The drive is seven hours, so there is plenty of time for reflection.) It's really the "Who joins these groups and why?" question. There are lots of answers. But none of them are quite satisfactory. Let me list a few of the "common wisdom" answers to the question:

First, the Pathological Analysis - During the Freeman stand-off in Montana, some reporter figured out that one of the ringleaders, Rodney Skurdall, had been hit on the head with a pipe when he was working in the oil fields in Wyoming. The implication was clear: Nutty political beliefs flow from bumps on the head.

Second, the Authoritarian Personality - This is not as simple as a hematoma in the brainpan. Sociologists and psychologists have identified the "authoritarian personality" to explain the apparent lack of critical thinking evident in anyone who believes this stuff. People with domineering mothers or alcoholic fathers, bed-wetters, nail-biters ... these are the denizens of the radical right wing. This is convenient, because we get to blame the parents.

Third, the Marxist Analysis - This says economic stress pushes people into right-wing ideology. Lack of a job or losing the farm drives an otherwise perfectly reasonable, kind person into the arms of the right-wingers. We like this one, because we get to blame the economic system.

Fourth, the Immigrant Theory - These wacky people are moving here because it is such a nice place and they are fleeing things like crime (black people) and rules and regulations (government). They are angry, fearful and disenfranchised. There is some irony in an explanation which blames "immigrants" for a xenophobic mentality.

Finally, the Marlboro Man Theory - Proponents of this view focus on the West's wide open spaces, live-and-let-live attitude, economies in transition, and large tracts of public land. People come here to fit in with what they think the West is, and carry it too far.

These all make sense. But they also make a fundamental error; they separate the movements from the ideas they promote. And this leads us to treat the right wing as a social phenomena rather than a political reality. But the fact is that they have moved their ideas from the fringes of the political system to center stage. The radical fringe speaks the unspeakable, repeats it, modifies it to make it palatable to the political main.

Their approach is working because in American politics, the fringes are our research and development department. Ideas come from the fringe. Groups like Militia of Montana, trolling the waters of local politics with a variety of messages for bait, waiting for a strike from the body politic, have a dramatic effect on political issues ranging from gun control to tax reform to land-use planning. The anti-gun control sentiment so strong in the West correlates to individual freedom, which correlates to property rights, which leads to vociferous opposition to land-use planning, and so it goes. And, of course, the leaders of these groups understand that and use it.

That is why Militia of Montana sells videotapes by wise-use activist Ron Arnold and Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth, along with tapes from religious-right groups about public education.

Perhaps the best known example of the power of the fringe is David Duke. His National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP) provides a conceptual foil to Affirmative Action. Duke's political agenda 10 years ago included immigration reform, welfare reform and an end to affirmative action. Duke moved the "white victim" arguments about civil rights in America from Bubba's garage to legislative halls. Of course, he didn't do it alone, and yes, there were other factors, but it was Duke and others on the radical fringe who plowed the ground.

That's why the ideas developed and promoted by right-wing groups matter. Sure, their leadership is rife with individuals who are dysfunctional. And yes, they prey on economic uncertainty. And, of course, none of "them" really comes from "our" community.

But all that analysis misses the main point: that it is the ideas that hold things together. The appeal of the right's ideas transcends geography, economic status and personality. Failing to recognize the power and the importance of the ideas behind the wacky behavior causes us to misinterpret the importance and power of right-wing activism in a community.

The tie that binds

I stop at the little store in the Swan Valley for a Diet Coke and some gas. A couple of guys are sitting at the counter enjoying a morning cup of coffee. There is a bulletin board just inside the door (reading these bulletin boards is always interesting). Among the ads for horse trailers and logging equipment there is one for the Clinton Chronicles, an exposé of the nefarious activities of the Clinton administration.

While I'm paying, one of them asks me where I'm headed. I tell them Helena. "So, you work for the government?" Helena is the capital. "No," I say. "Where are you coming from?" I tell them I had a meeting with the local Democratic Party in Libby. I grin. "Don't care much for Democrats," one of them says. "Don't like Republicans either," says the other. Still grinning, I say, "Well, I can agree with half of that." We all chuckle as one of them hands me my change. I look at the bright green sign in the window. It reads "This Business Supported by the Timber Industry." "You have a good one, now," he says. "You, too," I say. I get back in the car, hoping they don't vote.

I get settled heading south on Montana Highway 83, cruise control set, Coke opened, tape on, volume up, and return to mental meandering. So, what are the ideas that hold the right wing together? The right wing is not a club or an organization with a mission statement and bylaws. It is a social movement with a fair amount of diversity in it. But there are uniting themes. Almost universal among right-wingers is a minimalist view of the role of cooperative public activity (aka government), particularly in its current form, particularly at the federal level. It cuts across various subsets of the right wing, from racist groups to the so-called "wise-use" movement. It is the tie that binds.

Those on the right forget that the founders came together to form a federal government, and not to declare freedom from bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. Anti-federal sentiment is a powerful idea which has broad appeal that transcends the wacky elements of the right, such as the militia and Freemen. Free enterprise is the most consistent economic philosophy on the right - the belief that free markets are the only efficient way to deliver any goods or service. Any interference with markets by the government is bad, bad, bad.

This myth is strongly reinforced by a host of players with significant resources in their never-ending efforts to increase profits by eliminating regulations. Of course, the "wise users' are big promoters of the "market mantra," but the religious right is also a booster. In his book Babylon, the vice chair of the Montana Christian Coalition, Joe Balyeat, says this about the pooling of resources by early Christians: "In fact, it goes entirely contrary to the rest of biblical economic wisdom which mandates a ... private free-enterprise system."

The notions of nation, culture and race are a jumble on the right. Perceived threats to our "national culture" are the staple diet of the right wing. Illegal immigrants, affirmative action, the Endangered Species Act, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Education Association, are all threats to our culture, our traditions, our national heritage.

Another powerful feature of the right wing is the conspiratorial world view. I had the rare pleasure of speaking once with Bob Fletcher, one of the founders of the Militia of Montana. Bob had the famous "Blue Book" with him. The Blue Book is a three-ring binder (blue in color, of course) full of "proof" of any number of evils the government is perpetrating on "We the People." After looking at a bunch of nondescript photos and exchanging some heated words with Bob, I said, "But, Bob, it just doesn't make any sense." He replied, "Of course it doesn't! That's how they get away with it." Wow! Who can argue with that?

What fun is a conspiracy without conspirators? Fortunately, the right provides them in great numbers: The U.N., NATO, the Trilateral Commission, the Committee of 300, the Illuminati, the whole New World Order crowd. Come on, guys, just say it. It's those international banksters, the JEWS! The anti-Semitism of the right is consistent and pervasive. If you think this particularly ugly idea is reserved for skinheads and the KKK, thumb through Pat Robertson's book, The New World Order.

Finally, there is this whole idea of an external, absolute source of truth. Within the racist right this manifests itself in the form of a theology called Christian Identity. Identity folks believe that whites are God's chosen, Jews are Satan's spawn, and people of color don't have souls. Not surprisingly, but ironically, these guys spend most of their time in the Old Testament. They don't talk much about Jesus and the Social Gospel.

Related to all of the above is a lens which focuses much of the right-wing view of the world: fundamentalism. Those great cornerstones of our culture, the Bible and the Constitution, mean what they say and say what they mean. If you don't get it, you are simply in error. If you don't change your thinking, then you become the enemy. Fundamentalism provides certainty. And it is the militancy, the vigor and the passion of these movements that make them political movements to be concerned about.

These ideas appeal to people. Sure, it helps if the listener is a mental defective who moved here from Southern California and lost his job because he bumped his head riding a horse through a uniquely Western landscape made up of public lands. But normal people who are financially secure and born and raised in the West also like these ideas. One does not have to be dumb or demented to sign on.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, the phones in our office were clogged with calls from reporters seeking information about the militia movement. Many called back after interviewing members of militia or other right-wing groups, saying something like, "Gee, they sure were nice people, not at all what I expected."

When I would ask what they had expected, they used words like "irrational," "crazy," "secretive" and "agitated." When I asked about what they discussed, the reporter would invariably say, "Oh, that stuff was just crazy, but they seemed like nice folks." Well, sure, but that's not the issue, is it?

The problem is not the messenger. It is the message.

This article is part of a series on politics in the West funded by the Wyss Foundation and the Ruth Mott Fund.

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