Posted: September 1, 2003
hat do Richard Nixon, Timothy McVeigh, Ronald Reagan, William Potter Gale (a founder of the Posse Comitatus movement), George Wallace, Justice Scalia, David Duke, Dick Armey, David Koresh (of Waco and the Branch Davidians), Allan P. Bakke, Richard Butler (head of the Aryan Nations), Robert Welch (founder of the John Birch Society), Buford O. Furrow, Jr. (who attacked a Jewish Community Center), and George W. Bush all have in common?
Not much, you might say, unless you are Daniel Levitas, author of The Terrorist Next Door. In which case you would say, as he does, that all of these people are either outright violent, racist, Jew-hating, states' rights advocating, tax resisting, gun-toting extremists—or witting or unwitting fellow travelers. Levitas provides a kind of intellectual history that might accompany those maps of the United States that depict everything west of the Hudson as a blur of corn fields, cactus, and clapped-together small towns populated by inbred snake-handling Christians. In this view of America, as the title of Levitas's book indicates, right-wing extremism is not a fringe movement. Henry Ford after all was an anti-Semite, who used his wealth to promote scurrilous attacks on Jews. Hitler thought so highly of Ford that he offered him the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest award the Third Reich could grant a foreigner. Ford gladly accepted.
As Ford's example makes clear, according to Levitas, anti-Semitism and other illiberal views are very much part of the American mainstream, always lurking just below the surface, ready to rise when stirred up by social or political turbulence. William Potter Gale, for example, began his right-wing career in the 1950s when the civil rights movement and the Cold War caused millions of Americans to share his hatred of blacks and his fear of Communism. In Levitas's view, Dick Armey's efforts in the 1990s to curb the power of the IRS cannot be separated from the work of Gale and other right-wing extremists. Indeed, Levitas considers the Republican resurgence in 1994 as the virtual takeover of the House of Representatives by the extremist ideas of the lunatic and recently very deadly right wing.
It would not be altogether unjust to dismiss Levitas as a left-wing counterpart to the rightwing extremists whose thoughts and actions he records. But for two reasons we should not do this. First, Levitas provides the most complete account we have of the ideas and often interlocking organizations responsible for the harassment and killing of federal marshals, interracial couples, blacks, Asians, Jews, and the 168 people who died in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. Second, Levitas has some evidence to offer in support of his view. He can, for example, cite the words and deeds, some of them recent, of elected conservatives at the state and national level, which give aid and comfort to the noxious fringes of American politics. He can cite several cases where movements to limit the power of the federal government or to protect the rights of gun owners have been infiltrated by racists and anti-Semites. Levitas does not make a detailed argument to support his views. He compiles and insinuates. Neither does he consider the counter-evidence. He is a partisan. Still, in making his case, Levitas offers conservatives an opportunity to recall what distinguishes them from those monstrous creatures that Levitas sees as their natural kin. He reminds conservatives that they must be vigilant, as vigilant as liberals had to be, in their ascendancy, against infiltration by Leftists and Marxists.
In his effort to show that right-wing extremism is, paradoxically, part of the American mainstream, Levitas does not consider only contemporary America. He ranges, if only briefly, through history. He argues, for example, that Christianity, perhaps the most powerful shaper of American character, has an inherent tendency to denigrate Jews because Christians envy the Jews their status as the chosen people. He offers the 17th-century American theologian Cotton Mather as an example of this Christian tendency because Mather said that the Puritans should make a "New Israel" in America. Levitas implies that this meant that Mather wanted Christians to supplant Jews. In contemporary America, this envy takes the form of Christian Identity Theology, which powers much right wing extremism. This theology argues that the Jews are the offspring of Satan who have stolen the birthright of the Anglo-Saxons as the chosen people and who, along with other non-Anglo-Saxons, can be killed or mistreated without compunction.
Levitas withdraws the suggestion that Mather was a proto-Christian Identity theologian almost as soon as he makes it. It is, to say the least, a bit of a stretch. He is on firmer ground in his treatment of John C. Calhoun as the outstanding spokesman for states' rights and the denial of human equality. In a brief chapter, he presents Calhoun's arguments and shows that they resurfaced in the mouths of a variety of Southern politicians during the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. Watching the use of federal troops and marshals during these struggles, William Gale sought a basis for resisting what he considered to be the unlawful exercise of federal power to attain a repugnant end, black equality. Over time, as Gale became a Christian Identity adherent, he articulated the idea that the only legitimate source of power resides in the county, more particularly, in the posse comitatus ("power of the county"). According to Gale, the Christian citizens of a county can call the posse into existence without regard to the wishes of the county sheriff.
However far-fetched as history or consti- tutional theory, this idea has proven remarkably flexible. In the 1960s an early version of it appealed to Gale and others as a way to resist the federally enforced civil rights movement. In the 1970s, some of those involved with the tax protest movement adopted it and Gale's anti-Semitic and racist ideas. In the 1980s, the Posse movement and its extremist notions infiltrated the farm protest movement. Finally, in the 1990s, Gale's posse ideas and Christian Identity Theology inspired many in the militia movement, as well as Timothy McVeigh.
* * *
Levitas is diligent in tracking the influence of the Posse and Christian Identity as they seeped into a variety of political or social movements over the last fifty years. As noted, however, Levitas is less diligent in examining exactly how the ideas of the racist Right actually relate to the mainstream of American thought.
Consider first the issue of Christianity. Levitas suggests that Christian Identity theology is somehow Christian. As Michael Barkun has argued (Religion and the Racist Right: The Origin of the Christian Identity Movement), in its insistence on the role of Satan in the world, Christian Identity is more Manichean than Christian. Furthermore, as Barkun also points out, fundamentalist Protestants, whom Levitas seems to confuse with Christian Identity adherents, do not preach racism or anti-Semitism. Indeed, fundamentalists tend to be philo-Semitic and pro-Israel because they see the establishment of the state of Israel and its extension to its biblical boundaries as a sign that biblical prophecies about the fate of mankind are being fulfilled. Although many fundamentalists believe that these prophecies include a violent struggle before the return of Christ in which many Jews and others will die, they do not see the Jews as enemies or as less-than-human. Generally speaking, unlike Christian Identity, fundamentalists see a unity to the human race that reflects God's unity.
A much more glaring oversight is Levitas's failure or refusal to see anything in the American political tradition that stands as a counterweight to the ideas of Calhoun. This is all the more surprising since one of the extremist groups Levitas tracked—this one a direct descendent of Calhoun—blamed September 11 on Abraham Lincoln and America's devotion to equality and unity (which supposedly led us to allow immigrants and thus the September 11 attackers to enter the United States). Yet in his long book Levitas has nothing good to say about Lincoln and the America he represents.
Levitas may have offered his distorted view of America in hopes of galvanizing action against the proponents of racism and anti-Semitism he tracks. But so distorted is the picture he presents that it might in fact encourage despair. It leaves the impression that there is nothing native to the United States that might enable us to resist the evil that Levitas chronicles so well. This is far from true, of course. Traditional American political and religious principles offer more than enough material and encouragement to those who want to keep our political streams running clean. It is only a matter of returning to their source.