Fears of an anti-Obama far-right resurgence are fantasy
Hysteria about the 'rise' of far-right groups under Democratic presidents have become almost traditional in the United States
It is not only within the European Union that people are nervous about political extremism. In America, too, a panic is spreading about the rise of the Far Right.
Last week's attack on Washington DC's Holocaust Memorial Museum by a crazed 89-year-old gunman, and the murder, ten days earlier in Kansas, of abortionist George Tiller, have prompted a surge of anxiety about a coming wave of militant violence in the Age of Obama.
Media pundits have rushed to the airwaves to declare that conditions are ripe for a groundswell of racist radicalism. The president, after all, is a black man whose middle name is Hussein. Unemployment is at its highest in 25 years. Scariest of all, firearms sales have rocketed as conservative gun-owners react to reports that the new administration is going to take away their rights.
America is apparently a ‘fertile recruiting environment for right-wing extremists’
Even before last year's election, authorities in Tennessee had arrested two neo-Nazi youths who were allegedly plotting to kill the Democratic nominee and 88 black children. In April the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a document warning that the current state of the country made for a "fertile recruiting environment for right-wing extremists". The report was promptly shelved after Republicans denounced it as anti-conservative scaremongering.
After the latest atrocities, angry liberal voices are demanding that the DHS's warnings be heeded. But two or three shootings - no matter how horrifying - hardly indicate a broad trend.
It should be remembered that the United States experienced similar bouts of hysteria about the rise of a fanatical ultra-right under popular Democratic presidents of the 20th century. There was the infamous Brown scare about American fascists who opposed FDR; the popular outcry against the anti-Communist Minutemen during the presidency of JFK; and the widespread alarm about ultra-right militias in the Bill Clinton years.
Yet, however real the threat from far-right fanatics, the public and media responses have tended to be wildly disproportionate, even dangerous. In 1995, after the disgruntled loner Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing, the Clinton administration became obsessed with the menace of anti-liberal militias, so much so that it failed to pay adequate attention to the more ominous threat posed by al-Qaeda.
For most Americans before 9/11, the word 'terrorist' probably conjured up images of swastika-clad skinheads rather than sandal-wearing Islamists. Hollywood played a key part in fostering this collective paranoia. Films such as Arlington Road and American History X depicted sinister (and hugely improbable) American Nazi underground cults.
The news media, meanwhile, was hardly less fantastical. In the months after Oklahoma City, journalists claimed to have exposed a string of racially motivated arson attacks on black churches, reports which turned out to have been, at best, misleading.
Something similar is happening in 2009. After Tiller's assassination last month, the left-leaning website Daily Kos accused Fox News's Bill O'Reilly of directing a "jihad" against the doctor because the presenter had used the phrase "Tiller the baby killer" on his show.
O'Reilly's language was no doubt irresponsible. But charging him with direct complicity in Tiller's death is absurd, as ridiculous as right-wing windbags calling every Muslim a terrorist, or every liberal a closet socialist.
America's public discourse is full of such incendiary language, and there is no shortage of dangerous lunatics with a vicious hatred for Barack Obama. In contrast to Europe, however, explicitly racist groups do not stand any chance of winning seats in serious elections. The recurring nightmare of a fascist American insurgency owes more to liberal fantasy than to reality. ·
Comments are now closed on this article