Last year, shortly after Barack Obama was inaugurated as president, news reports began to appear about a group calling itself the “Tea Party.” Taking its name from the 1773 Boston protest against the British government, the Tea Party cast itself as a grass-roots movement of ordinary citizens opposed to the policies of the new president and his fellow Democrats in Congress. Thanks to frequent coverage from the cable channel Fox News, the group quickly became a magnet for anyone who was angry or fearful about the direction the country was heading. Today it is one of the loudest voices on the Right. Although much left-wing media coverage of the Tea Party has focused on the outrageous signs and paranoid theories, journalist Chip Berlet admonishes progressives to pay attention to the Tea Party’s actions and complaints or run the risk of observing its rise to power from the sidelines.
Berlet has been researching and writing about American right-wing movements for more than thirty-five years. Throughout his career he has played the role of town crier, warning the public about groups that fuel hatred or encourage violence: the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, the Posse Comitatus, the Aryan Nations, the Christian Identity movement, and racist skinheads. Prior to the 1995 terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, he cautioned about the dangers posed by armed right-wing militias.
Born in 1949, Berlet grew up in New Jersey and as a teenager became active through his church in the civil-rights movement. He attended the University of Denver for three years before leaving to work as a journalist in 1971. He was one of the first to publicize white supremacists’ recruitment of struggling Midwestern farmers in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1984, when only a small fraction of the population owned a computer, Berlet learned that right-wing hate groups were disseminating racist and anti-Semitic material over computer networks. To counter them, Berlet helped set up and operated a progressive bulletin-board system, or “BBS” — a predecessor to online forums — on an Atari video-game console in his basement.
Today that BBS is the Public Eye website of Political Research Associates (www.publiceye.org), a Massachusetts-based nonprofit where Berlet works as a senior analyst. A staunch defender of civil liberties, he has served on the advisory boards of both the Campaign to Defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights Foundation. Despite his concerns about the dangers of far-right movements, he is opposed to surveillance efforts that violate the rights guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution.
To keep up with the latest developments, Berlet reads right-wing publications and routinely attends gatherings of the groups he is researching, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Tea Party. He also studies conspiracy theories on both the Right and the Left and cautions progressives against embracing them, saying that conspiracy thinking will only undermine efforts to bring about social change.
Berlet lectures around the country and has written for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Nation. He is the coauthor of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (Guilford Press) and editor of Eyes Right! Challenging the Right-Wing Backlash (South End Press). I caught up with him for an interview this past April while he was attending the annual Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colorado. Portions of our taped conversation aired on Alternative Radio, a public-affairs program that I host (www.alternativeradio.org).
Barsamian: What are the origins of the Tea Party movement?
Berlet: It started out as a fake grass-roots movement funded by political elites. We call them “AstroTurf movements,” after the brand of artificial grass. Republican and conservative political operatives were trying to create the impression that there was a groundswell of antagonism toward the Obama agenda. Some of the early activities were very thinly disguised AstroTurf, but as the media began to pick up on it — especially Fox News — the Tea Party turned into an actual social movement. It escaped the specific economic-libertarian agenda set for it by Dick Armey, the former Republican House leader from Texas whose organization funds a lot of Tea Party events. Other agendas were brought in: anti-immigrant, antigay, antiabortion, even conspiracy theories about the “new world order” and the UN coming in black helicopters. The Tea Party movement has also drawn supporters from the Ron Paul people, the Christian Right, the militias, and the conspiracy theorists who think President Obama is going to merge the United States, Canada, and Mexico into a North American Union. It’s not really fair to call it an “antigovernment” movement — I think the Tea Partiers would be quite happy with an authoritarian, laissez-faire government. It’s really antiregime.
Barsamian: What kind of numbers does the movement have?
Berlet: I think it’s in the millions. That’s counting not just the active participants but also the at-home supporters. Some polls show that somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Tea Party movement. There are Tea Party chapters in almost all fifty states — in some states there are as many as ten chapters — and they’re all involved in some kind of political activism.
Large and loud social movements like this one pull political parties in their direction. In the 1930s the labor movement pulled Franklin Delano Roosevelt kicking and screaming to a more progressive position. The civil-rights movement did the same with the Democrats in the 1960s. The Christian Right helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980 and has influenced Republican policies ever since. Now we have the Republican Party moving to embrace the Tea Party, and the Tea Party in some ways gravitating toward mainstream Republican politics. In November 2009 I attended a Tea Party meeting in Boise, Idaho, where two Republicans from the state legislature presented their policy ideas. There was a perfectly sensible — if right-wing, libertarian — discussion about policy going on, but there was also rhetoric that was alarmist and paranoid. This was before the healthcare package came to a vote, and one woman was saying that we already have “socialized medicine” in America. Not that I was aware of. [Laughs.]
Much of the information Tea Party members repeat and rely on to support their positions is demonstrably false. Some of this misinformation gets generated by spin doctors and public-relations agencies and political advertising. Then there are the politicians who are either lying or so caught up in an isolated worldview that they’re putting out false “facts.” And a third source is conspiracy thinking, which takes gossip and rumor and recasts it as research and information. Now, I enjoy reading conspiracy novels, and this is from someone who for thirty years has argued against conspiracy thinking in politics. I enjoy it in fiction and entertainment, but I have a problem with it in political analysis.
So right now there are large numbers of people who believe arguments that a high-school student with one course in logic could disprove. It’s fine to believe something on faith in religion, but it’s bad in a democracy. The Founders, as flawed as they were, figured out that in the public arena you must have facts in order to engage in some kind of dialogue. Thomas Jefferson said we needed an “informed citizenry.” It’s the basis of our democracy, but we don’t have it today. We’ve probably never had it in an ideal sense, but in the last ten or twenty years it’s gotten worse. We live in a propaganda society. It’s not possible to have a reasoned debate on immigration with someone who believes that Obama is a native of Kenya or is part of some secret cabal led by the Jews, or the Muslims, or the Rockefeller family, or whomever. The Tea Partiers honestly believe they are not merely arguing with fellow citizens but defending America from alien people and ideas.
The situation is getting worse as journalism loses the money or the incentive to fact-check and send reporters out into the field to gather information. Investigative journalism has been eroded by a focus on the bottom line. After the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s there was a burst of funding for investigative reporting, but at the same time the print-media industry was collapsing — and the pace of its collapse has only quickened. It’s now easy to build a viable movement on false information, propaganda, and malicious demagoguery, which is how you create totalitarianism. This is what George Orwell wrote about in his novel 1984. Any totalitarian movement, on the Left or Right, must create a controlled, biased information system that convinces people to act in certain ways, either because they perceive it to be in their best interest or because they believe they will be punished if they do otherwise.
Barsamian: How is the Tea Party affecting politics?
Berlet: We saw its effect with the election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts to fill the Senate seat of the late Democratic senator Ted Kennedy. A lot of pundits point out that the Tea Party was not active in Massachusetts, but the sentiments of the Tea Party have reached even people of color and union members, who are caught up in this zeitgeist of anger at the government. I watched union members line the streets holding up Scott Brown placards.
In this November’s off-year election the Democrats are not expected to do well, and the Tea Party movement could cause them to lose even more seats, setting up Obama to be a one-term president. On the other hand, alarmist conspiracy theories about socialism and treason and betrayal are sweeping through the movement and making it a potential liability for the Republicans: if right-wingers feel they have permission to viciously go after immigrants, Muslims, people of color, gay people, and abortion-rights defenders — anyone seen as part of Obama’s plan to “destroy America” — it could backfire. But the Democrats have failed to craft a response that rebuts and rejects the Right’s claims. Though I prefer not to look at the numbers as if they were box scores, because there are real people being harmed by all this right now, I think the Democrats will lose seats in November. The only question is: how many?
Right now there are large numbers of people who believe arguments that a high-school student with one course in logic could disprove. It’s fine to believe something on faith in religion, but it’s bad in a democracy.
Barsamian: Is political nuance being lost in this debate?
Berlet: It is. The Tea Party is essentially a right-wing populist movement, and though populism has many positive aspects, one of its shortcomings is that it tends to reduce everything to “Throw the bums out.”
Barsamian: Who are the Tea Party members in terms of race, class, income, education?
Berlet: Besides being much more conservative than the norm, the movement’s rank and file tend to be significantly more often white and a little bit wealthier. But what most people in the Tea Party have in common is that they get their information from a very narrow range of sources: Fox News, talk radio, and right-wing publications.
Barsamian: Has the movement been able to attract young people?
Berlet: There are some young people participating, and they tend to be ones who were mobilized by the Ron Paul campaign and other libertarian candidates. Young people are loudly applauded at rallies, but I haven’t seen evidence that they’re heavily involved. Certainly the Obama campaign in 2008 represented a major increase in the political involvement of young people. I don’t see that happening with the Tea Party.
Barsamian: You take issue with the left-wing media that dismiss the Tea Party as a fringe movement.
Berlet: They’re hardly on the fringe in terms of popular perception, and the Left dismisses them at its own peril. We’ve seen so-called fringe forces capture the public’s attention before, during the Clinton administration, when right-wing groups claimed that President Clinton had murdered his aide Vince Foster and was about to impose a new world order and take away all our guns. Those conspiracy theories became widespread and arguably hampered the administration’s ability to get policy passed through Congress.
So you can say that their ideas are silly, but if you are the Democratic Party and you’re the target of this onslaught, do you really want to poke a stick at the Tea Party and say, “Bring it on”? Millions of Americans are ticked off at the government for what they see as gridlock in Washington. They’re angry at Democrats and Republicans who have been feeding wealth upward. These outraged people could be reached by a Democratic or progressive response to their concerns, but instead the liberal media are dismissing the Tea Party folks — who at least are voicing a response — as “crackpots.” I understand it feels good to say that when you’re in New York City, but I interviewed a young Muslim in Boise who said these people scared her. Tribal activists I interviewed in Montana are scared, too, because they see this anger being directed toward them. So it’s callous for liberals in big cities to dismiss the Tea Party movement as a bunch of “wing nuts” when it’s creating problems for people of color and gays and women who support reproductive rights in the rest of America.
It’s callous for liberals in big cities to dismiss the Tea Party movement as a bunch of “wing nuts” when it’s creating problems for people of color and gays and women who support reproductive rights in the rest of America.
Barsamian: How can progressives push back against the Tea Party?
Berlet: When you want radical change, you have to demand it, and you have to demand it in a way that forces those in power to give up something in order to calm you down. You want to destabilize society slightly. That’s what the Tea Party members are doing. But they’ve built a movement around scapegoating and demonization and fear, and the Left doesn’t want to do that, because it would encourage violence. The civil-rights movement espoused a philosophy of nonviolence. Nonviolent didn’t mean “nonmilitant,” by the way; Martin Luther King Jr. urged people to take to the streets. The civil-rights movement is an example of an angry, populist social movement built around extending democracy and fighting for equality and not being satisfied with the crumbs off the tables of the wealthy.
The civil-rights movement started out focused on the rights of black people, but in a speech given in 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, King talked explicitly about how you cannot have civil rights unless you address the economy and the war, because the three are intractably linked. He was saying that all of it needed to change for a progressive agenda to move forward. When he was assassinated, he was in Memphis to support a garbage-workers’ strike.
Barsamian: Around King’s birthday you hear the “I Have a Dream” speech, but the Riverside Church speech is not as well-known.
Berlet: King was assassinated before his more far-ranging ideas could reach the public. The Left lost a generation or two of leadership through various coordinated attacks by both private and government right-wing forces. From 1956 to 1971 the FBI set out to systematically undermine the Left through COINTELPRO, an illegal surveillance program that spied on U.S. citizens. The FBI actually killed popular Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was talking about real reform and had close ties to white religious groups and labor. He was set up by an FBI informer, who lied about there being illegal weapons in the apartment where Hampton lived. Hampton and another Panther named Mark Clark were killed in the subsequent raid. In the drawing the informer gave the FBI there was an x on the bed where Hampton slept, and the informer had drugged him to make sure he’d be asleep during the raid. After Hampton was killed, the informer received a bonus.
Barsamian: Others were killed during COINTELPRO, particularly in the American Indian Movement.
Berlet: This has all gone down the memory hole for most Americans. The white Left suffered, but the activists of color were the targets of the more aggressive and murderous activity. The FBI’s goal was to stop an alliance of the white Left, the white Christian community, black civil-rights leaders, and labor leaders.
I think the unfinished debate over race in America is part of what’s behind the Tea Party movement. Much of the anxiety over Obama comes from whites’ not knowing what to do with a black president. Most of the Tea Partiers have never had a black boss, and they’re anxious, and this anxiety can be exploited by people like Glenn Beck on Fox News and other commentators who use a racial subtext. A lot of the racism in right-wing populism is built around the fear that when America is no longer majority white and majority Christian, it will no longer be America. I don’t think that’s true. America grows and becomes stronger with change, including changing demographics.
Clearly there are occasions when people step over the line into overt racism, but I think much of the racism in the Tea Party movement is unconscious. For instance, the rumor that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. relates to the belief that an African American could never be president, so clearly Obama must be from another country. There is a lot of anxiety over gender as well. The Christian faction of the Tea Party is primarily concerned about gay marriage and abortion.
Barsamian: The website of the American Tea Party lists three core concerns: fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets. That’s quite different from abortion, gay rights, and gun control.
Berlet: And that was their original AstroTurf campaign. They wanted to create the impression of an economic-libertarian grass-roots movement to oppose Obama’s “socialism.” These fears about collectivism and socialism go back to the 1930s and 1940s, when socialism and national socialism — or Nazism — had both produced totalitarian governments. That’s why the Tea Party compares Obama to both Stalin and Hitler.
Barsamian: Do you get the sense that its members feel victimized?
Berlet: They feel threatened and displaced. Sociologist Rory McVeigh did a great study showing how right-wing movements arise in defense of power and privilege. People on the Right are fighting to keep something they don’t want to lose. That’s a strong motivator.
Barsamian: What are the mechanics behind their movement?
Berlet: You don’t build a campaign of prejudice out of thin air. It has to be rooted in the culture. So you start out with a rhetoric of us versus them: We’re good; they’re bad. We’re going to save America; they’re going to destroy it. Then you take all the problems of society and blame them on a scapegoat. In Germany it was the Jews. In India today the conservative Hindu groups blame the Muslims. So you pick a group that’s already resented, and you blame them and demonize them. They’re not just bad; they’re evil. In some cases this involves religious beliefs.
Once you’ve done the demonization and the scapegoating, you come up with conspiracy theories that portray “them” as dangerous enough to hurt “us.” And then the final question is: “Why should we wait for them to attack? Let’s get them before they get us.”
Barsamian: The virulence of language on the Right is acute. Everything is Armageddon, apocalypse, or a “nuclear option.”
Berlet: That’s because it’s portraying the political opposition not as people with whom you disagree but as a force of evil with whom there can be no compromise. How can you compromise with Satan? How can you compromise with the people who want to destroy America? What happens in this situation is that people start getting killed.
There is a maxim in sociology called the “Thomas Theorem,” which says that situations defined as real are real in their consequences. If you believe something to be true, you’re going to act on it. Even the wildest belief can lead people to act not just in voting booths but with guns.
Barsamian: Describe what happened in Pittsburgh in April 2009 with the murder of three police officers.
Berlet: There was a person named Richard Poplawski who believed all the Internet conspiracy theories about draconian gun control under Obama. Some police officers came to his house to respond to a domestic disturbance, and he interpreted it as an attempt to seize all his guns. He opened fire and shot them dead.
Barsamian: In 2009 a doctor was murdered in Kansas.
Berlet: Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed at the entrance to his church during services because he’d been performing abortions in that state for many years. The person convicted of his murder believed in a white-supremacist conspiracy worldview. Tiller had been singled out in the media by Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly. Once the scapegoats are named, some people will take aim at them. This past July a man was arrested in California with a carful of guns. The media reported that he was on his way to kill people at the offices of the Tides Foundation, a small social-justice nonprofit that Glenn Beck had attacked again and again on his show.
Barsamian: The former governor of Alaska and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is now a Fox News commentator. After the vote on healthcare, she displayed a map of the country targeting specific districts with cross hairs and the comment “Reload.”
Berlet: Palin is greatly admired on the Right. People who don’t like her have been sort of shoved aside in the Republican Party. But let’s talk about what it means to put cross hairs on your political opponents. It’s saying that if these people of color and gays and abortionists can’t be stopped, then maybe it’s OK just to shoot them. I don’t think that’s an overstatement of how some people are interpreting her rhetoric. It’s clearly a threatening image, and some people will see it as a job to do.
Barsamian: You mention Glenn Beck. Ten years ago no one had ever heard of him. What’s his background?
Berlet: He comes out of a religious, paranoid conspiracy culture that employs the same rhetoric you could find in publications of the ultra-Right John Birch Society back in the early 1960s. The John Birchers viewed the civil-rights movement as a plot of communists and, some members thought, Jews. Now that Soviet communism has gone away as the boogeyman, the Left has been recast as the communist menace from within, and single-payer healthcare and a decent living wage are somehow a plot to impose tyranny. For fundamentalist Christians this scenario plays on fears, rooted in a peculiar reading of the Book of Revelation, that a world political figure — could it be Obama? — is going to attempt to build a one-world government and establish world peace, which will bring about the End Times. Glenn Beck is just the most recent histrionic reteller of this story in the form of a conspiracy theory.
Barsamian: This past March we saw the arrest of members of the Hutaree militia. A Michigan justice official described the Hutaree as different from “mainstream militias.” That wording struck me as odd.
Berlet: Yes, it’s as if armed vigilantes have become the accepted norm — at least, on the Right. We use the term “militia” because that’s the name they give themselves, but these are vigilante groups.
Barsamian: What actions should be taken against these groups?
Berlet: We’re hearing a call from some liberals to crack down on extreme right-wing groups, but I think that’s dangerous. I think dissidents, on the Left or Right, who are not breaking any laws should not be the target of government surveillance. There is a new “suspicious activity” reporting system that’s going to be taken nationwide unless it’s stopped. Absent any evidence of criminal activity — and we should always be skeptical of informers — it’s not OK for the government to round people up on suspicion.
On the other hand, the idea that an armed vigilante movement with hundreds of cells around the country is somehow “mainstream” is appalling to me. Only white, Christian vigilantes can be called that, of course. Imagine if there were a hundred armed Mexican militias or Muslim militias or black militias around America. No one would say, “It’s OK. They’re mainstream.”
This idea that we can’t talk about regulating capitalism because it would be a form of socialism has a profound silencing effect, and it’s going to take us quite a while to convince average Americans of the difference between Stalin and single-payer healthcare.
Barsamian: The Hutaree group actually had a plan to commit violence.
Berlet: Yes, they were going to kill a police officer and then attack the mourners who showed up for the funeral. It’s a classic stereotype on the Right that people in Middle Eastern countries don’t have the same respect for life that we do. Yet here we have an example of the nastiest, most vicious kind of political execution planned by a group of right-wing Americans.
When suicide attacks are carried out by militants in the Middle East against “American interests,” the Right recognizes that as a form of terrorism. The numerous assaults on reproductive-rights clinics, however, never seem to be called “terrorism.” They often are the acts of disturbed individuals, but the media downplay the fact that the people who carry out these attacks, even if they are a little disturbed, have a political agenda and have gone after a scapegoat targeted by the right.
There’s also a double standard in coverage of violence on the Left versus violence on the Right. Violence on the Right is always unfortunate or understandable or maybe crazy, whereas if somebody on the Left throws a brick through a window of a shop, it’s terrorism.
Barsamian: Tell me more about your trip to Idaho to collect information on the Tea Party. Were people open or hostile?
Berlet: At the meeting I went to in Boise, they were not hostile at all. I came early with a friend who’s a human-rights activist. I told people I was writing for the Progressive magazine and thought it was important for our readers to know what the Tea Party was talking about. And they allowed me into their meeting. Some of the signs at these public events are odd, but the people I met were quite rational and clear about working with the Republican Party to move it farther to the right.
I was also on The Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio with a Tea Party member who was trying to explain what they were all about. When I asked him what the government was doing that scared him, he couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate it. He clearly felt that the government posed some kind of threat that required him to be armed, yet he wouldn’t say on national radio what that was.
If you go to their websites, however, you find that the militias are afraid the government is about to impose martial law, sweep away right-wing activists to concentration camps, and set up some kind of socialist dictatorship. Again, this is not a good basis for civil political discourse. When you have conspiracy theories sweeping through political debates and armed men saying that they’re going to protect America from tyranny, or the Oath Keepers saying that they’re not going to enforce laws that might establish this coming tyranny, you have a crisis of legitimacy going on.
Barsamian: Who are the Oath Keepers?
Berlet: The Oath Keepers are an alliance between reactionary ideologues and law-enforcement personnel. Going back to the early twentieth century and the crushing of labor unions and the Palmer Raids against immigrant anarchists and Russian communists, there has been an overlap between right-wing xenophobia and people in law enforcement or the military. In the eighties it was the Police against the New World Order.
Now the Oath Keepers say they’re going to violate their oath to defend state and federal laws if those laws seem, in their view, to be aimed at building the new world order. When you think about it, almost everything a Democratic president — especially a black Democratic president — is going to do could be interpreted as building a new world order. Basically, sworn officers of the law are going on record saying they will not enforce any law that offends them, which might include those relating to healthcare, immigrant rights, and gay rights.
Barsamian: “Government run” has become a term of derision, evoking pointy-headed bureaucrats ruining everything. Yet people generally approve of Social Security, Medicare, and certain other programs that are government run. It seems that some dots are not being connected.
Berlet: They’ve been disconnected. This goes back more than a hundred years in the U.S. If you read Protestant sermons from the late 1800s, they sound like Glenn Beck on a good day. They’re antigovernment, anticollective, antiunion. The idea is that good Protestants don’t depend on the government. Individualism and hard work and capitalism are seen as kind of a package deal. It wasn’t until FDR hit back at the banks and the financial sector that a social safety net was constructed. That was a real change in how Americans looked at government.
But then the Right immediately began a campaign against Roosevelt, claiming big government was the road to socialism and fascism. There was a push to reestablish a laissez-faire, free-market form of capitalism. Before World War II you could say, “Unregulated capitalism is a bad idea,” and you wouldn’t be called a “socialist,” but then came the McCarthy era, when so many intellectuals and activists on the Left were simply removed from public life. This purge started with the Dies Committee in the late 1930s and didn’t really end until the mid-1950s.
In 1964 Barry Goldwater ran for president on these ideas. He did extremely poorly in the general election, but his campaign built the base of what became the “New Right,” which called for corporate capital to fund an attack on the Left. Tens of millions of dollars were spent to convince Americans that free markets were the better way. The American Enterprise Institute [AEI], which came to prominence following the Goldwater campaign in 1964, provided the basis for a lot of these free-market ideas and is still pushing them today. In fact, it’s moving farther to the Right. In March the AEI forced out David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, after he criticized the Republican strategy on healthcare reform.
This alliance of the Christian Right, with its view of big government as ungodly and perhaps even satanic, and economic libertarians, who think that big government is the road to totalitarianism, helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980. The Right has maintained a massive network of corporate and philosophical foundations that pulls the Republican Party to the right. Liberals do not fund a similar network on the Left. They tend to fund band-aid fixes. Liberal foundations will say, “We fund activists, not media and conferences and think tanks.” But activists without direction and without ideology are at a loss to confront the right-wing activists who have a road map drawn up for them.
If we really want to push back against this campaign to promote free-market, laissez-faire capitalism, somebody is going to have to invest in a strategic plan and develop a new argument for an expanded social safety net. I don’t see the Obama administration doing that, and I don’t see left-wing foundations doing that. It’s up to individuals on the Left to raise a ruckus and start saying, “This is unacceptable.”
It won’t be easy. This idea that we can’t talk about regulating capitalism because it would be a form of socialism has a profound silencing effect, and it’s going to take us quite a while to convince average Americans of the difference between Stalin and single-payer healthcare. On the other hand, 30 to 40 percent of Americans — mostly young people — now concede that a socialist society can function in some sort of democratic way. It’s not that they support it; it’s just that they recognize that is how some societies are organized. This is the highest percentage since the Depression.
Barsamian: What example in history can we look to for lessons?
Berlet: Weimar Germany in the 1920s and 1930s comes to mind, as political theorist Noam Chomsky has observed. The political scene was gridlocked, and there was talk about the destruction of the nation of Germany. There was a point when many middle-class, moderate voters — the “burghers,” they were called — were so fed up with the system and so surrounded with conspiracy theories about the collapse of the country that they voted for Hitler, not because they liked the National Socialists but because they had just had enough.
When a large group of people who already have excess power and privilege become afraid the government and minorities will take away their power, that’s an explosive situation. Moderate voters begin to vote to overturn the system just to shake things up.
Barsamian: In 1928 the Nazis received only 3 percent of the vote. Four years later they were in power.
Berlet: People look at the Tea Party and see average citizens. “These are just voters who are angry,” they tell me. And I say, “Yes, exactly like Weimar in 1928.”
I don’t want to alarm people. Right-wing populist movements seldom become fascist, and fascist movements seldom take power. But when you build a major social movement around scapegoating and resentment, things can move quickly in a bad direction.
In the U.S. we have a two-party system, not a parliamentary system like Weimar Germany. We don’t have a strong Communist Party or a Left party that’s threatening to take political power. So we’re not going to have a Hitler; we’re not going to have storm troopers marching in the streets. What we’re going to have is a Republican Party that moves to the Right and openly embraces racist, xenophobic ideologies, following the anger of the predominantly white Republican middle class. And the Democrats will follow them, or at least not mount a real opposition. There will be more anti-Muslim and antifeminist and antigay rhetoric. There will be more support for foreign intervention. And that’s our future, unless the progressive movement stands up and starts raising hell.