Unrest. Civil war. A United Nations occupation. According to Tom Head, the county judge of Lubbock, Texas, armed conflict and insurrection will surely greet President Barack Obama’s reelection. “And we’re not talking just a few riots here and demonstrations,” Head said recently. “We’re talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms and get rid of the guy.”
Up in Lexington and Concord, the comments from Lubbock County’s top elected official sound like the ravings of a man on his way to the state hospital at Bridgewater. But Head’s paranoia about UN storm troopers and an invasion by his own government is far from unique. For the better part of the past four years, Republicans have fanned radical fever dreams as a get-out-the-vote strategy.
Legitimate political figures — men and women who should know better — have fed the notion that this White House just isn’t great at creating jobs, but is actually un-American and illegitimate. It’s not enough to disagree with Obama on social issues or budget policy; national Republicans have chosen to encourage the notion that Obama is a Manchurian president actively working to undermine the country he leads. The results, in a country that clings to semi-automatic weaponry as a birthright, have been predictable. The Second Amendment speaks to the necessity of “a well regulated militia,” but sops to conspiratorially minded Americans have invited a spike in radical anti-government groups. And the heated rhetoric continues unabated, as if inviting open rebellion is just part of doing business in Washington.
The winks at the fevered right have come in a steady stream. The Republican National Convention just gave a nod to the gold standard; it’s a laughable economic proposal, but a pet of anti-federal activists. The governor of Maine likens the IRS to the Gestapo. Mitt Romney kicked off his Republican primary campaign by alleging that Obama goes around the world apologizing for America; he ended it by making a birther joke.
Delegates to last week’s Republican National Convention endorsed a platform plank opposing Agenda 21. Most Americans have never heard of the decades-old UN resolution. But where most see a meaningless, dusty nonbinding call for sustainable living, far-right activists see an insidious plot to overturn US property law. Tea Party activists across the country have mobilized against smart growth zoning because they see it as a step toward a global dictatorship. The GOP could have laughed off such fevered thinking; instead, it chose to make it the official policy of the Republican Party.
Among most people, these sops to the right are just that — a gratuitous means of mobilizing votes. But it also feeds darker forces.
The GOP has indulged conspiratorial thinking at a time when far-right radical militia activity has exploded. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in 2008, there were just 42 militia groups active in the United States; last year, there were 334. This huge spike in activity has largely been directed at the White House and the federal government. It’s being driven by paranoia and conspiracy theories about President Obama — that he’s a closet socialist who is secretly plotting to take away Americans’ guns, or that he’s an illegitimate foreign agent paving the way for a UN invasion.
Last year, Esquire writer Charles Pierce argued that domestic terrorism represents a far greater threat than foreign jihadism. Home-grown radicalism has only risen since then. The FBI has rounded up heavily armed militias in Michigan and Alaska. A jury convicted a man who had allegedly plotted to take over a Tennessee courthouse because local officials refused to indict Obama for acting as president while holding a fake birth certificate. Back in April, a pair of the so-called Waffle House terrorists — men who met over breakfast to allegedly plot bombing of government buildings — pleaded guilty to federal weapons charges. And just last week, officials arrested four soldiers on a Georgia Army base and charged them with murder and plotting domestic terrorism. Prosecutors alleged that the four had amassed an $87,000 weapons cache; had laid plans to seize control of their base, blow up a dam, and overthrow the federal government; and had murdered a young couple they feared would expose their plot.
In that context, a Texas judge worrying aloud about civil war and UN occupation isn’t an isolated moment of paranoia; it’s a sign that four years of winking at the far right’s darkest conspiracies have allowed them to creep into the mainstream.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine.