Rage Grows in America: Anti‑Government Conspiracies
Introduction: A Year of Growing Animosity
Since the election of Barack Obama as president, a current of anti-government hostility has swept across the United States, creating a climate of fervor and activism with manifestations ranging from incivility in public forums to acts of intimidation and violence.
What characterizes this anti-government hostility is a shared belief that Obama and his administration actually pose a threat to the future of the United States. Some accuse Obama of plotting to bring socialism to the United States, while others claim he will bring about Nazism or fascism. All believe that Obama and his administration will trample on individual freedoms and civil liberties, due to some sinister agenda, and they see his economic and social policies as manifestations of this agenda. In particular anti-government activists used the issue of health care reform as a rallying point, accusing Obama and his administration of dark designs ranging from “socialized medicine” to “death panels,” even when the Obama administration had not come out with a specific health care reform plan. Some even compared the Obama administration’s intentions to Nazi eugenics programs.
Some of these assertions are motivated by prejudice, but more common is an intense strain of anti-government distrust and anger, colored by a streak of paranoia and belief in conspiracies. These sentiments are present both in mainstream and “grass-roots” movements as well as in extreme anti-government movements such as a resurgent militia movement. Ultimately, this anti-government anger, if it continues to grow in intensity and scope, may result in an increase in anti-government extremists and the potential for a rise of violent anti-government acts.
Part One: Anger in the Mainstream
The rapid growth of anti-government anger in the wake of Obama’s election first became apparent in the spring of 2009, when conservative groups and grass-roots activists organized a nationwide series of anti-government rallies dubbed “Tea Parties.” At these events, and later sequels, anti-government sentiments and conspiracy theories proliferated, with a common theme being that somehow Obama had “stolen” the country from Americans.
More evidence of anti-government animosity appeared in the summer of 2009, when a variety of anti-government protests and disruptions occurred at town hall meetings organized by senators and representatives across the country to discuss healthcare reform. These events became a fertile ground for anti-Obama protests and stunts, with some protesters angrily launching verbal attacks against the president as well as other officeholders. A number of protests explicitly compared the Obama administration and its policies to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
The angry protests at town hall meetings seemed to give a “green light” to expressions of anti-government and anti-Obama hostility, as when South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” to Obama himself during a speech to Congress in September. Tea Party events in September, especially a large rally in Washington, D.C., itself, were characterized by extreme sentiments, including Nazi imagery, racist imagery, and imagery that implicitly or explicitly promoted violence. Other events, such as a “How to Take Back America” conference in Missouri and the rally against health-care reform held by conservatives in D.C. on November 5, 2009, saw similar expressions of anger.
More troubling than general expressions of anti-government hostility or anger has been the proliferation of anti-government conspiracy theories. One of the newest such theories, the so-called “birther” movement, which rapidly spread during and after the 2008 election campaign, targeted Obama himself. “Birthers” claim that Obama is not a legitimate president because he allegedly was not born in the United States (as the Constitution requires), but rather in Kenya. Especially disturbing are the mainstream media figures and politicians who implicitly or explicitly endorse the “birther” conspiracy theory, or refuse to condemn it. Two attorneys, Philip Berg of Pennsylvania and Orly Taitz of California, have been particularly active in spreading the “birther” arguments, as has an on-line right-wing newspaper, World Net Daily.
Though much of the impetus for anti-government sentiment has come from a variety of grass-roots and extremist groups, segments of the mainstream media have played a surprisingly active role in generating such segment. Though a number of media figures and commentators have taken part, the media personality who has played the most active role has been radio and television host Glenn Beck, who along with many of his guests have made a habit of demonizing the Obama administration and promoting conspiracy theories about it. Beck has acted as a “fearmonger-in-chief,” raising anxiety about and distrust towards the government.
Part Two: Anger on the Fringe
Further out into the extremist fringe, one person in particular has been responsible for stirring up anti-government and anti-Obama conspiracy theories in the United States. Alex Jones, a Texas-based radio show host, has created a radio- and Internet-based conspiracy-oriented media empire, most of the content of which is devoted to promoting the notion of an over-arching conspiracy by malevolent globalists to take over the world and create a “New World Order” with high-tech slavery. Jones claims that the United States government itself is part of this conspiracy, building concentration camps and preparing to implement tyrannical measures such as martial law and gun confiscation. Jones has been effective in promoting his conspiracy theories and has even appeared on some mainstream media shows.
One of the most disturbing trends in the rise of anti-government animosity in 2009 has been the resurrection and proliferation of anti-government conspiracy theories, many of which had their origins in the early to mid 1990s. More extreme than “birther” conspiracies, these theories allege dark, violent designs on the part of the federal government to declare martial law and end democratic government, to confiscate firearms from American citizens to render them defenseless, and to build hundreds of concentration camps to house “dissidents” and other liberty-loving Americans. Internet social media, including Web sites such as Myspace, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, have allowed these theories to spread far and wide very rapidly.
Though many anti-government conspiracy theories seem wild and fantastical, anti-government activists may nevertheless act on them as if they were true. The Iowa National Guard experienced this in early 2009 after a planned training exercise was reinterpreted by conspiracy theorists as an exercise in confiscating firearms from American citizens.
Conspiracy theories also play in important role in radicalizing people, drawing them further towards extreme causes, and increasing their willingness to take extreme, even violent, action. A tragic example of this phenomenon occurred in Pittsburgh in April 2009, when a young man, radicalized by anti-government and white supremacist ideologies, especially since Obama’s election, allegedly murdered three Pittsburgh police officers responding to a 911 call.
Since Obama’s election, an increasing number of people have urged that he and his administration must be resisted. Some groups have even implicitly or explicitly urged armed resistance of some sort. Many of these groups have appropriated an idealized version of Revolutionary War history for their own purposes, stressing the armed resistance of the American colonists to British “tyranny” and suggesting that Americans today should act as their revolutionary forebears did.
One manifestation of the ideology of resistance was the creation in March 2009 of the Oath Keepers, an anti-government group that tries to recruit police and military personnel and veterans. Members refuse to obey hypothetical “orders” from the government, “orders” that speak more to their own paranoid and conspiratorial beliefs than to any realistic government action.
The Three Percenters are a loosely organized movement whose adherents portray themselves as modern-day counterparts to Revolutionary-era patriots “committed to the restoration of the Founders’ Republic” and “willing to fight, die, and if forced by any would-be oppressor, to kill…”
One of the most troubling aspects of the rise of anti-government sentiment in 2009 has been a corresponding resurgence of the militia movement, an anti-government extremist movement that has had a long history of criminal activity and violence. Within the past two years, the movement has almost quadrupled in size, growing to more than 200 groups across the United States. It is also the most receptive audience for the extreme anti-government conspiracy theories and their radicalizing potential. Because of its history of criminal activity, the revival of this movement is of serious concern.