News & Politics

The Terrorist Threat: Right-Wing Radicals and the Eliminationist Mindset

Understanding the dangerous worldview that led to the murder of an innocent doctor and an attack at the Holocaust Museum.

In April, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report (PDF) warning that the shifting political climate and tanking economy were spurring a resurgence of violent right-wing extremism (known as "terrorism" when applied to those holding other political views) in the United States.

At the time, a number of right-wing commentators lambasted the report as a politically motivated attack on mainstream conservatism rather than what it was: an early warning on the dangers posed by a violent, fringe minority within their movement. Under pressure from GOP lawmakers, Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano apologized for the report.

But in the short weeks since, the department's warnings have proved prescient. An abortion provider who had been a frequent target of Fox News' bloviator Bill O'Reilly was gunned down during a church service in Kansas; a mentally disturbed man who believed the "tea-bagging" movement's contention that the Obama administration is destroying the American economy -- and who reportedly owned a number of firearms -- withdrew $85,000 from his bank account, said he was part of a plot to assassinate the president and disappeared (he was later captured in Las Vegas); and this week, a white supremacist who was deeply steeped in far-right conspiracism entered the U.S. Holocaust Museum and opened fire, killing a guard before being shot and wounded by security personnel.

The three incidents share a common feature: All of these men thought they were serving a higher moral purpose, that is, defending their country from an insidious "enemy within" as defined by the far right -- a "baby-killer," the Jews who secretly control the world and a president who's been accused of being a Manchurian Candidate-style foreign agent bent on nothing less than the destruction of the American Way.

David Neiwert, a veteran journalist who has covered violent right-wing groups for years, calls the worldview that informs this twisted sense of moral purpose "eliminationism." It's the belief that one's political opponents are not just wrongheaded, misinformed or even acting in bad faith. Eliminationism holds that they are a cancer on the body politic that must be excised -- either by separation from the public at large, through censorship or by outright extermination -- in order to protect the purity of the nation.

As eliminationist rhetoric becomes increasingly mainstream within the American right -- fueled in large part by the wildly overheated discourse found on conservative blogs and talk radio -- Neiwert's new book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right, could not have come at a more important time. In it, Neiwert painstakingly details how the rise in eliminationism is a very real threat and points to the dangers of dismissing extreme rhetoric as merely a form of "entertainment."

AlterNet recently caught up with Neiwert in Washington to discuss this troubling trend.

Joshua Holland: There is a lot of ugly discourse in this country, and there always has been. What makes eliminationist rhetoric different from the kind of run-of-the-mill nasty stuff that we see on all sides of the political spectrum?

David Neiwert:Right -- there is a lot of hateful rhetoric that floats around on both sides. What's unique about eliminationist rhetoric is that it talks about eliminating whole blocs of people from the body politic, whereas most of the hateful rhetoric, in the case of people on the left, is directed at an individual -- George Bush or Dick Cheney and various characters on the right. That's one of the key differences -- when right-wing people talk hatefully, it often is directed at entire groups of people: Latinos, African Americans, gays and lesbians or liberals.

JH: People they deem to be inferior.

DN: Deemed inferior, or not even human. That is a critical aspect of eliminationist rhetoric. It often depicts the opposition as subhuman -- comparing them with vermin, diseases or carriers of diseases. I think for methe classic historical expression of eliminationism in America was Col. [John] Chivington's remarks prior to the Sand Creek Massacre, where he urged the white Colorado militiamen to kill all the Indians they encountered, including women and children. He said, "nits make lice." That to me is pretty much a classic eliminationist statement.

We certainly saw it through the lynching era in America, because the same sort of rhetoric was aimed at African Americans. We saw it between 1900-1942 directed at Asian Americans, particularly Japanese. Then more recently, we have had eliminationist rhetoric and behavior directed towards gays and lesbians and other minorities. This often expresses itself in the form of hate crimes.

JH: In the book, you discuss the connection between eliminationism and fascism. Can you dig into that a little bit for me?

DN: Well, eliminationism is of course longstanding thing. It's not just something new. We have a history of it in the United States, and not just here -- it's a global phenomenon. It's rooted in tribalism, and it goes way back.

The connection to fascism is fairly obvious. I got the term "eliminationism" from Daniel Goldhagen, whose book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, is an examination of how ordinary people facilitated the Holocaust. A pretty good book -- there are some problems with his thesis, but the concept of eliminationism was an important one that I pulled out of the work.

It's fundamental to the fascist world view, because fascism's core project is what Roger Griffin calls palingenesis, which is the phoenixlike rebirth from the ashes of the great national heritage. In order to achieve that rebirth, they have to eliminate and destroy -- they have to burn down what exists, and that includes eliminating those who are the cause of their problems. So for the German fascists that was Jews and communists and socialists. They did indeed proceed to eliminate them.

But as I mentioned in the book, I was reading Goldhagen's book at the time that I was doing research on my book about the Japanese American internment, and I was really struck by the similarities of what he was talking about -- with the sort of rhetoric directed at Japanese Americansthat I was studying and pulling out of archives during the same time.

Incidentally, it's really striking how similar the kinds of things that the jingoes and nativists were saying about Japanese back in 1920, with what they are saying about Latinos today -- that they bring disease, that they don't want to speak English, that they will never fit in, that they will never be real Americans, and most of all, that they are secretly planning to invade the country and take it over and kill all the white people ... or something like that.

JH: Now, there tends to be a counternarrative on the right. You talk in the book about Michelle Malkin and her thesis about deranged liberals.

DN: "Unhinged" is her word.

JH: Right, unhinged liberals. The argument is that their discourse is just as bad or dangerous, only it comes from a different ideological perspective. How would you respond to that?

DN: Well, the main difference is that when it happens on the left, it tends to be minor characters -- fringe actors -- not people in leadership positions. People on the left in leadership positions tend to try to be pretty responsible in their rhetoric, mainly because they know they will be viciously attacked if they don't. On the right, it's pandemic for people in leadership -- leading pundits, leading politicians, leading religious figures -- all kinds of folks are doing this. It ranges from Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter -- who all claim audiences of millions of people -- as opposed to the kind of people that Malkin cites who are fringe commentators on blog sites.

JH: So she's cherry-picking comments on blog posts and attributing them to the authors of the blogs.

DN: That is correct. Oddly enough, that just happened to her, and she got a taste of her own medicine.

JH: Who did that?

DN: Bill O'Reilly.

JH: Odd -- strange days we live in.

DN: A little bit of irony, yeah. She was on the next morning on Fox & Friends complaining about it. So O'Reilly responded that evening and said, "We probably shouldn't have just pulled blog comments, but people have to control these things." Of course, on his own site they don't control them. On his own Web site, he has hateful comments popping up, and they have never taken them down.

JH: When things like that happen -- like food-fights between Malkin and O'Reilly -- do you pop some popcorn?

DN:Oh yeah. Pop a bowl, and then just watch.

JH: As you note, eliminationism is not a new phenomenon, but in the book you argue that it's been on the rise since the mid-1990s -- over the last 10 or 15 years. What factors do you think account for that?

DN:  Well, one of the great achievements of FDR in the 1930s was that he really formed a longstanding ruling coalition between liberals and conservatives. It lasted for many years -- there was an agreement that they would rule within that framework and that political extremists on either side would be excluded from governing.

I think part of the story is that in the 1990s -- led by people like Rush Limbaugh -- conservatives decided that they didn't want to share power with liberals anymore. They basically decided that they wanted all the power for themselves.

In order to obtain political power once they cut off that relationship, I think that they needed to form a new coalition, and that meant that they became much more closely aligned with the extremists on the right. Particularly, we saw in the 1990s a lot of cross-hatching, as it were, between mainstream conservatives and the patriot militia movement, true far-right extremists.

And over the years, people like Limbaugh and Coulter and many others have transmitted these ideas and themes from the extreme right, repackaged them for mainstream consumption, and broadcast them into the popular culture.

The effect of that has been this powerful gravitational pull on mainstream conservatism so that it's become increasingly right wing, and part of the consummation of that was these tea parties that we just saw, which were classic right-wing populist gatherings. I went to the one in Seattle, and it was all the usual right-wing populism. Let's get rid of the Fed, end the income tax, all of these things, these ideas that we saw originating with the Posse Comitatus movement back in the 1980s. They have gradually worked their way into the mainstream. But it's still a very radical approach to governance, and ultimately is very extreme.

JH:  In the book you tie -- you detail wonderfully -- a lot of examples of eliminationist rhetoric coming from sources that are considered credible by many. Limbaugh and Coulter are certainly examples of that. And we have seen time and time again, how incredibly overheated it becomes and can lead to a spike in hate crimes. When you call out the right on this, their answer is that they can't be held accountable for people who are unhinged, who have ... whatever, mental disorders.

DN: Yeah.

JH: I just wonder how you respond to that defense.

DN: Well, in a real simple way I would say that it's just nonsense. There is a very clear causal connection between hateful rhetoric that thoroughly demonizes other people to a point that they are objects fit for elimination, and the violent action that follows. As I explain the book with example after example -- historical examples.

Eliminationist rhetoric has the effect of creating permission for people to act. We can't turn away from that. We can't simply say, "well, the only person responsible for [Kansas abortion provider] George Tiller's death was [alleged gunman] Scott Roeder." I'm sorry, Scott Roeder got a lot of his ideas -- got a lot of his hate -- from listening to people like Bill O'Reilly. Yes, he was clearly a radical. He was a Freeman and was also associated with the Army of God. But you have to understand that people like that actually see people like Limbaugh and O'Reilly as liberals.

And compared to themselves they are relatively liberal. So when a guy like O'Reilly broadcasts their beliefs and says what they are thinking is right, it not only validates them, not only validates their beliefs, but it also spurs them to action, because their thinking is that if even the liberal media is saying it, it's even worse than we thought. That is a spark to action.

I use an anecdote to illustrate this point very clearly. A key case for me relatively early on in my work on this kind of phenomenon was in 1986. We had a case in Seattle where this drifter named David Lewis Rice walked up to the home of a family in a Seattle neighborhood one Christmas Eve. He was pretending to be a taxicab deliveryman -- delivering a Christmas  package to them. He pulled a toy gun, tied them up, and over the next eight to 12 hours proceeded to kill them brutally and horribly with all kinds of torturous means -- this man David Goldmark, his wife and their two children, who were both under the age of 10 -- using an iron and ice pick, and it was really an awful case.

Why did he do this? Because he believed that the Goldmarks were the leading Communists in Washington state, and maybe even some of the leading Communists in the country. Why did he believe that? Because he had been hanging out with a group of Bircherites who met regularly down at a little local tavern in Seattle. They had sat around for the previous month and talked about how David Goldmark and his wife were prominent communists.

This had come up because Goldmark's father had been one of the leading legislators in Washington state during the McCarthyite Red scare in the state. Some of the local [John] Birchers out in the Spokane area had accused them of being members of the communist party -- secret communists. It was actually a famous case at the time, because the Goldmarks sued the crap out of these people and won. And it had long stuck in these people's craws that they had lost this case.

It had come up in the news two months before the killings. There had been some reminder of it, and this is what had got this group -- they called themselves the "Duck Club" -- all worked up. They were talking about the Goldmarks all the time. They filled David Lewis Rice's head with all these ideas, and he decided to act on it.

Now, were they criminally culpable or even legally culpable in a civil suit? Probably not. But are they ethically and morally culpable? Absolutely. This is the same thing with Bill O'Reilly and Dr. George Tiller. He didn't pull the trigger. He didn't do anything to this guy, but he helped fill some other guy's head with all kinds of hateful beliefs about Dr. Tiller, and filled his head with the idea that we needed to act to stop him -- to stop him from murdering all these babies.

Inevitably, somebody is going to act on that. What a guy like O'Reilly does is he gives permission for guys like Scott Roeder to act.

JH: Inevitably, when we criticize the right for this kind of rhetoric -- and we do so with some frequency at AlterNet -- a response that we hear is: "are you advocating censorship?" So let me ask you if you are in fact saying these people should be censored?

DN: No. Simply no. What we are advocating -- what I'm advocating -- is standing up, using our own free speech. Hate speech is protected speech in this country, and it should be. I wouldn't have it any other way. But it's grossly irresponsible speech.

We, as citizens, have an obligation: If we are going to enjoy freedom of speech, we need to live up to the responsibility that comes with it. This is of course a common theme on the right -- that with your freedoms come responsibility. We say yes. With your freedom of speech comes a responsibility to speak responsibly, not in a way that harms other people, particularly when you have these huge media megaphones that give individuals the power to propagandize to millions of people.

It's incredibly irresponsible to start demonizing and dehumanizing other people, because that opens all of those people up to hate crimes and various acts of vicious retaliation that disturbed individuals have gotten permission for from eliminationist rhetoric.

Remember, censorship is government action against individuals. What we want to talk about is ... nobody wants to take Bill O'Reilly's free speech away, but we need to question whether he deserves to have that big megaphone. So I always advocate going to their advertisers and doing whatever you need to do to stand up.

One of the things that I learned while studying hate crimes is that the vast majority of hate crimes are committed by ordinary people, not by members of hate groups. Yet it's also the case that the vast majority of hate crimes are accompanied by hate-group rhetoric. So in a lot of ways hate crimes are a manifestation of the way right-wing extremism has permeated the broader culture. But more than that, these ordinary people also believe -- and I might add this includes the white supremacists -- that what they are doing reflects the secret desires, the unspoken wishes of the community that they believe they are defending.

When you stand up to them, when you engage in the act of standing up to them, that knocks that plank right out from under them, because when the community stands up and says, "No, these are not our values, this is not what we believe in, what you are doing is wrong," that takes that belief away.

JH: The silent majority ...

DN: Right. It's really important that the "silent majority" stop being silent and let them know that this is not acceptable. There are various ways of letting them know that. A guy like O'Reilly is never going to stop. So eventually what you have to do is go after his advertisers, get him off the air, because he is not going to change his ways.

That is not an attempt to silence him. That is an attempt to make sure that these massive megaphones aren't being used to create permission for people to act out violently. That is our own free speech. They talk about how we want to take away their speech ... well, they want to take away our speech. We just don't think they should have these media megaphones. There is no God-given right to have a media megaphone. That is not a right. That is a privilege. Why should we extend that privilege to them?

JH: My last question is the same for every interview I do: If I were smarter, what would I have asked you that I didn't today?

DN: Hmmm. If you had asked me how effective standing up might be and how we should go about it, my answer would be that it's really important to understand that people on the right believe that they are doing the right thing. They believe that they are being good people and that they are standing up for what is right, even when they are being just so obviously evil.

But this is part of the dynamic. They see themselves are heroic. The dynamic of being a hero is what creates this phenomenon. It's part of the dualism of the mind-set that underlies the psychology of these problems. When you want to be the hero, you have to have an enemy.

So people on the right are constantly in the act of creating enemies. When the Soviet Union fell, they didn't have their classic enemy anymore. So they went about creating new ones. Suddenly, it was the government. It was our own people who were the enemy. We internalized in the 1990s -- at least the right really internalized it -- this idea of who the enemy is.

People on the left do it, too. People on the left want to think of themselves as heroic and engaging in this sort of heroic battle against the evil forces of the right. In the process, we help -- we just keep that dragon chasing its own tail. We become part of this self-perpetuating dynamic of creating enemies, and I think it is really fundamentally important to understand when we talk to and engage the people who are susceptible to this.

I want to add that you are probably never going to convince people like Limbaugh and Coulter and the real hard-core ideologues. You are just never going to successfully engage them and change their minds. But a lot of ordinary people -- the people who are influenced by them -- well, we have a great deal of hope for actually being able to change their minds.

So when we engage them, I think it is fundamentally important that we try not to see ourselves as heroes, that we don't turn them into the enemy but rather people like us, human beings who have frailties and have flaws and engage them in a real way, because that is how we are going to pull them over.

We are not going to change people's minds by pointing at them and calling them bad people. We are going to change people's minds by taking care to honestly engage them as one human being to another. That is the only way I think that we really can succeed.

For more, check out Neiwert's new book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right (PoliPointPress, 2009).

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Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet.