Rachel Maddow, McCarthyite

Every government lives in fear of its own citizens. The fear waxes and wanes, as the tides of public opinion and economic ups and downs crest and wash over the political landscape. In good times, the fear is somewhat subtle: discontent, albeit ever-present, is masked by prosperity and contained; in bad times, the fear overflows into the everyday life of the citizenry, which is viewed with the utmost suspicion by the ruling elite. In Washington, they’re wondering: how long will they put up with it?

Today, the answer to that question is: not much longer – and the fear is manifest in the latest campaign against "extremism," which is being touted by the "mainstream" media, the authorities, and the professional "extremist"-hunters who work in tandem with both. To give you the flavor of the witch-hunting atmosphere being whipped up by the media-FBI complex, get a load of Rachel Maddow, the "liberal" MSNBC commentator, last Thursday night. After running a videotaped interview with anti-abortion militant Scott Roeder – recently sentenced to life in prison for the murder of an abortion doctor – in which Roeder expressed support for the "sovereignist" doctrine that the federal government has no right to institute drivers’ licenses, she averred:

"So, yes, so you can see Roeder as an anti-abortion extremist. You can also identify anti-abortion extremism as one branch of the broader movement of violent, militant, anti-government extremism in this country.  We associate that movement with the early and mid-’90s, which is when that tape of Scott Roeder that you just saw was filmed. But just in the last 18 months since President Obama took office, a white supremacist shot and killed a security guard in an attack on the Holocaust Museum in Washington. An anti-tax extremist flew a plane into a building in Texas that housed an IRS office.  He killed an IRS worker. Nine suspected militia members [were] arrested for allegedly plotting an attack on police officers as part of a war they wanted to wage against the United States government. A Tennessee white supremacist convicted of plotting to kill President Obama near the end of the presidential campaign in ’08. 

"And, of course, there’s Scott Roeder killing Dr. George Tiller. 

"And, of course, there’s the wave of threats and property damage against members of Congress after the health reform bill passed. 

"Is it helpful to find the connections between these disparate acts, to understand what American extremism is now?  Or are these all individual crazy people with no connection to politics, no connection to each other, no connection to a broader movement or to the broader country at large?  What’s the better way to understand this and is this stuff going to stop? Joining us now is Eugene Robinson…"

One can easily guess Robinson’s answer to Maddow’s largely rhetorical question, but let’s rewind just a bit, and note the smearing methodology employed here: the classic amalgam. Grouped together in one intellectual package deal are:

  • "antigovernment" activists
  • white supremacists out to kill the President,
  • antiabortion fanatics out to kill abortionists,
  • and crazed anti-Semites out to attack the Holocaust Museum.

One of these things is not like the others, and Maddow – no dummy – knows it.

That’s why the plaintive tone is taken – "Is it helpful?" – when posing the question of whether this is a unitary movement that needs to be infiltrated by law enforcement and its members arrested and jailed. The whole idea is to discredit "antigovernment" (i.e. pro-liberty) movements and politicians in the mainstream by associating them with hate and – most importantly – violence, or the threat of it.

How quickly these lefties forget. Intoxicated by power and by the prospect of smashing their political enemies using the mailed fist of the State, modern "liberals" of the Maddowist persuasion either don’t know or don’t want to be reminded of how J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was used as a political weapon of mass destruction by the Nixon administration to crush political dissidents of the left during the 1960s and 70s. White leftists and black nationalists were infiltrated, disrupted, set up, and jailed – the government used agents provocateurs to initiate violence, and then moved to repress these movements, jailing the leaders, and using massive force against antiwar demonstrators: remember Kent State?

The FBI’s massive campaign of disruption was known as "COINTELPRO," and the revelations of how extensive were the government’s efforts to infiltrate leftist and black groups are generally considered shocking in retrospect. For example, at the height of the antiwar movement, at least a third of the members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), at the time the main Trotskyist group in the US – and a key organizer of the mass protests – were police agents, either FBI or paid informants. These agents actively encouraged violence, planted "evidence," and set up radicals for government repression. The same tactics, and worse, were used against the Black Panther Party, which, in a gesture unconsciously mimicked by today’s right-wing populists, once showed up on the steps of a Sacramento courthouse armed with shotguns and posed for the cameras.

Paid informants spying on the legal activities of American citizens, agent provocateurs, and outright dirty tricks (such as disseminating printed materials meant to cause division and provoke violence) – it was an altogether shameful chapter in the history of American law enforcement, one that nearly everyone but the most unrepentant neocons agree shouldn’t be repeated – and yet here is Ms. Maddow, an alleged "liberal," celebrating its rebirth.

The first time as tragedy, the second as farce – and the latter surely describes the legal and political circumstances surrounding the alleged "extremist" threat coming from the "far right." At least back in the sixties, the government tried to hide its extensive infiltration and disruption of far-left groups, probably due to the fact that these activities were of dubious legality. These days, the Feds don’t bother with such niceties: indeed, they openly proclaim the "right" to do it, as well as the "right" to eavesdrop on the private communications of American citizens. In the post-9/11 era, even "liberal" administrations uphold – and defend in court – those provisions in the "PATRIOT" Act that give free rein to Big Brother (or, in this case, Big Sis).

Although we don’t know all the details yet, it looks like the members of the Hutaree "militia" – basically a single family and a few friends – had been infiltrated by an undercover FBI agent and a "cooperating witness," as court documents put it, and targeted as part of the administration’s new war on "domestic terrorism," embodied by the supposedly rising tide of militia groups forming (or re-forming) across the country. The politics of this campaign are simple: link the "fringe" to the more mainstream "tea party" movement, and, ultimately, the Republican party – and 2012 becomes a replay of 1964, in which Lyndon Baines Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater amid a storm of publicity about the "threat" posed by the minuscule and easily ridiculed John Birch Society.

Johnson, you’ll recall, was at the time engaged in two wars: the "war on poverty," and the war in Vietnam. Obama has launched a similar two-pronged effort, albeit on a much larger scale – and the scare campaign he, his Justice Department, and his media amen corner are whipping up is the weapon of choice in their war on "right-wing extremism."

It’s easy to dismiss the hysteria of the chattering classes over the "tea party" phenomenon as self-interested hyperbole: a few people show up to usually deserted congressional town hall meetings and raise their voices above a whisper and the sissified liberals are quaking in their boots, lisping that those awful bullies are about to beat them up. However, there is a sinister aspect to all this violence-baiting, as well as a comic one. For the central point of all the pro-FBI, pro-government, anti-"extremist" propaganda blaring from MSNBC and other news outlets is to convince us that speech leads to violence – and that, indeed, certain forms of political speech – "antigovernment" in nature – are inherently violent.

The irony of this is that these people are cheerleaders for the biggest most powerful purveyor of violence on earth, the US federal government. All states are founded on violence, of course, and maintained in power by the continual threat of it, and yet the US government enjoys a special status in this regard, with more firepower at its command – and the inclination to use it – than any previous empire in human history. We are talking about a government currently waging two open wars and one "secret" one, abroad – systematically murdering many thousands – and actively threatening yet another.

The tiny and powerless Hutaree "militia" has about as much chance of overthrowing this Leviathan as a flea. Yet they are charged with "sedition." This would be a joke if it weren’t such a danger to what’s left of our civil liberties.

We already know the FBI infiltrated the group, and the likelihood that they were set up gets stronger if one looks at the details of similar incidents, such as the recent "plot" to blow up New York City synagogues. This scheme – which the FBI took credit for stopping – was cooked up entirely by a government infiltrator who convinced, cajoled, and practically intimidated his fellow conspirators into cooperating. The Feds then stepped in to save the day.

This is a scenario that has played out in many of the recent incidents of "extremist" violence: the government and its agents are the source of the violence. As in the heyday of the "New Left," you can tell someone’s a cop when they constantly talk about how cool it is to literally "smash the State."

Governments, all governments everywhere, whether they be of the "left" or the "right," hate populist movements, and do everything in their power to discredit and crush them, simply because they can’t control them – and because they hate and fear their own people. Popular upsurges of outraged citizens are a symptom that the "good governance" practiced by our rulers isn’t so good after all – except for those who profit from the system, in pelf, power, and prestige. As our rulers go about their business of plundering our pocketbooks at home and building an empire abroad, there’s always that worrying image of peasants with pitchforks one day marching on the castle. Every ruling elite lives in fear of it – because when those torches light up the night they know the jig is up.

The partisans of this administration, and those who consider themselves "liberals" of the old school, would do well to ask themselves if they really want a McCarthyite harpy like Rachel Maddow as their spokeswoman and exemplar. Do they want to see the FBI infiltrating political groups and provoking violence? Do they think COINTELPRO wasn’t wrong in principle – only that it was applied to the wrong groups? Do they really want the next Republican administration empowered to target and infiltrate left-wing organizations just as they did in a previous era?

One doesn’t have to agree with the views of the targeted groups and individuals to realize the danger posed by this campaign of political and legal intimidation. The idea that the government has the right to infiltrate and disrupt the legal political activities of American citizens is outrageous, and needs to be fought tooth and nail by civil libertarians of all persuasions and ‘isms. In England, where political speech is not protected, we see the dark future planned for us by American "progressives": expressions of opinion that are deemed a "threat to public order" are forbidden, and under this general rubric comes any speech that violates the fast-proliferating rules of political correctness. The Brits, always a few years ahead of us in terms of the latest repressive measures, are pointing the way "forward" – and that’s "progress" for you.

A particularly egregious case in which the government is trying to semi-criminalize "anti-government" speech is the announcement by something called the "Guardians of the Republics" that thirty US governors must resign or else face "removal." The Department of Homeland Security immediately leaped to the defense of these poor beleaguered governors, both Democrats and Republicans, and issued an "intelligence note" to local authorities warning “law enforcement should be aware that this could be interpreted as a justification for violence or other criminal actions." Further steps in this road to revolution include “establishing bogus courts, calling of ‘de jure’ grand juries, and issuing so-called ‘legal orders’ to gain control of the state,” the note said.

Is a group of completely powerless and marginal characters, who believe the federal government has no legal authority, and who argue their case in endless "legal briefs" proving the income tax was never really passed, really giving DHS and thirty governors the frights? If so, that says more about the moral and political panic of our elites than it does about the alleged "threat" from these Walter Mittys-of-the-far-right.

In the post-9/11 era, the temptation to brand your political opponents "terrorists" appears to be overwhelming: both the right and the left have succumbed to it, and shamelessly employed such rhetoric for political gain. This is a deadly danger to democracy and must be repudiated and fought to the bitter end. The Hutaree "militia" and the other alleged "extremists" are a pretext for a crackdown on political dissent, and the Richard Nixons of this world are not alone in their propensity for repression. The ideological component of this anti-"extremist" campaign is a new form of McCarthyism, the McCarthyism of the left, which labels anything deemed "antigovernment" as close to seditious, and employs the same methods as J. Edgar Hoover and the "red squads" of the past. I’m surprised that Ms. Maddow, whose show I used to watch faithfully, has capitalized on this odious trend: she should rethink the whole concept of "extremism," and this linkage of violence to "antigovernment" heresy, and cut out the witch-hunting.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].