Philip Jenkins: Will the Obama years see another militia scare?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Philip Jenkins is a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University and the author of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died.]

Since the New Deal, fears of terrorism and subversion have played a central role in U.S. political life. But the ways in which government and media conceive those menaces can change with astonishing speed. Such tectonic shifts usually occur because of the ideological bent of the administration in power. When a strongly liberal administration takes office, it brings with it a new rhetoric of terrorism, and new ways of understanding the phenomenon.

Based on the record of past Democratic administrations, in the near future terrorism will almost certainly be coming home. This does not necessarily mean more attacks on American soil. Rather, public perceptions of terrorism will shift away from external enemies like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah and focus on domestic movements on the Right. We will hear a great deal about threats from racist groups and right-wing paramilitaries, and such a perceived wave of terrorism will have real and pernicious effects on mainstream politics. If history is any guide, the more loudly an administration denounces enemies on the far Right, the easier it is to stigmatize its respectable and nonviolent critics.

It’s difficult to understand modern American political history without appreciating the florid conspiracy theories that so often drive liberals, and by no means only among the populist grassroots. Time and again, Democratic administrations have proved all too willing to exploit conspiracy fears and incite popular panics over terrorism and extremism. While we can mock the paranoia that drives the Left to imagine a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, such rhetoric can be devastatingly effective—as we may be about to rediscover.

Long before Sept. 11, 2001, America experienced repeated outbreaks of concern over terrorism. In terms of shaping liberal perceptions, the most important was that of the FDR years, when anti-government sentiment spawned a number of extremist organizations. Some were “shirt” groups, modeled on European fascists—America, too, had its Black Shirts and Silver Shirts—while the German-American Bund attracted Hitler devotees. Isolationism and anti-Semitism drew some urban Irish-Americans into the Christian Front, while the Klan experienced one of its sporadic revivals. Beyond doubt, far-Right extremism did exist, and these movements had their violent side, to the point of organizing paramilitary training. A few plotted real terrorist acts.

But the public response was utterly out of proportion to any danger these groups posed. From 1938 through 1941, the media regularly presented stories suggesting that the U.S. was about to be overwhelmed by ultra-Right fifth columnists, millions strong, intimately allied with the Axis powers. (Actual numbers of serious militants were in the low thousands at most.) Reportedly, the militant Right was armed to the teeth and plotting countless domestic terror attacks—bombings in New York and Washington, assassinations and pogroms, the wrecking of trains and munitions plants. Plotters were rumored to have high-placed allies in the military, raising the specter of a putsch. The ensuing panic was orchestrated by newspapers and radio and reinforced by films, newsreels, and comic books. Historians characterize these years as the Brown Scare.

If the more bizarre accusations sound like the common currency of the show trials in Stalin’s Russia in these very years, that is no coincidence. The main exposés of fascist conspiracy emanated from Communist Party journalists like Albert Kahn and John Spivak. (Spivak himself was an operative for the Soviet NKVD.) Charges circulated through Kahn’s newssheet The Hour before being picked up in the liberal press. The Red agenda was straightforward in that the Brown Scare allowed the Left to discredit any opponent of radical New Deal policies. Scratch the surface of any enemy of the Left, they claimed, and you would find a fascist spy, a lyncher, a storm trooper....
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