The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right
by David Neiwert
(PoliPoint Press, 2009)
On Thursday, September 17, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was moving through a typical press briefing when she was asked about the escalation of violent rhetoric in public discourse. The California Democrat suddenly became uncharacteristically emotional, requesting that people tone it down, and recalling the 1978 assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk as an outgrowth of the hate-filled discourse of its time. Warning that people might have to “take responsibility for any incitement that [the person’s words] may cause,” Pelosi could scarcely have come up with a better example to illustrate a major theme of David Neiwert’s latest book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right.
There has been much discussion of the culture of incivility lately, epitomized by the recent indecorous outbursts of Rep. Joe “You Lie” Wilson (R-SC) during President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress, tennis star Serena Williams toward a linesman at the US Open, and rapper Kayne West at the Video Music Awards. But the rhetoric and the underlying attitudes that Neiwert is getting at are far more serious—and harder to come to grips with—than mere boorish behavior by public figures.
“What motivates this kind of talk and behavior,” Neiwert writes of the sometimes surprising viciousness from otherwise ordinary people, “is called eliminationism: a politics and a culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas in favor of the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through suppression, exile and ejection, or extermination.”
Neiwert is a veteran journalist who has covered some of the farthest reaches of the American Right in the Pacific Northwest, including the Aryan Nations and the Montana Freemen. He was raised in Idaho, where the fervent factions of the far right (most notably the John Birch Society) were fashionable and intersected the lives of friends, family, and neighbors. The ideas in this book were developed in an influential series of essays at his blog Orcinus (Neiwert is also managing editor of Crooks & Liars where these issues are often discussed as well).
Neiwert stresses that eliminationist rhetoric “always depicts its opposition as beyond the pale, the embodiment of evil itself, unfit for participation in their vision of society, and thus worthy of elimination. It often further depicts its designated Enemy as vermin (especially rats and cockroaches) or diseases, and disease-like cancers on the body politic. A close corollary—but not as nakedly eliminationist—is the claim that opponents are traitors or criminals and that they pose a threat to our national security.”
“The history of eliminationism in America and elsewhere,” he writes, “shows that rhetoric plays a significant role in the travesties that follow. It creates permission for people to act out in ways they might not otherwise. It allows them to abrogate their own humanity by denying the humanity of people deemed undesirable or a cultural contaminant.”
Much of the book is devoted to outlining eliminationism in American history, from Native Americans and African Americans, through Chinese and Japanese immigrants and more. He shows how eliminationist rhetoric was often followed by “an actual campaign of violent eliminationism.”
This history is presented with a note of urgency, because the eliminationist rhetoric as currently featured by elements of the conservative movement, “is in many ways,” he stresses, “the signature feature of fascism.” An authentic, broad-based fascist movement is not here yet, he avers, though he warns that eliminationist rhetoric is not unlike “the distinct odor of burning flesh. And when it hits our nostrils, we dare not ignore the warning.”
Neiwert guides us through some of the current thinking about the definition of fascism, and offers some useful ways to recognize it in a contemporary American context, showing how these elements are increasingly featured by the conservative movement on the airwaves and on the ground.
The Christian Patriot movement, which was largely synonymous with the militia movement of the 1990s, had three signature characteristics, according to scholar James Alfred Aho, as cited by Neiwert:
First, there’s dualism, or the division of reality into a “godly” spiritual realm, in which lies the “perfect,” and a corrupt material world, which is “profanity, unconsciousness and death.” Second, there’s “conspiratorialism” or “the psychologizing of historical events to the conscious intentions and omniscient and all-powerful Benefactors and Malefactors.” This mix reduces the causes of perceived social decline into a quest for scapegoats in need of elimination. And third, there’s the apocalyptic belief in the imminent end of the world as we know it.
Drawing on scholars of fascism Robert O. Paxton and Roger Griffin, he outlines the features of fascist movements and the environments in which they rise. While elements of fascism are evident, he does not yet see the presence of a significant movement in the United States. Notably absent is a “crisis of democracy” such that an ill-defined hypernationalism could rise in service of a national “renewal.” Although Neiwert emphasizes that fascism emerges from the far right in the wake of the failure of democratic institutions—part of what makes it at once so hard to define, yet so explosive, is its lack of a “core ideology.” Rather, it rallies around emotionalism.
Quoting Paxton, he writes that if fascism happens here, it will be distinctly American and devoid of the trappings of 20th-century European fascism:
Americans might support an enterprise of forcible national regeneration, unification and purification. Its targets would be the First Amendment, separation of Church and State (crèches on the lawns, prayers in the schools), efforts to place controls on gun ownership, desecrations of the flag, unassimilated minorities, artistic license, dissident and unusual behavior of all sorts that could be labeled antinational or decadent.
That said, Neiwert slams those who misuse the term for “cheap political theater,” writing that “inappropriate comparisons tend to obscure the reality of what’s taking place.”
So what is the reality? Neiwert recently spoke with Religion Dispatches about violent rhetoric, imprecatory prayer, and eliminationism.
Religion Dispatches: You begin the book talking primarily about the excesses of media personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Ann Coulter. What do you say to the claim of Limbaugh and others that they are just entertainers?
Neiwert: Sure, if political propaganda can pass as entertainment, and it certainly has in the past, I’d go along with that. But they are political propagandists first and foremost. That they do it entertainingly just comes with the job, really. There’s nothing more ineffective than propagandists who bore people. Maybe that’s been the left’s problem.
And being an entertainer has never been an excuse for indulging in hateful, dehumanizing rhetoric that reduces people to the status of disposable vermin fit only for elimination. Which is what those three—and their legion of right-wing imitators—do on a regular basis. That’s the specially noxious quality to the rhetoric they deploy in the process of “entertaining” us.
We saw what happened to [Seinfeld star] Michael Richards, and there was indeed no excuse for what he said. There’s none for Savage, either, when he goes on the air and pronounces the 2004 tsunami disaster not a tragedy because most of the victims were Muslims who hated America. Or Coulter for quipping that her “only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building.” These are remarks that normally mark people as monstrous and inhuman, people who should be shunned by decent society. And it frankly baffles me that they are not.
You assert that “mainstream conservatives” are a bulwark against fascism, but that too many “seem to have developed an extraordinary boiled frog kind of tolerance for the increasing ugliness of their own movement.” Is the mainstream conservative bulwark holding, or is it about to rain frogs and hot water?
Actually, it hasn’t held for some time now. That’s part of my critique—namely, that the normative, non-movement conservatives have been standing by and watching and abetting while conservatism has been hijacked by power-hungry ideologues. As I point out in the book, movement conservatives have made a travesty of conservatism, resembling nowadays something closer to the radical right-wing revolutionaries of the 1990s Patriot movement than anything you might actually describe as conservative in the traditional sense.
I do think that a number of conservatives are starting to wake up to this reality now. David Brooks and Joe Scarborough and Lindsey Graham have just recently fired salvos across the decks of the right-wing talkers, criticizing them for where they’re dragging the Republican Party. But unfortunately, they’re also in pretty deep denial about just how deeply entrenched the problem is.
You know, you have outfits like WorldNetDaily—whose most recent Jerome Corsi project is devoted to exploring Obama’s plan to round up conservatives and put them in concentration camps—selling its mailing list to the Republican National Committee and doing all kinds of business with them. And that’s just scratching the surface. There’s a surfeit of these right-wing organizations who specialize in far-right wingnuttery that are closely enmeshed with the GOP’s Beltway operations. So trying to blame it all on a couple of prominent pundits doesn’t come close to addressing the real problem.
You and the scholars you cite seem to agree with the observation, widely attributed to novelist Sinclair Lewis, that “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” How do you see that claim playing out today?
Well, I do see a potential for fascism, but I don’t see it manifesting itself in the predictable way; as a takeover by an identifiably proto-fascist movement like the Patriots. Rather, what’s happened is that movement conservatives have enabled a whole panoply of fascist traits and set them into motion, creating what I call “para-fascism,” which is a sort of half-formed fascism, as opposed to “proto-fascism,” which is the real thing in its nascent state.
Fascism is not so much an actual political philosophy—it actively rejects puling intellectualism, after all, in favor of blood and iron and raw political will—as it is a political pathology. In that sense it’s perhaps best understood in psychological terms, because like a psychological pathology it arises less from a single identifiable cause as from a constellation of causes or traits. Movement conservatives have been enabling these traits, particularly the fanatical religiosity and the transformation of “conservatism” into a kind of hyper-patriotic political religion bent on a phoenix-like national rebirth by purging the country of its undesirables; all in the eager pursuit of political power. So it’s not a conspiracy or even a coup but rather a gradual transformation of existing political entities; and not in a healthy way.
Rev. Steven L. Anderson of Tempe, Arizona, recently called on God to smite president Obama (and all homosexuals) bringing national attention to what appears to be a trend toward the use of “imprecatory prayer” on the farther reaches of the religious right. Do you consider this a form of eliminationism?
That’s pretty unmistakably eliminationist behavior. Praying for your enemies to be wiped from the face of the earth and their children destroyed as well is a prayer for outright extermination. And equally disturbing is the fact that a member of Pastor Anderson’s flock, the day after hearing him say he prays for Obama’s death, actually showed up at an Obama health care forum openly brandishing an AR-15. And equally disturbing is the fact that this created barely a ripple within the mainstream press.
Indeed, I’d consider imprecatory prayers a special red flag for eliminationism, because this kind of rhetoric has a powerful and long established permission-creating effect. It’s essentially “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest” with a religious patina. As you know, one of the main arenas where we’re seeing imprecatory prayers being invoked is in the dispute over the religious takeover of large portions of the nation’s military-officer corps—a fight with really profound implications, particularly in an environment where you hear Rush Limbaugh “joking” that a Honduras-style military coup might be just the ticket for handling President Obama (a notion recently seconded by a Newsmax writer). Limbaugh’s broadcasts, of course, can be heard daily on none other than Armed Forces Radio.
Tell us a bit more, if you will, about imprecatory prayer in the military, and in particular, your thoughts about how it has affected anyone’s behavior, if we know. And if we don’t know… how do you think it might?
Imprecatory prayer among members of the military takes on a much more threatening aspect if it occurs in combination with certain other potentially lethal trends. One of these is the very real recruitment of members of the military, both active and former, into far-right belief systems. For instance, we know for a fact that neo-Nazi and white-supremacist organizations have made an active effort not merely to recruit members of the military, but also to have their members join the military and obtain combat training and experience.
We know from FBI reports that they’ve had at least some success in doing this. Then there are paranoid, black-helicopter types from the Patriot movement who are recruiting from the military. For instance, there’s a group calling itself the “Oath Keepers” comprised of veterans who vow not to take part in the coming roundup of American citizens into concentration camps, arming themselves to aid in the “resistance.” One can only imagine the effect of saying imprecatory prayers among paranoid types like this, but it wouldn’t be a good one.
Now, probably the most notorious case of imprecatory prayer was Pastor Wiley Drake’s open plea for the death of President Obama, with Pastor Anderson’s similar plea a close second. And as far as we know no one has taken up their call to action yet, for which we can all be grateful. That doesn’t make the plea any less repugnant, especially on a moral and spiritual level.
At the same time, it seems almost certain that Scott Roeder —the man who walked into a church and shot abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in the head—indulged imprecatory prayers for Tiller before shooting him. He was part of a so-called “Prayer and Action Network,” a radical ant-abortion outfit closely associated with the far-right Patriot movement where such prayers are standard features.
It should be obvious how such prayers could be really lethal in their toxicity. They impart upon both the speaker and the hearer a kind of religious benediction and sanction for murdering and/or harming other people. Moreover, it not only sanctions such acts, it almost impels them—a serious devotee will take such a task upon himself as a spiritual duty. Which is a deeply disturbing prospect.