Alan Zendell, January 13, 2021
Like most Americans, I used to associate stories about White Supremacists preparing to overthrow our government with folk lore. On January 6th, America got a taste of what they are willing to do to achieve their ends. They are brash and aggressive, and possessed of a dangerously twisted view of reality; and they have been allowed to grow unchecked for decades.
If you discovered that the place you lived was infested with deadly snakes, would you (a) ignore them; (b) move somewhere else; or (c) take steps to eradicate them? We face the same choices with the insurrectionist movement in our country. Forget Option (b) – there’s nowhere to go, even if we wanted to. That leaves two choices. We can do what we’ve done for fifty years – ignore them and hope they go away – or deal with the reality that they are an existential threat.
The assault on the U. S. Capitol on January 6th was the tip of the iceberg. The attackers were a collection of local hate groups from around the country tied together by the Internet. They are armed, believe fervently that America should be ruled exclusively by white males, and subscribe to crazy conspiracy theories concerning everything that opposes their agenda. As they demonstrated at the Capitol, they are capable of causing mayhem, death, and destruction, and they seem to have no fear of repercussions. But a greater threat comes from large encampments of right-wing armies who live under the radar.
Most people who read that will scoff. That’s just a fairy tale to scare children with on dark stormy nights – but it’s not. Ask anyone who lives in the Pacific Northwest. The liberal progressivism for which Washington and Oregon are known is balanced by the existence of survivalist armies that have lived in an uneasy truce with law enforcement for decades. The authorities, from police to national guard to the military have used a strategy of containment with them, choosing to avoid direct conflict because it might result in a bloodbath. The government’s position is: if you stay within your own boundaries and don’t bother the rest of us, we’ll leave you alone. If you come out of your lairs and make trouble…presumably that would change.
These groups have their roots in the Vietnam War. Thousands of soldiers came home suffering from PTSD and other serious emotional and psychological disorders, including drug addiction. But our government chose to sweep them under the rug rather than provide support to veterans’ organizations to treat them. The neglect fed their isolation which grew into an intense hatred of the government fueled by paranoia. They raided armories and lived off the land, leaving no electronic footprint to be tracked.
David Brin’s 1985 novel, The Postman, shined a light on the survivalist army living in the Siskiyou Mountains on the California-Oregon border. He imagined an apocalyptic future after a limited nuclear war in which Oregon is completely overrun by fascist survivalists. The movie version pulled out their big guns recruiting Kevin Costner to vanquish them – if only it were that simple.
Neal Stephenson’s 2011 novel, Reamde, dealt with a similar community in northeastern Washington, northern Idaho, and northwestern Montana. Though he characterized them tongue-in-cheek as heroes, he left no doubt about how dangerous they are.
I might not have believed him except for an experience my wife and I had in 1982. Staying at a remote lake in the Idaho panhandle, we were warned never to venture across it. Why? “Because if you pass the midpoint buoy the people on the other side will shoot at you.”
Driving there, I had encountered a sign on a state highway that read, “End of State Maintenance.” Curious and hungry, I stopped in the adjacent general store and asked what the sign meant. The storekeeper answered in a tone that said another naïve tourist who doesn’t know how to stay out of trouble. He said if I traveled beyond that point I was on my own. If I encountered problems, I shouldn’t expect aid from anyone – police, firefighters – they never entered that part of the panhandle because of the neo-Nazis encamped up there.
After all that, part of me was still unbelieving until a 1984 news report. Denver attorney and radio host, Alan Berg, regularly talked about the Idaho group on a clear channel radio station. Four White Supremacists who listened to Berg’s broadcasts traveled to Denver and murdered him. That was serious enough for State Police reinforced by the National Guard to enter the camps and arrest them. All four went to federal prison.
I’ve been a believer ever since. When, responding to Trump’s exhortations to overthrow their Governors last April, armed extremists occupied the capital in Michigan and terrorized the Governor of Kentucky and his family, most Americans felt a brief chill before promptly forgetting about it. After January 6th, no one will forget again.
That is Trump’s legacy. We have no choice but to confront it by every available means.