All indicators point to America being on the brink of a new harvest of rage; that’s to say, a new and likely larger wave of antigovernment violence than that which we experienced some two decades ago. And as much as people would like to blame this increasing domestic militancy solely on Donald Trump, the narcissist developer from New York City who is currently running for president of the United States, that would be a mistake. It’s not that simple.
I’m not trying to sensationalize our current political season. I’ll leave that to cable news. This analysis is about far more than the Trump/Clinton race for the presidency. When it comes to domestic terrorism and the current rapid growth in the number of people who claim to oppose the federal government in one way or another, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton represent no more than the match that is lighting the fuse. What is more important to understand is how the bomb was built and what it’s made of, because only then can it be successfully disarmed.
The antigovernment movement in this country is like a giant funnel. The more people who are poured into the funnel’s large end, the more people who will eventually be forced out of its small end. And since those dripping from the small end are the ones who are willing to do unspeakable acts of violence in the name of their cause — think Oklahoma City bombing — understanding the workings of this funnel is imperative.
Being forced through the antigovernment funnel is facilitated by some combination of stress, anger, misinformation, religion, fear and blame-shifting that, for a variety of reasons, eventually leads to an ever-deepening belief in any number of conspiracy theories about the government, the New World Order and often minorities.
These conspiracy theories are convoluted myths that — while nearly always containing at least a grain of truth — are so wild that most of us dismiss them without a second thought. But that too is a mistake. We dismiss rather than attempt to understand how people can get to a place in their lives where these myths are transformed into their conception of reality and guiding principals.
Most people would like to think that the belief in such conspiracy theories is reserved for the ignorant, the uneducated, the trailer trash crowd, or the “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton recently called them. But that also is far too simplistic an explanation. In fact, such a misguided and uninformed interpretation of what is happening in our country serves only to add powder to the antigovernment bomb.
Perhaps the best way to understand our current predicament is to quickly reexamine what led us to a similar, albeit less threatening, time of violence in the 1990s.
I spent nearly two decades reporting on the antigovernment movement in the 1980s and ’90s. The first decade of reporting I did was on the farm crisis and the decline of the rural American economy in the 1980s. I was particularly interested in the incredible rise in suicides among farm families. Back then, I didn’t know I was investigating the root causes of the radical and violent antigovernment movement. But it turned out I was.
In the 1990s, following the FBI’s failed attempt to arrest Randy Weaver on a minor firearms charge at his rural home in Ruby Ridge, Idaho — failed as in federal agents shot and killed his wife Vicki, his son Sammy and his family’s pet dog Striker — gun owners all across the U.S. were outraged.
Many saw the assault on the Weavers as a perfect example of what the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other Second Amendment activists have been claiming for years, namely that the registration and regulation of firearms is only the first step in the government’s secret plan to suspend the Second Amendment and confiscate our guns so that it can control the people. While subtle, this is one of the more innocuous-seeming conspiracy theories that continue to pour millions of people into the large end of the funnel.
Some of those whose religion includes a belief that the violent “end times” are upon us also saw the attack on the Weavers — who themselves had moved to Ruby Ridge in preparation for the end times — as proof the federal government had been taken over by the forces of evil.
For many who live their lives based on some interpretation of the Bible’s Revelation of John, the end times tends to include our government being taken over by a shadowy evil that turns it against Christians. In the world of many of these believers, the U.S.
Constitution is thought to have been inspired by God. This explains their anger and fear of any interpretation of the document that seems out of line with its original 240-year-old meaning as intended by the founding fathers. Religion-based conspiracy theories such as these also helped to push many people into the mouth of the antigovernment funnel.
This helps to explain why shortly after Ruby Ridge, citizen militia groups and other various antigovernment organizations began to pop up all across the country, primarily in rural areas but also in some declining cities in the Rust Belt. Even though there had been an antigovernment presence in farm country for many years in the form of the Posse Comitatus, what sprouted from the blood of Ruby Ridge was decidedly different, much larger and better organized.
The antigovernment movement got another shot in the arm in 1993 when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, then the ATF, went after David Koresh and the Branch Davidians at the religious sect’s compound in Waco, Texas. Once again the government’s actions were based on gun charges.
By the end of the Waco raid and siege that ended with the compound going up in flames, five ATF officers were dead while Koresh and 80 of his followers, including many women and children, were also killed.
For millions of Americans, like Ruby Ridge before it, Waco served as more evidence that the conspiracy theories about the government must be true and it helped move many people deeper into the funnel.
Then the movement exploded.
By early 1995 it was estimated that as many as 3 million Americans were involved in some level of antigovernment activity, including constitutionalists who often believed that our government had been taken over by the New World Order, sovereign citizens who refused to pay taxes, the freeman movement, anti-immigrant groups who patrolled the southern border as vigilantes, armed members of militia groups, neo-Nazis and of course, the ever present Christian Identity adherents whose desire was, and is, for a race war that will finally establish the white homeland they believe God has promised.
It was shortly after Ruby Ridge that I began covering antigovernment gatherings all over the central United States, from Texas to Montana. I could not help but notice that most of those in attendance looked and acted like the farmers I had been reporting on for much of the previous decade. On a hunch, I re-contacted as many of the farm families as I could whom I’d met during my farm crisis days. I found that well over 80 percent had become involved in the antigovernment movement, many at the highest and most extreme levels.
My exploration of this connection between economic hardship and antigovernment activity ultimately led to the publication of my first book, Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City is Only the Beginning. I believe the title is proving to be quite accurate.
While researching that book, I worked closely with rural psychologist Dr. Glen Wallace, former director of rural mental health care services for the state of Oklahoma. Wallace was also the primary counselor on call for the farm suicide hotline run by a group called Ag-link. At the peak of the farm crisis, Wallace was being sent into the field to talk down suicidal farmers at a rate of nearly 200 a year, and that was just in Oklahoma. In one 24-hour period when I was riding along, Wallace handled four farm-suicide emergencies hundreds of miles apart. It was an extraordinary effort to observe up close.
But what do farm suicides have to do with antigovernment activity? The answer is everything. They serve as evidence of one part of what goes on inside the funnel between entry and exit.
Economic difficulty — such as losing the family farm to foreclosure — most often causes serious depression for those experiencing the loss. According to Wallace, this depression, if untreated, ultimately results in what the psychologist refers to as “an invitation to die.”
Deep down, he says, we blame ourselves for our difficult economic circumstances and that translates into believing that we have failed — not only ourselves, but our families who depend on us as well. As our depression deepens we begin to contemplate putting an end to our pain by taking our own lives.
At that point, Wallace says human beings have only three options: they can get help; they can take their own life; or they can blame-shift. The first two are self-explanatory. That last option is what can subjugate us to the power of conspiracy theories within the antigovernment funnel.
When I would attend farm auctions and sometimes stay with the families in the final days leading up to the sale, the feeling that suicide was lurking just around the corner was palpable. And then a visitor would come. If it were Wallace, he’d try his best to get the depressed farmers into in-patient treatment. But there were other visitors as well.
Time after time I watched members of the antigovernment Posse Comitatus or some other Christian Identity based group visit these desperate farm families with a different sort of help. They would put their arms around the grieving family and whisper the words they wanted and needed, so badly to hear, “It’s not your fault.”
This too saved lives. But at a cost.
Christian Identity is a religion of conspiracy. It is best known as the religion behind the KKK. It teaches that Jews are the spawn of Satan who control the New World Order with the intention of killing or imprisoning God’s real chosen people, aka white people. They also believe that blacks and other minorities are soulless “mud people,” not even human.
While more subtle conspiracy theories about lost Second Amendment rights or the abandoning of the Constitution or the end times having arrived may initially dump people into the funnel, it is the more intricate and hate-filled conspiracy theories of Christian Identity that serve to push a smaller number of people deeper into the funnel and eventually out the small end as fully radicalized antigovernment adherents willing to kill and die for the cause, be it racial hatred, misguided patriotism, twisted religious beliefs or some combination thereof.
But racist conspiracy theories were not the topics I heard being discussed with hurting, angry, suicidal farmers, at least not at first. Those would come later. The only message at first was, “It’s not your fault.” It’s the government’s fault or the banker’s fault or the overly consolidated commodity market’s fault. These were the words that acted as a blame-shifting salve on the mental wounds of rural America’s economically devastated families.
In the beginning the message was more like, “Your family’s invited to a meeting we’re having this Friday night. There will be food and prayer and plenty for the kids to do. We care about you.”
And that is the quick version of how the descent into the ever-narrowing funnel began for many people in the 1980s and early ’90s — a fall that accelerated significantly with the fiascoes of Ruby Ridge and Waco.
It was inevitable that a few out of the millions who had been pulled into the mouth of the funnel would eventually be pushed — by way of stress, blame-shifting and conspiracy theories — out the funnel’s small end. And they were. The funnel gave us Gordon Kahl, Robert Mathews, Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, Eric Rudolph and many more who either killed too few to become household names or were stopped before they could carry out their planned mass murders.
It’s hard for most of us to understand the power of conspiracy theories. From the outside looking in, belief in such seemingly nonsensical myths makes no sense. But to a mind strapped down by depression being force fed these tales that serve to free a person from guilt and self-loathing, it can make perfect sense.
How can any of us understand how a person kidnapped and abused by a captor can eventually come to fully align with and even have empathy and sympathy towards their abuser? Yet we acknowledge the existence of Stockholm syndrome.
Is that really so different from watching a previously stable person descend into deep depression as a result of long-term economic stress, then avoid “the invitation to die” by latching onto myths that allow them to shift the blame for their failures from themselves to some form of “other?”
The conspiracy theories being spun these days are hardly simple. Some have been around for centuries, such as the belief that the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion are real — a conspiracy theory embraced and spread by the likes of industrialist Henry Ford and numerous politicians of both parties at various times in our history.
As I first wrote in 1996, the theories are intricate works of fiction designed to explain America’s ongoing slide toward what feels increasingly like a “Third World” existence for millions of Americans who are on the wrong side of the ever-widening great divide.
These conspiracy theories have been specifically designed to take advantage of the wide swaths of depression that have engulfed much of the rural landscape and the unemployed masses of the Rust Belt. Places we often refer to as “red states.”
These well-crafted theories combine fundamental religion, fear, patriotism, a grain of truth, and too often racism and hate. The finished products ease the pain of those who place their faith in the theories, allowing people to scapegoat the government or immigrants or Muslims or minorities or the banks or something or someone else for their problems.
And this is why we are in so much trouble in 2016. Today’s funnel dwarfs that of the 1980s and ’90s in every respect.
The gap between the rich and poor has gotten much wider in the past quarter century. The depression that hit the economically challenged in farm country 25 years ago has spread to millions who have lost their manufacturing jobs to cheap overseas labor and their homes to the mortgage crisis. Many Americans have replaced their disappeared job that once paid a livable wage with two and three jobs in their effort to simply get by.
Many of those who lost their homes now find themselves unable to move from renter to homeowner in the new economy. For millions of people the American Dream is now dead and for middle-aged white males this reality is proving difficult to accept … and live with, literally.
The suicides among farmers that swelled to the point that it became the single largest cause of unnatural death on the family farm has also spread across the land.
Consider these figures on suicide from Psychology Today: “Middle aged Americans are turning to suicide in alarming numbers. The reasons include … the mortgage crisis and most importantly, the challenge of a troubled economy. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims suicide rates now top the number of deaths due to automobile accidents.”
But for the purposes of this analysis of the antigovernment movement, it’s important to note that the Center for Disease Control says suicide rates remain nearly unchanged for both younger and older Americans. It is the middle ages between 35 and 64 years of age where suicide rates have skyrocketed nearly 30 percent. And more specifically still, and this I believe is the takeaway, the rate of suicide for middle-aged whites jumped a nearly inconceivable 40 percent in a 10-year span.
The highest suicide rates in the country now belong to 50- to 55-year-old white men — or as they are often referred to these days, Trump supporters.
So why are these middle-aged white men killing themselves? Like the farmers before them, economic stress coupled with no promising outlook for the future is taking its toll. They have reached the point in their lives where they now realize that the promised American Dream they believed to be their birthright is not going to materialize. After a lifetime of work they can’t retire; they can’t pay their bills; they see no future.
They believe they have failed themselves and their families. They are being presented with an invitation to die at a rate we have never seen in our nation’s history.
While many are obviously and tragically accepting this invitation, millions of others are instead blame-shifting their hate from themselves to the proverbial other, and by doing so, unwittingly pouring themselves into the mouth of the funnel.
And they are getting plenty of help in the process.
In the 1990s, it largely fell to the propaganda of Second Amendment zealots and end-times preachers to push folks into the funnel. But today the call into the funnel has gone mainstream. You can’t turn on a television or computer screen without hearing the new conspiracy theories.
First, we must realize that all the forces that built the 1990s antigovernment movement are still in play. The NRA’s dog whistle rhetoric about the government’s secret desire to take away all guns is as prevalent now as ever, perhaps even more so in light of the many horrific mass shootings that have raised a loud cry for stronger gun regulations. And religious leaders declaring these the end times have only grown louder and more prolific as issues like gay marriage and a perceived war against Muslims have stoked their fear and paranoia.
Racism too remains alive and well as a draw into the funnel — as evidenced by the jump in the number of known antigovernment groups that coincided with the election of Barack Obama, the first black president.
So in short, we were in frightening territory even before the 2016 presidential race, but now things are much worse.
We know by the mass increase in the rates of depression and suicide among middle age white men that the ground for conspiracy theory blame-shifting is more fertile than ever before. So when we add to that the now mainstreamed Donald Trump conspiracy theories that are broadcast daily to millions by the news media, it is a recipe for disaster.
The news media is missing the point. For instance, it talks about the “birther” conspiracy that questions Obama’s place of birth and thereby legitimacy as president with a smirk and a wink to what it perceives as its intelligent viewers. It’s treated as just another form of cynical entertainment for the mainstream masses. But members of the media are largely oblivious to the fact that every time they mention this racist conspiracy theory without a responsible discussion about its ability, by design, to motivate people who truly believe it toward violence, they do a great disservice to all of us.
Thanks to a broken economic system that has largely displaced our middle class, and the presidential campaign of 2016, there are now 38 million Trump followers who are potentially being crammed into the largest antigovernment funnel to date.
It’s important to point out that being poured into the top of the antigovernment funnel does not make a person a racist or in any way a bad person. It simply means that they are frustrated with and skeptical of the government for a variety of reasons and their positions on certain issues make them more vulnerable than most to the conspiracy theory messages that can and will pull some of them deeper into the funnel. And even of those who are pulled in more deeply, far fewer still will ever make it all the way through, exiting with a willingness to resort to violence to express their anger at the government. But the fact remains, that the more people entering the top of the funnel, the more people who will eventually come out the other end as violent antigovernment adherents.
Understanding the legitimate psychological reasons why certain middle-aged white men have a need to blame someone other than themselves for their station in life sheds enormous light on the trajectory of this election.
Think about the issues that have drawn this demographic to Trump, and the candidate’s rhetoric that is acting to pull them further into the funnel: his opposition to trade agreements that his followers blame for their inability to have good-paying jobs; his accusations that Mexicans are taking his followers jobs. His overt racism against blacks, Muslims and Latinos, who he paints as threats to “our” way of life; his support for all things gun, even refusing to ban assault rifles or extra large magazines; as mentioned before, his “birther” position; and his broad brushed approach to painting Washington as a cabal of corrupt politicos stealing from his followers.
What better conspiracy-theory salve for the pain of his economically stressed followers than to be told it’s not their fault, it’s the fault of the government, Latinos, blacks and Muslims. And only by supporting him can they “Make America Great Again,” presumably going back in time to a place when white men were the undisputed top of the pecking order.
Even Trump’s treatment of women as objects made for his pleasure seems to appeal to this beaten down demographic whose need to feel superior is paramount.
All of this explains why no matter what new revelation about Trump the Clinton camp or the media dig up, it has very little impact on the polls.
Many Trump followers aren’t following him because of his political views, they are following him because they need him. They need his conspiracy-theory-laced message because it helps them to ease their pain by scapegoating their problems onto the mythical other.
Unfortunately, this blame-shifting also makes them vulnerable to being pulled ever deeper into the dark recesses of the funnel.
But it gets worse. Trump saved his most destructive conspiracy theory for last. He now is claiming that our election system is rigged and that the results can’t be trusted. He is telling people already well down the funnel that our democracy has been stolen; it is no longer an option for bringing about change. And it appears he intends to use his own electoral defeat as proof that our democracy no longer exists.
It’s laughable to most people I know. But please believe me when I tell you that millions of people believe this is true. In fact, a recent poll found that more than 40 percent of all Republicans believe that the election is rigged.
So ask yourself what a true American patriot should do if some dark force has now actually — in the words of a major party presidential candidate — taken over our government and eliminated our democracy.
Trump may just be trying to crown himself king of the disenfranchised middle-aged white men or launch his next for-profit venture in Trump TV. But what he has managed to accomplish over the past 12 months is to validate all the most destructive, racist, violence-inciting conspiracy theories of the funnel.
He has pushed more people in and empowered the mechanism for pushing more people through. And I believe we will all be paying the price in post-election America for his irresponsible actions.
But before we point the finger of guilt at Trump alone, let’s consider how so many of his followers came to be in their current, difficult circumstances. Both parties have increasingly abandoned the growing underclass. In recent decades politicians have too often traded doing the right thing for the thing that will get them reelected. Our system does increasingly benefit our largest corporations and wealthiest donors at the expense of working men and women of all races.
But our democracy has not been stolen by the New World Order. We have given it away as the result of our apathy and our inexplicable willingness to vote for the lesser of two evils out of fear, rather than using the power of our democracy and our votes responsibly for the betterment of all.
Each of us deserves at least some of the blame for the storm of violence that is rapidly blowing our way. I’m afraid it’s too late to stop it. I hope I’m wrong. But whatever happens, we can weather it, learn, and hopefully prevent the next one.