America is paralyzed by mistrust and extremism.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Intelligence Project” has identified 488 anti-government groups around the country that flourish exploiting lies and false conspiracies.
“In 2021,” the project reports, “the conspiratorial and permanently dubious view of government was pervasive, as evidence by the movement’s popularity on such issues as COVID-19 regulations, local school curriculum, the ‘Big Lie’ voter fraud, border security and various technological advances such as 5G cell service.”
In the 60s, Sen. Robert Kennedy warned of the threat of radicalism.
“What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.”
No longer hiding in the shadows, extremism is openly tearing apart the nation’s soul by way of social media posts that promote misinformation, right-wing media that distribute it and mass shootings that have actualized it. In nine days — nine days — the country has seen five mass shootings: at a grocery store; church; a metropolitan city’s main street; a school, and a medical clinic.
In his alleged manifesto, 18-year-old white supremacist Payton Gendron, who shot and killed 10 at a supermarket, “described black Americans and immigrants as ‘replacers’ who ‘invade our lands, live on our soil, attack and replace our people,’” Sky News reports.
Gendron is one of thousands, likely many thousands more, who embrace such falsehoods.
More shocking to me are the topics chosen by right-wing media that blatantly exploit and agitate believers.
In a New York Times story (May 15), “No public figure has promoted replacement theory more loudly or relentlessly than the Fox host Tucker Carlson, who has made elite-led demographic change a central theme of his show since joining Fox’s prime-time lineup in 2016. A Times investigation published this month showed that in more than 400 episodes of his show, Mr. Carlson has amplified the notion that Democratic politicians and other assorted elites want to force demographic change through immigration, and his producers sometimes scoured his show’s raw material from the same dark corners of the internet that the Buffalo suspect did.
“‘It’s not a pipeline. It’s an open sewer,’ said Chris Stirewalt, a former Fox News political editor who was fired in 2020 after defending the network’s decision to call Arizona for then-candidate Joseph R. Biden, and who wrote a forthcoming book on how media outlets stoke anger to build audiences.
“‘Cable hosts looking for ratings and politicians in search of small-dollar donations can see which stories and narratives are drawing the most intense reactions among addicted users online,’ Mr. Stirewalt said. Social media sites and internet forums, he added, are ‘like a focus group for pure outrage.’”
Night after night, provocateurs like Carlson promote an “open sewer” of deceit.
As noted in author David Nichols book, Ike and McCarthy, Eisenhower warned the country about extremism in an essay for Reader’s Digest in 1969.
“Extremes of the Far Left and the Far Right” represented a clear danger to the country. Eisenhower believed in one course “great enough to accommodate all reasonable citizens, from the moderate conservative to the moderate liberal.” These are the people, he reminded readers, “who get things done.”
In contextualizing these dangerous times, future historians might describe two types of extremism: the extremism that brought about American democracy; and the extremism that wanted to tear it down.