NPR

Is Right-Wing Extremism On The Rise?

James von Brunn walked into the U.S. Holocaust Museum and killed a security guard. Late term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was shot at church.

With examples of right-wing extremism making headlines, guests debate whether heated rhetoric fans the flames.

Guests:

Kathleen Parker, syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group

Jamie Kirchick, assistant editor of New Republic. He wrote "The Religious Right Didn't Kill George Tiller," which appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Carol M. Swain, author of The New White Nationalism In America and professor at Vanderbilt University Law School

Listen to the TOTN podcast. Sign up for the newsletter.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Last week's shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the murder of an abortion doctor in Wichita, skinheads charged with plotting the assassination of Barack Obama - all isolated incidents, but some conclude may be the beginning of a wave of violence by right-wing extremists. And while the incidents we've seen thus far represent the actions of individuals or tiny groups, some commentators wonder whether fiery conservative rhetoric fans the flames.

Later in the program, Iran's election on the Opinion Page this week. Suzanne Maloney argues that the results strain credulity and that it's the worst possible outcome for Barack Obama, the president of the United States.

But first, is this something you worry about? Do you see a rise in political extremism, right or left, where you live? Give us a call, 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Today, we'll hear from two thinkers and writers with us here in Studio 3A: Kathleen Parker, a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, and thanks very much for coming in.

Ms. KATHLEEN PARKER (Syndicated Columnist, The Washington Post Writers Group): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Also with us is James Kirchick, assistant editor of New Republic, a contributing writer for The Advocate magazine, and nice of you to join us today.

Mr. JAMES KIRCHICK (Assistant Editor, New Republic): Thank you.

CONAN: And Kathleen Parker, let me ask you. Are we making too much of this? These are troubling incidents to be sure, but is this something that we should be scared of as the beginning of a wave?

Ms. PARKER: Well, I think - obviously they're troubling - but I think we can overplay our response to these things by talking about them incessantly, as sort of oh my goodness, this is a new wave of extremism. We almost - you know, we almost sort of encourage it, you know what I mean? So there's - on the one hand, yes we need to be concerned and need to talk about it rationally, logically and calmly. But I think we can - if we say oh my goodness, we've got the Holocaust shooting, we've got the Tiller killer, and you know, go through a list, and then you sort of try to create this image of something that's going on that may not be completely accurate.

I mean, I think that there are crazy people of all stripes, including on the far left.

CONAN: There are - there was also, last April, a warning from the Department of Homeland Security that, quote, "the economic downturn, the election of the first African-American president, present unique drivers for right-wing radicalization and recruitment."

Ms. PARKER: Well look, there are always - if we want to talk about racism just as an example - we have had racism. We will always have racism. Barack Obama is a unique character in our history, and so those people will be animated by his presence. Does that mean that groups are actually going out and recruiting people and sort of saying that we're going to, now we're going to take care of business finally?

I don't think so. And you know, I think the reason that particular document was offensive to conservatives was that it suggested, for example, that returning veterans might be recruited, a la Timothy McVeigh. And you know, this is highly insulting to…

CONAN: Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized for that.

Ms. PARKER: Yes, exactly, this April - of course, absolutely she did. I think some of the reaction on the right was out of proportion, and it was yet another opportunity to be outraged. You know, it's sort of like we look for excuses. We, the American people, look for excuses to be incensed, and so this gave the right wing, for lack of better term, the right-wing pundits something to talk about, something to use to sort of coalesce against the Democratic control of the country, et cetera, et cetera.

So you know, all of it gets blown out of proportion. And on the one hand yes, I thought some of the groups mentioned in the document were not well-outlined. I mean, you can't - you don't insult your military people that way. But then again why wouldn't the government - we do - you know, the government does studies about all sorts of things, and it would be actually derelict of the government not to say look at conditions, where we are, what's likely to happen.

Remember how critical everyone was of the Bush administration for not connecting dots. Had we been a little bit more vigilant, we might have been able to anticipate what was coming on 9/11.

(Soundbite of coughing)

Ms. PARKER: Excuse me. On 9/11. And now you might say, well, gosh, that report was not far off, was it?

CONAN: Yeah. James Kirchick, let me ask you. Are there dots there to be connected?

Mr. KIRCHICK: Well certainly, I think that the reaction to the DHS report was, on the whole, an overreaction. And it makes perfect sense that, you know, as someone who follows the extreme right wing, economic downturn combined with a black president would certainly raise red flags. And it's something that the United States government should be following, and they're always following.

You have the ATF and the FBI. They're always monitoring these extremist groups. I do agree that the attack on veterans was uncalled for, and that's why the Department of Homeland Security retracted that. And there's actually been no statistical evidence that veterans are more likely than other subsets of the population to join extremist groups.

What I thought was interesting and has been interesting over the past couple weeks - and slightly appalling, really - is the way a lot of people on the left are trying to make a cynical political point out of this by taking these isolated incidents from extremists and trying to tar the entire conservative movement, or every conservative in the country by association with these crimes.

Which was what they are. They were crimes. And I really don't think that that's the conversation we should be having. We should be talking about, you know, how to prevent these things. We should be talking about maybe gun-control laws, talking about how to, you know, stop crazed people from killing security guards at museums. I don't see the purpose, other than a partisan political one, in trying to connect these incidents to a broader political movement that many Americans - peaceful, law-abiding Americans - claim allegiance to.

CONAN: Well getting to that point, there are some on the left who say that right-wing rhetoric does bear some responsibility for, in particular, the killing of Dr. Tiller, who had been identified as a mass murderer, and America must do something about this and that sort of thing.

Kathleen Parker, is there any responsibility, do you think, for people on the right who've railed against abortion doctors, when they published their names and addresses on Web sites, and subsequently somebody gets killed?

Ms. PARKER: Well, I think I'm pretty clear on not wanting to place blame on other than the person who commits a crime. If I were the person who had actually been railing against Dr. Tiller, and the terms that have been used against him, I would feel morally compromised, personally.

There are ways to rail against - there are ways to protest and to express moral indignation without invective, without sort of this high-pitched hysteria that we often hear. And I will just say this: I watched Bill O'Reilly's interview, and I put that in quotes, with Joan Walsh that was posted on the Internet.

It was phenomenally awful. Joan Walsh could not get a word in edgewise. She is not a crazy person. She's not evil. She happens to have a very strong pro-choice position, even to the inclusion of those late-term abortions. And that's her position, which she's able to express in a calm way.

You can disagree with that, but Mr. O'Reilly was almost in a rage. I mean, he was yelling at her. So you know, by doing that, I think he has a responsibility. He has - what he's doing is validating rage to those people out there watching who admire him and look up to him.

They think well, gosh, if O'Reilly feels that way, then I feel that way. And you know, I'm not blaming him, but I do think - you know, we have to all sort of dial it back. These are very emotionally charged, polarizing issues, and if we don't learn to talk about them sanely and calmly, then we're going to keep - I think we will - this pitch, this level of anger and rage will continue to grow.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, Jamie. Is this something you consider to be cyclical? I mean, if a conservative Republican is elected, would you expect that extreme environmental groups might become more active, fearing that their worst fears will come true? If a liberal Democrat is elected, would you assume that anti-immigration groups, pro-gun groups and anti-abortion groups would become - individuals, maybe not groups - become more active?

Mr. KIRCHICK: Well, that's what I find interesting and kind of funny about this debate we're having now, which it seems that we've forgotten about the past eight years, where we heard some of the most vitriolic, disrespectful rhetoric about the president of the United States, George W. Bush. Whenever you think about him being called, you know, compared to Hitler on a regular basis by various liberal commentators, who frankly are not considered extremists.

You can open up the pages of the New York Times and read columnists saying outrageous things about the president of the United States, about the Iraq War, about this country. And there are attacks on military recruiting stations in Times Square and at other locations across the country over the past eight years.

So I - cyclical, yes. I think when someone's in office from a particular party, the extremists on the opposite side are going to become very angry and enraged, and there's a perfect target for them. But I don't think that the right-wing rhetoric that we're hearing now is any more vicious or out of bounds than what we heard from the left over the past eight years.

CONAN: We're talking with James Kirchick, an assistant editor at the New Republic; Kathleen Parker, who's a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. 800-989-8255 is our email - is our phone number, excuse me. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and let's see if we can get Patrick(ph) on the line, Patrick calling us from Casper, Wyoming.

PATRICK (Caller): Yeah, hi. You know, advertisers have been selling cereal and stuff all these years on TV, and they must do it, obviously, because it works on radio and whatnot. So, if you have people saying over and over…

CONAN: Less and less, but that's another program.

PATRICK: Well, if you're saying over and over again that hey, the president's illegitimate because we don't know where his birth certificate is, even though it's been debunked. And people saying stuff over and over like that again, then it just, it makes sense, you know, in that sort of era that we live in that somebody's going to buy into that somewhere and say hey, if our president's illegitimate, then we have an illegitimate government and then I should be taking up arms. And you know, it seems like a no-brainer to me, basically.

CONAN: And I guess, Kathleen Parker, we refer to that as the big lie theory, practiced by Nazi propagandists in the 1930s.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah, there's so much trash being circulated out there. I continue to get - my mailbox fills up every day with, you know, the same old, same old stuff.

CONAN: Tell me about it.

Ms. PARKER: It's so exhausting. And it's stunning to me that so many people are so gullible or who are just not interested in finding out what's true. You know, and they find what makes them feel validated and run with that.

CONAN: And the echo chamber that we all talk about, and there are echo chambers on the right and the left and various stripes in between - I'm not trying to argue that (unintelligible).

Ms. PARKER: If the people would only listen to us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Exactly, more and more, and if advertisers would only advertise more on radio, then we'd all be in good shape. Patrick, thank you very much for the phone call.

We're talking with Kathleen Parker, a syndicated columnist from the Washington Post Writers Group, James Kirchick, an assistant editor at the New Republic. We're talking today about extremism. Is this something you worry about? Do you see a rise in political extremism, right or left, where you live? Are these especially polarized times? Does fiery rhetoric from either side fan the flames? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Here's an email we received from Bree(ph) in Reno. I live in northern Nevada, a largely libertarian-minded region that often fluctuates between red and blue in politics. Since Obama's election, I have heard increasingly paranoid radicalization in my friends, neighbors and co-workers. It's my belief these ideas are most definitely fueled by the conservative talking heads they listen to on radio and television.

Many, including my own husband, have stockpiled guns and ammunitions for fear that the liberal crazies will revoke their Second Amendment rights. They see the Obama administration as harkening the downfall of Americanism.

While I've talked my husband out of this ideological extremism, many of our peers are living in fear of the so-called liberal agenda. Well, we're talking about extremism today, and that doesn't quite qualify as extremism, but in any case, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. What are you seeing where you live, from either the right or the left?

Our guests are Kathleen Parker, who writes a syndicated column for the Washington Post Writers Group, and James Kirchick, an assistant editor at the New Republic. And Jamie, it's undeniable we've seen a rise in the sale of guns and ammunition since the election of President Obama and this pervasive fear among some that the Democrats will now take away people's guns. There's absolutely no movement toward this in Congress.

Mr. KIRCHICK: Yeah, I think that's irrational. I think the Democratic Party realized not that long ago that the gun issue had essentially been lost. And you saw, in 2006, Democrats from conservative parts of the country running on pro-gun planks. And I think the Democratic Party made a sort of peace with the situation, that they would treat this as a regional issue, not a national one, understanding that Second Amendment rights are a very crucial point in vast swaths of the country where, if the party wants to become a 50-state party again - and it's increasingly looking like it could possibly become that - it's going to have to tone down the anti-gun rhetoric.

So I don't think - I agree with the listener that this is not an issue that's going to come up.

CONAN: And Kathleen Parker, the other issue we see a lot of activity around is immigration. The groups that patrol, quote-unquote, "the border areas," and this was active, of course, during the Bush administration when the president was in favor of immigration reform - could not get that through Congress. Nevertheless, this is an issue that inflames many.

Ms. PARKER: Right. And you know, this is - there - again this is one of those topics that there's sane and not-so-sane ways of discussing it. And we all know Lou Dobbs never stops talking about immigration, but he doesn't do it with his face turning red and shouting at people. You know, he has legitimate concerns, and he airs them in a civilized way.

I'll just throw one other thought out there having to do with the guns and people buying guns. You know, there is a concern out there, too, for the possibility of civil disorder that might result from, you know, the economy becoming worse or a number of other factors.

So I think people are not only - I have a high tolerance for this sort of survivalist instinct because I grew up with a bomb shelter in Florida.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARKER: You know, we had drills on weekends, so. I don't see these people as insane. I see them as thinking ahead and thinking, you know, things could get bad, and we want to be in a position to protect ourselves.

CONAN: Let's talk with Felipe(ph), Felipe calling us from Fort Lauderdale.

FELIPE (Caller): Oh, hi, good afternoon, Neal, big fan of the show.

CONAN: Thank you. Go ahead.

FELIPE: Okay, yes. I just wanted to comment regarding the status of the city -especially in Fort Lauderdale. Having such a mixed bag, many people from many different places, including myself - originally from Costa Rica - I noticed that even though there is disagreement, the dialogue hasn't become violent or rude.

A lot of people, I think, are having a bit of a hard time trying to attack maybe Obama being such an articulate person or having so many apparently good ideas or so much good following so far, especially in this city. So I see many people with a wait-and-see type of attitude but not outright violence.

CONAN: And we talked - Felipe makes a good point. We talk about this sometimes hyperbolic rhetoric against Barack Obama, who enjoys, last time I looked, something like a 63-percent favorability rating amongst the American public. So this is not a widespread thing by any stretch of the imagination.

Felipe, people are speaking in civil tones about serious issues?

FELIPE: Very much. In fact, I have many lively conversations with friends, Republican friends of mine. And you know, at best I come up to a stalemate with them, not a victory but up to a stalemate.

Mr. KIRCHICK: I think it's the weather down there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It could be.

FELIPE: I think - well so far, I see everything as going good, and at least so far in my part of the world, a good degree of civility.

CONAN: Felipe, thanks for the report, appreciate it.

FELIPE: Thanks so much, Neal.

CONAN: And something along the same lines from Tom(ph) in Portland, Oregon, who emailed: I grew up in a rural area in the Midwest and for the past 20 years have been dismayed at the migration toward the hard right of my hometown. Relatives, indeed the whole area, once reasonable people, seem to be getting increasingly closed-minded. Lately, he writes, it is really turning around and correcting. Since the extremists are feeling more and more marginalized, they are getting increasingly vocal but not increasingly numerous.

And Jamie, one of the things that we saw as an absolute trend, the rise of the so-called militia groups in the 1990s, that seemed to come to a hard stop, the growth, after 9/11.

Mr. KIRCHICK: I guess it did. I think it was always something that was sort of overblown to begin with. I, however, I wrote a story last year, a previous story, about Ron Paul, the presidential candidate.

CONAN: The former Libertarian Party candidate.

Mr. KIRCHICK: Yes, and I uncovered these newsletters that he'd published in the 1980s and '90s that were full of this pro-militia sentiment, very explicitly. And I think the popularity of his presidential campaign in 2008 - which was looked at by a lot of people, including some people on the left, as being a good thing, and that this was a guy who was willing to speak truth to power - I think there was something a lot darker there with Ron Paul. And I think that was a disturbing trend in American politics, that this man was dog-whistling to some pretty disturbing elements and oftentimes being quite clear in what he believed. And you're seeing him being - becoming increasingly popular now. People are turning to him for economic advice because he wants to, you know, abolish the Fed and whatnot.

So yes, I mean, certainly militia activity is not something of prime concern, but this anti-government and sort of paranoid rhetoric, I think did rear its head in the last presidential election.

CONAN: You're in trouble now. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Nancy(ph), Nancy with us from Martinez, Georgia.

NANCY (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

NANCY: Yeah, I just - when I heard extremism, something came to mind. We were living in Valdosta, Georgia, in 1992, and a very close relative of my husband's actually was passing videos of VHS tapes about Bill Clinton and his abortion, you know, how he was a baby killer and this and that from, you know, a mainline, I think it was a Baptist church, actually. And you know, that really bothered me.

And then, you know, I live in an area in Georgia, very upwardly mobile, you know, very kids-are-safe kind of place for the most part, folks very interested in education, but extremism is, you know, evident everywhere. And there's a lot of talk in the newspaper back and forth, you know, online, and I read some of it sometimes, and I get disgusted and try not to comment, but…

CONAN: On which particular issues, Nancy?

NANCY: Yes.

CONAN: On which particular issues?

NANCY: Where do I stand?

CONAN: No, no, no. On which particular issues are you seeing these…?

NANCY: I'm sorry, Obama as God, as Messiah and Obama mania, and you know, he's - just really silly stuff. It's very - you know, I read a different thing in Obama, and I obviously support him and pray for this nation and hope that, you know, we have good leadership. And I do that every morning.

CONAN: Nancy, thanks very much for the call.

NANCY: You're very welcome, and thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Kathleen, as we hear these concerns, they seem to be concerns. There seems to be a worry about the possibility of more attacks - well, maybe the militias were overblown in the 1990s with investigations started, particularly became - a lot of media reports after the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Ms. PARKER: Well, there's certainly a greater awareness. I think people are very attuned to something sort of in the atmosphere that doesn't feel quite right, and frankly, it's been there since 9/11. I think that tipped off - it did something. It made us all a little temporarily insane, I think. And there's a sense of instability out there that hasn't quite - people are a little - they're worried about the economy, they're worried about their jobs.

They're worried about what's happening in the Middle East. And then you've got this, you know, this brand new sort of political picture that has never occurred before.

We're in the 21st century. We've got an African-American president. We've got, you know, all sorts of new things going on. Everything's moving very, very fast. And I think that, you know, the ground feels a little loose under our feet, and that's affecting people somewhat.

CONAN: Jamie Kirchick?

Mr. KIRCHICK: I just think there's - regarding the murder at the Holocaust museum last week, I think we're debating this issue as if the political spectrum were linear, liberal on one side and conservative on the other, when I think in reality it's actually circular in some way.

You know, Fascism and Communism had a lot more in common than either Fascists or Communists would like to acknowledge. And if you look at the rhetoric of this man, James Von Brunn, yes he was a neo-Nazi, a white supremacist. We would consider him to be an extreme right-winger. But a lot of his rhetoric on the supposed influence of neo-conservatives in the United States government, the fact that he wanted to blow up the Weekly Standard, which is a conservative magazine, that he listed Bill O'Reilly and Fox News, he sounded frankly more like a demented Daily Kos blogger than he did someone on the right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARKER: Boy, your email's going to be fun.

Mr. KIRCHICK: Oh, I'm used to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIRCHICK: But I think we're using vestigial terminology here. And this guy is an extreme paleo-conservative. I think that when the Cold War ended and the Communist threat dissipated, you saw a divide on the right between most conservatives who supported a more interventionist foreign policy. After 9/11, you had most mainstream Republicans supported the Iraq war, support Israel, support an interventionist foreign policy. And a tiny, tiny subset on the right, led by people like Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul, who would warn about, you know, the neoconservative influence in Washington.

But aside from that, that narrative has been taken up by the left since 9/11. And, in fact, a poll came out recently by professors at Stanford and Berkeley, showing that liberals were twice as more likely to blame the economic crisis on Jews and conservatives. And I think anti-Semitism has now become more of a left-wing phenomenon - albeit, a far left wing phenomenon, but certainly more a phenomenon on the fringe at the left than it is on the right. And that conservatives have become certainly more philo-Semitic over the past 15, 20, 30 years than liberals have.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to Tom(ph). Tom with us from Athens, Ohio.

TOM (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Tom. Go ahead, please.

TOM: For the man from the New Republic, he was talking about the vitriol from the left side, as well as the right side. But I haven't heard of any plots during Bush-Cheney to assassinate them as there have been against Obama, nor have there been left-wing zealots killing people like right-wing zealots.

CONAN: I'm sure there were plots against the Bush and Cheney - against President Bush and Vice President Cheney. There are all the time. I think it's unarguable there's been an increase in the number of threats against President Obama. But nevertheless…

Mr. KIRCHICK: Yes.

CONAN: …there are constantly threats against the president.

Mr. KIRCHICK: And we're still talking about a small number of "threats," quote, unquote. And I'll also say, if we're going to apply this standard that, you know, Bill O'Reilly is responsible for the death of George Tiller. Well, there was a murder of a military recruiter two weeks ago by an extremist Muslim. Are we going to blame that on the anti-war movement in this country?

TOM: He was a conservative, extremist Muslim as opposed to a conservative…

Mr. KIRCHICK: Well you're using conservative, liberal - these words, again, these words really don't work here. He was anti-war, anti-American extremist. But his rhetoric - again, if you're going to use the standard that we're going to tar an entire mainstream political movement with the actions of a single killer, then you have to apply that same standard to the left. And frankly…

TOM: Okay.

Mr. KIRCHICK: …in every - you're going to have to blame Keith Olbermann and MSNBC and the New York Times and every anti-war outlet in the country is going have to be responsible for the actions of a lone gunman. And I think that's absurd. And I don't think it applies to either left or right.

TOM: But there are very few people on the left with the vitriol that's coming out of right-wing radio.

CONAN: I'm not sure that that's accurate if you look at the Internet over the past eight years time.

TOM: Okay.

Ms. PARKER: I think that's - yeah. I think that's just right now because, you know, the left is in charge.

Mr. KIRCHICK: Right.

Ms. PARKER: I mean, they've gotten - not the far left, but, you know, Democrats are…

Mr. KIRCHICK: Liberals. (Unintelligible).

Ms. PARKER: Yeah. They're in charge.

CONAN: Socialists complain they're not, but they…

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

CONAN: …but that's another thing entirely.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah. So - and no. Believe me, during the Bush administration, there was quite a lot coming out of the left, and I've kept all the emails, if you'd like me to share.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call.

We're talking with Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post Writers Group and James Kirchick of the New Republic and also a contributor The Advocate magazine.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to Eric(ph). Eric with us from Denver.

ERIC (Caller): Yes. Hello. I'm kind of a more liberal thinker in a red state. And so, I sometimes feel like I'm a little island unto myself, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Voted blue last time.

Mr. KIRCHICK: Yeah.

CONAN: But - go ahead.

ERIC: Well, anyway, so I was having a business meeting today with, you know, gal that I otherwise think of as being pretty reasonable. And she was talking to me today about how she'd heard that because Michelle Obama didn't go to Saudi Arabia with, you know, with the president that this was a sign that they're really, you know, Muslim deep down. And, you know, this was bodes ill for the safety of our nation.

And I guess to me, what this points out is that the tone of the rhetoric - I mean, anything is used to try to prove this point that it's a life or death situation that somehow whether or not Michelle Obama went to Saudi Arabia, you know, is going to threaten your life, you know?

And then the more sort of religious people that I speak to, you know, they see the abortion issue as a life or death issue that, you know, that there's murder on the one side, so the murder on the other side doesn't seem so bad somehow, because it's offset against all these murders of fetuses.

And I just - the way that this has escalated, that does frighten me because it does seem like it was more…

CONAN: And do you think for a moment, Eric, this woman you've talked to would do anything?

ERIC: I mean, I don't know that she would necessarily do anything, but I know that she would, you know, not dissuade someone else, I guess, in that sense. I mean, you know, your commentator from the New Republic talked about, you know, painting one side or the other with tens of - with a few. But on the other hand, if they don't come right out and say no, there's an implicit support, I find.

CONAN: All right.

ERIC: I'm willing to blame both sides on that.

CONAN: All right, Eric, thank you for the call. And I just wanted to - don't mean to cut you off, but I wanted to go to this email from Stuart(ph) in San Francisco.

Your guests are naive. Look what happened in Israel with Yitzhak Rabin, an unstable assassin incited to act by an extremist hate machine. The blame extends well beyond the individual. What Israel has learned is that vitriolic speech is toxic and has since taken measures to curb it. The same must be done here to Reilly, Limbaugh, et cetera, before it is too late.

And I guess that's an opinion that some people have and the - again, this is a belief by some that the Obama administration intends to re-impose the fairness doctrine, which would be a clamp on right-wing talk radio. There's no sign that the Obama administration has any such intentions, Kathleen Parker.

Ms. PARKER: No. And they've been specifically - they've said very clearly they don't intend to. But, you know, the problem for the right, right now, is that they don't have a leader. There is no person there to speak in a moderate and - voice. The Democrats have Barack Obama in front of the camera every day, articulating the positions in a way that you just - you know, you sit there and you think, well, that sounds reasonable. You might disagree with it. But, you know, there's - he's a sane man speaking sensibly, right?

If we were listening to the far left voices, if Barack Obama were not there, we'd be having the same conversation about them. But until the Republicans get somebody in place who actually speaks for the party and articulates the positions, we're going to have these other people who may - who, frankly, make money by being as polarizing as possible leading the charge.

CONAN: Kathleen Parker, thanks very much for your time today. Our thanks as well to James Kirchick of the New Republic. Kathleen Parker, a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. And James Kirchick also a contributing writer for The Advocate magazine.

Coming up next, we'll look at some of what drives violent extremist. Carol Swain joins us to argue that conditions today are fertile for more violence in an historical view. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Right now, we're going to continue our conversation about political extremism, not a new phenomenon, but there are conditions that can spark hate, even violence.

Carol Swain studies extremism. She wrote the book "The New White Nationalism in America," and she joins us from a studio at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Nice to have you with us.

Ms. CAROL SWAIN (Author, "The New White Nationalism in America"): Thank you.

CONAN: And you wrote in your book back in 2002 that the political and social climate were ripe for an upswing in violence. Do you see that same factors true today?

Ms. SWAIN: I think that the conditions are even more fertile today than they were back in 2002. And I believe we make a serious mistake if we look at the hate groups and count the numbers.

Most Americans, most people don't join organizations. Many of the people that have committed the most violent crimes were not members of extremist groups. They were individuals that were aggrieved. They may have gone to Web sites. They may have fed their hatred, but they were not members of organized hate groups.

CONAN: And when we see a series of incidents, the murder of Dr. Tiller in Wichita, the shootings last week at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, obviously unconnected with each other, are they products of the same phenomenon?

Ms. SWAIN: Well, we've always had individuals in this country that were revolutionaries. We look at how the nation was founded. And so, there are people out there that take action. And I believe that there are grievances in this country that many white Americans are fearful about the future. They don't know, you know, what the future holds for them. They've always been in the majority.

I believe the demographic changes, the concerns about immigration, the perceived unfairness of affirmative action, fears about minority crime, all of these things feed into that language of identity politics that comes from - pretty much from the left. It also feeds and fuels the right and gives - it gives - it makes the - it justifies and gives a language for white people to organize.

And part of what I discuss in my book, "The New White Nationalism in America," is how that the white nationalist, the ones that I fear that could make inroads into the mainstream population, they don't talk overtly about violence. They use social science statistics to make their case that white people are - have something to fear from people of color, that white people need to organize, that the government is not protecting the rights of white people.

CONAN: Is there intent, do you believe, to spark incidents of violence?

Ms. SWAIN: No, I don't. I think that violence is something that most Americans abhor. And that the few that are so extreme that they would actually engage in violence, they're out there. They can create a lot of havoc. It only takes a few people to create havoc.

What I warned against - I warned against the conditions that I believe that might lead to more and more people just acting out randomly towards strangers.

CONAN: Towards strangers, which is unusual in terms of acts of violence. I wonder, historically speaking, does it makes sense that when a liberal is elected, conservatives - right-wing extremists become more fearful and therefore, perhaps, more violence or - and when a conservative is elected, that left-wing extremists become more active?

Ms. SWAIN: I don't think so. I think that the conditions for extremism in this country have been simmering for some time. There are many Americans that are concerned about high levels of immigration - legal and illegal. They're concerned about affirmative action, public opinion poll data for the last, you know, 20 years or so have shown a majority of Americans holding positions that are much more conservative than their leaders.

And there's a new poll out today, I believe, showing that most Americans are conservative, yet the policies that come from Washington are often policies that are more liberal than the American population. Probably, there's a frustration out there, there's a fear and there's a lot of uncertainty. And the way to address it is not by shutting down free speech. I think we need to have more dialogue, that we need forms where people can honestly express that fears.

CONAN: I wanted to read an email we got from Dorsey(ph) in Roseville, Ohio. We are now in our last segment. I think Right-Wing Extremism is on the rise. I think it depends on where you live as to what extent you are aware of it. I work in Southern Ohio at a public library. In the past three months, I've seen white supremacist tattoos on patrons. A half-mile down the road from my house, there's a confederate flag flying in front of a neighbor's house.

And in February of this year, Chillicothe, Ohio had racist graffiti sprayed on a bathroom wall that depicted a lynching. Other stories I'm sure go unreported. I'm amazed at these things and utterly disheartened because I know it stems from lack of education, a poor economy, years of racism that is brewed just below the surface here.

I'm at loss as to what to do myself and would love to have the assistance in this area. What can the average citizen do in the face of this rising hatred?

Do you think she's right that this is on the increase?

Ms. SWAIN: Well, I can tell you that membership in the KKK, the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Neo-Nazis, those membership numbers have been dwindling for years. I think that there is a threat from a new brand of white leaders that I call The New White Nationalists, and these are individuals that, for the most part, they don't talk about violence overtly, but they do try to reach ordinary white people to tell them that their nation is in danger, that it's about to be taken over by people from Third World nations that don't share their values, that white people are being discriminated against and that the government is not standing up to protect the rights of white people.

And there are people that do believe that the liberal left media elected Barack Obama and that his policies are detrimental, will be detrimental to our country. And so, there's a lot of unease out there, I believe, that's not being expressed.

And a certain segment - I think this is our optimal moment for the extremists because they really can sort of play with people's fears. There's a lot of fear out there about the economy and individuals losing their jobs. And we have data from the Pew Hispanic foundations saying that there are eight million illegal immigrants in the labor force.

And when people hear those types of things, I think they become very frustrated. And if they perceive that the government is not protecting the rights and interests of ordinary citizens, that it will call some individuals to engage in extremism.

And some of the far right, that read this book by William Pierce, who's now deceased, called "The Turner Diaries." "The Turner Diaries" starts with - it starts with violence. The minorities have taken over but the government has also taken the guns. And that is a fear. And there are some white extremists that had been stockpiling weapons for decades.

And in the wake of the election of President Obama, there were many people in reports of guns being purchased, a lot of fear of minorities, fear of violence, and some individuals saying that we are going to have a race war. I don't see us having a race war in the sense of the War Between the States, but I do believe that we will have increasing extra violence at the rate that people will just be more and more uncomfortable when they're around people of different races and ethnicities.

CONAN: Carol Swain, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Ms. SWAIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Carol Swain, a professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University. She's the author of "The New White Nationalism in America." She joined us today from Vanderbilt's campus in Nashville.

Coming up, the Opinion Page. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular