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Flag of the Army of Tennessee, known as the Confederate battle flag.

Despite similarities to the climate of the 1990s, the threat posed by lone wolves and small terrorist cells is more pronounced than in past years. In addition, the historical election of an African American president and the prospect of policy changes are proving to be a driving force for rightwing extremist recruitment and radicalization.

Department of Homeland Security
Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment
April, 2009

Tomorrow we are going out and buying more ammunition, This is one of the saddest days of my life.

Official Election Watch Results Thread
November 6, 2012

You may have seen the Public Policy Polling survey showing that 49% of all Republicans polled believe ACORN, an organization that hasn’t existed since 2010, stole the 2012 election for Barack Obama.

But have you thought through the mathematics of that finding, and what it might mean for the political future – and domestic tranquility – of our increasingly less-than-united United States?

According to that same PPP poll, 32% of all voters identify themselves, even now, as Republicans. Forty nine percent of 32% is 15.68%. In effect, 16% of all American voters – one in six – refuse to acknowledge that Barack Obama is the lawfully elected president of the United States.

Likewise, current grassroots GOP sentiment on the “issue” of secession. According to PPP, a quarter of all Republicans favor the idea. Twenty five percent of 32% equals 8%. So almost one in twelve American voters say they are prepared to give Ft. Sumter a do over because their candidate lost last month.

In the heartland of the original Confederacy, such views are – surprise, surprise – even more widely shared. PPP’s recent Georgia poll found Republicans in the state evenly divided on the secession question, with 42% favoring and 42% opposed (and 16% straddling the fence – or the Mason Dixon Line, so to speak).

Even more strikingly: 25% of Georgia independents, and 10% of the state’s Democrats, also say they support running down the Stars and Stripes and re-hoisting the old Stars and Bars.

Those results were so striking that PPP director Tom Jensen felt compelled to add a disclaimer: “I doubt that many Republicans would really secede if they had the choice . . . but their willingness to say they would is a measure of how unhappy they are over the President's reelection.”

Maybe Jensen is right, and these guys are just blowing off partisan steam. But it’s hard to get around the fact that a sizable fraction of the Republican Party is, at least when it comes to their current political views, non compos mentis. Or, to use the technical term: They’ve gone completely bughouse.

I realize I'm belaboring the blindingly obvious here. We’ve known for some time (certainly since the rise of birtherism) that big chunks of the GOP base have detached themselves from anything resembling empirical reality. But, now that the election results have cranked the crazy up to 13, I have to wonder: Are we taking the bitter enders and their rage as seriously as we should?

More to the point, are the organs of state security – Secret Service, FBI, Homeland Security, etc. – taking them as seriously as maybe they should?

And even more to the point, what poses the greater risk to our dysfunctional, polarized democracy: a threat of violence from irreconcilable right-wing ultras? Or an overreaction to that threat from the federal government?

The Arithmetic of Crazy

To laugh all this off as lunacy is to ignore both the demonstrable reality that many of these people really are crazy, and the scale of their craziness.

Suppose the PPP poll is roughly correct, and self-identified Republicans constitute 32% of the electorate, i.e. the 128.5 million people who voted in November. That’s 41 million voters.

Now let’s suppose that PPP is also correct that 25% of those 41 million are willing, at least in theory, to advocate secession – i.e. treason against the U.S. government. That’s 10.3 million. But we’ll also assume, per Jensen, that the vast majority of GOP secesh – let’s say 9 in 10 – are just blowing off steam. That still leaves a million voters.

And if one in ten among those million is willing to do something tangible for the cause: give money to secessionist splinter groups, get out in the street to protest? That’s 100,000. And if one in ten of those is ready, under the right conditions, to take up arms? That’s 10,000 potential domestic terrorists, spread from sea to shining sea.

Except in all likelihood they are not.distributed evenly, but heavily concentrated in the reddest of red states – the Deep South in particular, if this map of racist Twitter posts during the campaign is anything to go by.

Add in the “soft support” (would-be militants who are not quite ready for overt action, or on-the-fencers who could be moved in a crisis) and we may be talking about a fairly impressive number of potential insurrectionists.

There, I said that crazy word: insurrection. An organized, armed uprising against the authority of the federal government, something that hasn’t been seen on American soil since 1865 – unless maybe the American Indian Movement’s 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee counts.

Actually, Wounded Knee is not a bad analogy. While a full-blown political rebellion (ala the Lost Cause) is hard to conceive, a symbolic grassroots revolt – what guerrilla warfare theorists call ‘armed propaganda’ – is anything but.

A Palmetto "Battle Space"

Imagine, for example, that an extremist militia group seizes control of a small town in South Carolina, disarms the local sheriff and his deputies, and sets up checkpoints on the surrounding highways. The leaders hold a press conference at city hall to proclaim independence from the tyrannical federal government and the “usurper” Obama. They call on Tea Party “patriots” across the country to join them.

That may be a paranoid fantasy, but it’s not my paranoid fantasy. It’s lifted directly from an article published last July in the Small Wars Journal, a quasi-academic military affairs journal founded by a group of retired Marine officers with a deep interest in counterinsurgency warfare.

The article’s two authors – a former director of the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, and a civil war historian at the University of Kansas – laid out a reasonably plausible scenario for how events in a small South Carolina town could quickly escalate into a confrontation with the U.S. military:

The governor, who ran on a platform that professed sympathy with tea party goals, is reluctant to confront the militia directly . . . Privately, he sends word through aides asking the federal government to act to restore order.  The Department of Homeland Security responds to the governor’s request by asking for defense support to civil law enforcement.  After the Department of Justice states that the conditions . . . meet the conditions necessary to invoke the Insurrection Act, the President invokes it.
I think it’s fair to assume that at that point we (and the U.S. military) would be through the looking glass and into a national crisis that would make the 1957 Little Rock school desegregation battle look like, well, a tea party.

But instead of Dwight D. Eisenhower, staunch Republican, ex-Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, white Caucasian male, sending in the troops to enforce federal writ, it would be America’s first black president – suddenly cast in the lead role in every teabagger's absolute worst nightmare.

Patriots for Treason

I have no idea how seriously we should take this stuff – although I suspect conventional opinion isn’t taking it nearly seriously enough. So far, the fact that a plurality of one of America’s two main political parties (20 million Americans) claims to reject not only the legitimacy but the legality of a presidential reelection, and that a quarter of the same party (10 million Americans) is willing to say yes to treason, is drawing not much more than rolled eyes and amused chuckles from the elite media.

Maybe they’re right: Maybe this is just the GOP equivalent of all those despairing Democrats who vowed to leave the country after the 2004 election. Except, of course, that those would-be ex-Americans didn’t threaten to take their states with them.

If you’ve spent any time browsing the ultra conservative web sites, like Tea Party Nation, the past few weeks, you’ll find that at least some of the teabaggers are taking their resistance talk very seriously: there’s much muttering about the Tree of Liberty (the one fertilized by the blood of both patriots and tyrants) and finding the courage to “do what needs to be done.”

Stipulated that virtually all of this rhetoric will lead to nothing – or, at worst, to a conspiracy of senile old coots, like the four guys down in Georgia busted last year for plotting revolution and ricin attacks at their local Waffle House. But even the lamest of lame-brained conspiracies can end in spilled blood. And considering that gun and ammo sales once again have soared to all-time highs – just as they did after Obama’s first election – conservative extremists definitely have checked off the “armed” part of armed and dangerous.

Insurgent Outliers

America almost certainly is not on the brink of a second civil war (although it still might not be a bad idea to remember that a lost presidential election is what set the last secession crisis in motion.) But in an era of polarized politics, a small group of armed radicals can have outsized influence, no matter how cockeyed their schemes. John Brown proved that. And a full-blown civil war isn’t necessary to produce mass casualties. Timothy McVeigh proved that.

Ultimately, what is at issue here is the progressive radicalization of a big chunk of the U.S. conservative movement – and its favorite chew toy, the Republican Party. That’s what Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein were talking about when they wrote that:

The Republican Party . . . has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
But what Mann and Ornstein, and the rest of the mainstream political establishment, refuse to admit (or at least acknowledge) is where radicalization could lead – has led, so many times in the past: to violence. At the end of the day, “insurgent” might turn out to be more than just a metaphor, at least for some.

President Obama argued that after the election the “fever” of conservative extremism would break. Perhaps it has – in Washington. But out in the sticks, in Sarah Palin’s “real” America, where the Beltway pundits and the political scientists rarely tread, it appears to be getting hotter.  The question is whether it will finally boil over.

Originally posted to billmon on Sun Dec 09, 2012 at 02:19 PM PST.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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