Not a New Revolution
The American antigovernment movement has deep roots in the nation’s past.
By Mark Potok
The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which remains the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history, was the end product of a radical antigovernment movement with deep roots in our country’s peculiar history and culture.
When Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people, including 19 small children in a day-care center, he was motivated by recent events. Those included the rise of revolutionary right-wing groups like The Order in the 1980s; the deadly standoffs in the early 1990s on Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and near Waco, Texas; and the gun control measures introduced by President Bill Clinton in 1994.
But the radical antigovernment movement that produced McVeigh and accomplices Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier goes back even further. If we are to fully understand their attack, it is important to explore this long, historical arc.
In the widest sense, antigovernment fervor in the United States begins with the birth of the nation in the throes of a revolution against a far-off and imperious monarch. Unlike European nations, which historically looked to government to solve the people’s problems, Americans would go on to develop a sense of going it alone and preferring that the government keep its nose out of their business.
The examples start early. In 1786, just three years after the Revolutionary War ended, Shay’s Rebellion, driven by tax and other economic injustices, broke out in Massachusetts. Five years after that, in 1791, farmers in Western Pennsylvania, infuriated by a steep tax on whiskey, launched the Whiskey Rebellion. Both were nourished by the idea of a government estranged from the people’s interests.
That sense was further strengthened by the realities of life on the frontier, where survival more often than not depended on the wits of individual pioneers and the use they could make of their guns. Government support and even charity were scarce to nonexistent, and self-reliance became a peculiarly American virtue.
As the decades passed, the federal government increasingly came to be seen as the overbearing enemy of the country’s extreme right. After the Civil War, after all, it was the government that militarily occupied the South, set up freedmen’s bureaus, and gave former slaves their citizenship. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal created the beginnings of a real government safety net, which also ushered in the modern age of taxation. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the government once again was viewed by the radical right as an enemy that was helping minorities and curtailing the powers of the majority.
The pattern continued into the contemporary era. The Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and the Wise Use movement of the 1980s, both of them aimed at forcing the federal government to turn public lands over to local communities and allowing their commercial exploitation, gave a new boost to antigovernment feeling, with many believing the government cared more for spotted owls than humans.
President Ronald Reagan, in his first, 1981 inaugural address, gave specific shape to this resentment, asserting that “government is not the solution for our problem; government is the problem.” Twenty years later, a similar quote, from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, famously recapitulated that antigovernment view. “I don’t want to abolish government,” Norquist said then. “I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
Other major historical forces played a part, too. The collapse of the communist bloc in the 1990s unleashed national, racial and religious antagonisms that had been frozen for four decades during the Cold War. The American radical right, deprived of its longtime bogeyman of communism, looked for a new enemy and found it in the federal government. This was, in a real way, the culmination of the antigovernment trend that began during the Revolution.
By the time of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, fully 39 percent of the American people agreed with the proposition that the federal government was “so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” Since the bombing, that remarkable percentage has grown to shocking proportions — 52 percent in 2001 and almost six in 10 Americans in 2010.
McVeigh explicitly cited the government sieges in Ruby Ridge and Waco in trying to justify his attack. At Ruby Ridge, where a standoff between a white separatist and federal forces trying to arrest him left the man’s son and wife and a federal marshal dead, McVeigh saw a government willing to kill people with whom he sympathized. At Waco, where officials were trying to arrest the leader of a religious cult engaged in the sale of illegal weapons, he saw officialdom trying to suppress gun rights, even at the price of the approximately 90 cultists and their children who died on the last day of siege. In himself, McVeigh saw a hero igniting a second Revolutionary War against a government run amok.
Those events were the proximate causes of the horrific mass murder, and they were important. But McVeigh and his confederates were also very much the product of centuries of radical American views of the role and purpose of government.
As a reporter at USA Today, Mark Potok covered the Waco standoff, the birth of the militia movement, the Oklahoma City bombing and the trial of Timothy McVeigh. Today he is a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the editor in chief of its investigative magazine, Intelligence Report.