The emergence of the Tea Party and its de facto takeover of the GOP have been a shock to many mainstream pundits and politicos. The domination of Tea Party ideology is complete enough to have forced a partial government shutdown, raised the threat of a default on the nation’s debt obligations, and precipitated a potential Constitutional crisis. For many, the great mystery is how this came to pass.
As someone who has spent years researching and organizing against the Far Right, for me the answer is simple and unsurprising. This outcome has been brewing for decades. The research conducted by the Georgia-based Neighbors Network in the late-1980s and the 1990s provides a localized snapshot of a larger national dynamic. It was apparent from our work that the Far Right was operating with two distinct but related trends. The first was a revolutionary impulse that encouraged resorting to violence; the second was a long-term political effort to insinuate itself into the larger conservative movement. The first has received a fair amount of media attention. The second has passed largely unnoticed.
The revolutionary trend has been ascendant since the rise and fall of Robert Jay Mathews’s White-supremacist terrorist gang, The Order, in the mid-1980s. Mathews led the group through a campaign of violent crime—including armored car robbery, counterfeiting, and the murder of Denver, CO, talk show host Alan Berg—before dying in a shootout with federal agents on Whidbey Island, WA, in 1984. The first significant sign of the resurgence of this political trend came with the 1992 presidential campaign of Patrick Buchanan, whose base of support included not only the Religious Right but direct involvement by White supremacists.
At the same time, Georgia politics was being shaped by a cause dear to White supremacists: defending the use of the Confederate Battle Standard in the state’s flag. Gov. Zell Miller called for the removal of the Battle Standard. In response, Klansmen and the state Populist Party formed the Committee to Save Our State Flag, which was an early expression of the so-called Southern Heritage Movement. This controversy persisted through Miller’s tenure, from 1991 to 1999, as well as that of his successor, Gov. Roy Barnes. The issue provided a point of convergence between the Far Right and mainstream conservatives, playing a high-profile role in the 2003 election of Sonny Perdue, the first Republican governor in Georgia since the Reconstruction era.
Conservatives and the Far Right also found common ground in 1994, during the run-up to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The Republican-dominated Cobb County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution labeling the homosexual “lifestyle” as incompatible with community values. Cobb was slated to host an event for the Olympics, touching off a political firestorm. The episode’s long-term significance lay in its bringing together White supremacists, conservatives, and Christian Reconstructionists in a common, homophobic front. It may well have inspired the subsequent bombing of the Olympics by the right-wing terrorist Eric Rudolph.
The burgeoning militia movement in the mid-1990s provided yet another point of convergence for Georgia’s Far Right and mainstream conservatism. In Georgia, the movement held monthly mass gatherings at an upscale motel/conference center in Atlanta. Ostensibly for the purposes of information sharing and networking, these gatherings resembled a right-wing flea market, where various Far Right groups peddled their wares and White supremacists, anti-Semites, and theocrats rubbed shoulders with conservative Republicans.
What is remarkable about this period of ferment and convergence is the complete failure of Georgia’s GOP to repudiate the Far Right. Rather than pushing back against elements that were entering the party from the fringe, they pandered to them. Some even defended them as being unfairly smeared and persecuted. Notably, Sean Hannity, then a rising star of right-wing talk radio in the Atlanta market, adopted this line.
The Republican Party’s pandering created a welcoming environment for the Far Right. Given our ongoing federal crises, there is every reason to believe the dynamic we observed in Georgia has been replicated on the national level. The GOP establishment was confident it could control the Far Right elements that it tapped during the 1980s and 1990s. It believed it could practice the politics of resentment with impunity. The apocalyptic nihilism of the Tea Party has proven them catastrophically wrong. We may all pay the price.
Having sown the wind, they are reaping the whirlwind.
Walter B. Reeves, a native Georgian, is a researcher, writer, poet, activist, and trade unionist. He has fought extensively against the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of The Public Eye. Click here to read an extended interview with Walter Reeves by PRA associate fellow Spencer Sunshine.