Between the Lines Q&A

A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Aug. 19, 2009

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Rise of Extreme Right Anti-Government Groups
Seen at Health Care Protests

 RealAudio  MP3

Interview with Chip Berlet,
senior analyst with Political Research Associates,
conducted by Scott Harris


The town hall meetings held by congresspersons and senators in their home districts over the summer recess have been a magnet for right-wing activists opposed to President Obama's plan to reform the failed U.S. health care system. Supported by Republican Party officials, conservative talk show hosts and some sectors of the insurance and health care industry, protesters have made outrageously false claims that reform legislation will force the euthanasia of senior citizens, mandate abortions for handicapped fetuses and abolish the nation's private insurance companies. Some activists have compared President Obama with Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot, while others have attended recent presidential events carrying firearms and making both blatant and subtle calls for violent resistance to what they call "creeping American socialism."

The incendiary language and conspiracy theories that are helping drive the right-wing response to health care reform in 2009 share many of the same radical views that fueled the McCarthy era of the 1950s and the militia movement of the 1990s. With America's first African-American president in the White House, white supremacist and violent religious groups have increased their criminal activities and recruitment.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Chip Berlet, senior analyst with Political Research Associates and author of the recent report titled, "Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, & Scapegoating." He examines the militant protests seen at health care reform town hall meetings and their connection to America's wider extreme right movement.

CHIP BERLET: Well, it's very clear that you have number of different elite forces that are sending all kinds of alarmist messages to a very large audience that includes corporations, right-wing media, politicians and all sorts of demagogues who really want to oppose Obama on every possible level. I think they saw that (Sonia) Sotomayor was going to get seated at the Supreme Court and so this was the next big opportunity. Health care is an issue that really pushes a lot of buttons with people, so I think that's part of it. Partly, it's the collapsed economy for a lot of folks, partly it's just a whole lot of white people have a whole lot of anxiety about a president who's a black man. I think it all sort of fits together.

And so you have to draw a distinction between the fact that a lot of this information that's being sent out into the population is contrived and it is misinformation from the fact that these are real people, these are neighbors, in some cases, family members. They're angry, they're anxious and they have every right to show up at a town meeting and ask tough questions. What they don't have a right to do is intensely disrupt and stop other people from talking or asking questions. Or become a mob. And I think that's the issue. I'm not saying that militant protest should never be allowed. I've been part of them myself. But there's something very special about preventing an elected official from getting questions from an audience. And I think that's what's been happening and it's been very scary for a lot of people to show up at these meetings and have folks absolutely over the top about claims that they're going to kill grandma. And that, since FDR built big government and big government is socialism and that national socialism is Nazism and Obama is Hitler. And you go, "Whew, whoa, wait a minute. Stop." But it's scary to see democracy in the state that it's in.

So I wear a couple of hats. I wear a hat as a person who watches the right. Right-wing populism is always dangerous; it almost always blames people of color, or immigrants or other minorities or oppressed peoples with scape-goating and demonization and these apocalyptic claims.

But wearing my "I like democracy" hat, I'm thinking the Democrats are doing a pretty lousy job of talking to people about policy and as soon as somebody shouts "Boo," they run into the corner and say, "Okay, okay, no single-payer, no government option. What do you want us to do?"

So, I mean, that's pathetic. Both sides are pathetic.

BETWEEN THE LINES: There have been some instances where protesters showed up with posters and rhetoric, calling for violence in subtle and not so subtle ways. There was a man in New Hampshire wearing a sidearm when he came to a town hall meeting that President Obama spoke at. What is the potential for violence being sort of part of the environment here in the call to militant opposition against Barack Obama and his "socialist" agenda?

CHIP BERLET: Well, again right-wing populism is based on resentment and anxiety. It's often racist and anti-immigrant, and it often -- if it continues to grow in society -- spins off violence. But, let me point out that since Obama was elected, there've been nine murders connected to white supremacist ideology. Nine. Including attacks on Jewish institutions, on people of color in Massachusetts, on an immigrant family in the Southwest, police officers in Pittsburgh. It's really astonishing that people haven't woken up to the fact that the violence is already occurring.

BETWEEN THE LINES: If you were to advise those citizens and organizations that are in favor of health care reform, whether they be Democrats or grassroots activists, what would you tell them to do in order to counter the misinformation and the success of these town hall meeting protests that have certainly had a willing partner in the corporate media which focuses on conflict with very little substance to counter the lies and crude disinformation tactics?

CHIP BERLET: Well, I think people need to find a backbone. It would be nice if there was leadership from the Democratic party, but apparently that isn't forthcoming. So everybody who supports fair health care and a revised health care system that really looks to the treatment of illness and prevention of illness for all people in America, let's get up off our butts and do something and show up at these remaining meetings. Let's call our elected officials. Let's talk to our neighbors, our co-workers. It's up to us to raise some hell. What's the matter with us? We're being out-organized by a handful of right-wing demagogues and there are people in our towns and neighborhoods who are going off with this tremendous anxiety and anger, and we can play a role in standing up and saying, "I know you are angry, you have a right to ask questions, but chill out. Stop disrupting the meeting. People have a right to participate, but they don't have a right to be a mob."

Let's talk this over, let's confront the bad information. It's rebut, rebuke, reaffirm. The Three R's. You rebut the bad information. You rebuke the people who supplied the information, and then you reaffirm what you stand for. This is basic organizing. I don't know what the Democrats' playbook is. But it certainly isn't what the kind of organizing that labor unions and the civil rights movement and the women's movement and the gay and lesbian rights movement did so well. I don't know why they've given up on organizing real people in real places.

Chip Berlet is author of the recent report titled, "Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, & Scapegoating." Contact PRA by calling (617) 666-5300 or visit their website at

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Scott Harris is an executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 45 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Aug. 28, 2009. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Anna Manzo.

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