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Rage Grows in America: Anti‑Government Conspiracies

Read ADL's comprehensive report, Rage Grows in America: Anti-Government Conspiricies (PDF)

Since the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, an undercurrent of anger and hostility has swept across the country, creating a climate of anti-government fervor and activism that manifests itself in ways ranging from incivility in public forums to acts of intimidation and violence. Though precursors to the wave of anger can be found in the 2008 election campaign itself (as some partisan Republicans attempted to prevent Obama’s election by demonizing him as a socialist or even as a “closet” Muslim), many Americans have been taken aback by the sudden rise and strength of the anti-government animosity that has swelled in the first year after the election.

What characterizes this anti-government hostility is a shared belief that Obama and his administration actually pose a threat to the future of the United States. Some accuse Obama of plotting to bring socialism to the United States, while others claim he will bring about Nazism or fascism. All believe that Obama and his administration will trample on individual freedoms and civil liberties, due to some sinister agenda, and they see his economic and social policies as manifestations of this agenda. In particular anti-government activists used the issue of health-care reform as a rallying point, accusing Obama and his administration of dark designs ranging from “socialized medicine” to “death panels,” even when the Obama administration had not come out with a specific health care reform plan. Some even compared the Obama administration’s intentions to Nazi eugenics programs.

At rallies and public events around the country, as well as across the Internet, President Obama is being painted as someone intent on destroying American culture and values. He is portrayed as “the other,” a dangerous foreign element in the United States. Some of these assertions about Obama, or the sentiments behind them, are motivated in whole or in part by racism. But more common is an intense strain of distrust and anger towards the government, an ultra-libertarianism combined with a streak of paranoia and belief in conspiracies.

This wave of anti-government rage is something that has surprised and dismayed even a number of conservative writers and politicians, some of whom have found themselves victims of the anger. In October 2009, to give just one example, Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, was accosted at a town hall meeting in October 2009 by an angry man in a “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirt who accused him of being a “traitor” and of betraying the nation.

The anti-government anger encompasses a large portion of the right side of the political spectrum. It emanates from mainstream groups and politicians, but also from undeniably extreme groups and individuals, such as the suddenly resurgent militia movement. Together these individuals and groups form a continuum of anti-government fervor, with few sharp divisions or distinctions. Nevertheless, the animosity can be generally characterized into three loose categories:

  • Mainstream Political Attacks. In its most “mainstream” version, the animosity consists largely of partisan attacks against the Obama administration by some conservative politicians and media figures. Upset and anxious about their loss of power following the 2008 elections, they seek primarily to energize their political base and to delegitimize the Obama administration at the same time. For the most part, these individuals eschew the conspiracy theories and more outlandish notions and tactics propagated by others. Some of their activities parallel Democratic tactics during the Bush administration. These mainstream political attacks fall outside the bounds of this report. One of the most important effects of these activists, however, is to help create a body of people who may be predisposed to believe the assertions and claims of more extreme individuals and groups.
  • “Grass-roots” Hostility and Conspiracy Theories. Still mostly in the mainstream, the next phase of anti-government sentiment is represented by a variety of grass-roots and quasi-grass-roots movements and events, such as the various “Tea Party” protests held around the country, as well as other, similar events, and the disruptions that occurred at town hall meetings during the summer of 2009. This middle category is also characterized by a fairly widespread acceptance of conspiratorial notions about Obama and his administration, of which the most popular is the so-called “birther” movement, which contends Obama is not a legal citizen of the United States.
  • Anti-Government Extremists. On the extreme end of the continuum are a wide array of anti-government extremist movements and groups. The anti-government extremists believe that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other government agencies are preparing concentration camps and mass graves for American citizens, that the U.S. government will engage in “door to door” gun confiscation, and that it is plotting to establish martial law in the United States. Many such groups and individuals implicitly or explicitly promote resistance, even armed resistance, to the government. The growth of these sentiments has been paralleled by a resurgence in the anti-government militia movement, which has considerably increased in size over the past year.

This wave of anti-government anger is in many ways reminiscent of a similar surge of such hostility in the early to mid-1990s, in the years before the Oklahoma City bombing. In fact, many of the more extreme conspiracy theories common today actually had their origins back in 1994; that was also the last period of growth in the militia movement.

This hostile wave of anti-Obama anger and paranoid anti-government conspiracy theories goes well beyond mere transgressions of civil political discourse. Anti-government agitators launch many attacks that do not merely disagree with government policies or positions, but rather attempt to delegitimize the government itself. Indeed, an increasing number of anti-government activists are convincing themselves, or have already done so, that the government is illegitimate. These growing beliefs threaten to create a large pool of people more susceptible to extreme anti-government conspiracy theories and even calls to resistance on the part of extremist groups and movements, such as the militia movement, which may grow as a result.

Significantly, many of these activists have appropriated an idealized version of Revolutionary War history for their own purposes, stressing the armed resistance of the American colonists to British “tyranny” and suggesting, in varying degrees of openness, that Americans today should act as their revolutionary forebears did and throw off the perceived shackles of the allegedly tyrannical government. Some of these notions have even percolated beyond extremist groups and movements into the mainstream. One example is the Appleseed Project (also known as the Revolutionary War Veterans Association), a marksmanship program that combines firearms training with historical/political lectures on the battles of Lexington and Concord in the Revolutionary War. Trainees are taught not only marksmanship but the idea that they are equivalent to the Revolutionary War patriots and might have to fight for their liberty in the near future. “We believe that if we teach it,” the Appleseed organizers state, “it’ll wake our fellow Americans…We want Lady Liberty to be safe.” Not surprisingly, more radical anti-government groups such as militia groups tend to support the Appleseed Project, because they have more extreme forms of many of the same beliefs.

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