WASHINGTON, D.C. — Behind the Waco and the Whitewater hearings lies a concerted effort on the part of Republican right “revolutionaries” to make use of its anarchist fringes.
Ever since Newt Gingrich turned self-hate into a campaign manifesto last November, the GOP has been conducting a risky affair with the far right. Now, though, this “we’re crazier than the crazies” stance seems to be backfiring. As the Waco hearings have demonstrated, it helps to know a little about the cause you’re supporting. Far from martyring David Koresh’s Branch Davidians and hence elevating the Christian right above law and order, the testimony of one Davidian survivor last week only reinforced the government’s accusations that Koresh was a child abuser.
No doubt Republicans, and their NRA sponsors, will have better luck beating up on the ATF and FBI once hearings begin into the 1992 Ruby Ridge raid on the home of white supremacist Randy Weaver, but for the moment they are split on how to play their far right wing.
Gingrich continues to indulge the anarchists, just last week weighing in on the favorite wacko topic of who killed Vince Foster. Meanwhile, Helen Chenoweth in the House and Larry Craig in the Senate continue to run wild, attacking the effrontery of federal agents and invoking the specter of the dreaded black helicopters.
But last week mainstream conservatives regained their voice. In the Washington Times, Peter King, Republican congressman from Long Island, wrote in an op-ed, “Why now are some conservatives so willing to turn the presumption against federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms? Why was it wrong to call cops ‘pigs’ in the ’60s, but acceptable to call federal agents ‘Nazis’ and ‘jack-booted thugs’ in the ’90s? If it is because gun owners are considered to have a status different from blacks and left wing demonstrators, that would be unacceptable since principles are immutable and cannot be altered to suit the situation.
“Nothing that happened at Waco and Ruby Ridge justifies citizens arming themselves for some eventual struggle with the government. That is not what we do in a democratic society where we have the means to control government abuses at the voting booth and through the courts. Militia supporters talk of the ‘spirit of the Founding Fathers,’ but it was George Washington, the Father of our country, who denounced Shay’s Militia and the Whiskey Rebellion as threats to ‘republican government.’ Any armed force with a political agenda in a democratic society is a threat to republican government.”
The Waco hearings have provided little substance. Unlike Watergate, or even the Iran-contra investigation, there has been little or no effort by the Republican chairmen to figure out why the raid was staged, and the hearings have largely omitted the ludicrous attempts of the ATF to woo the press that played a major role in the timing of the first raid. From start to finish, the hearings have been a PR move, basically an effort to publicly attack the ATF in order to revoke the assault-weapon ban. More subtly, the hearings have played to the Christian right, key supporters of the Republican majority, and an entity everyone in Congress fears. But more than anything, the hearings have provided a dazzling display of farce and hypocrisy. Republicans who had been slashing away at the Fourth Amendment on the House floor earlier this spring in their determination to pass a tough crime bill have now been portraying themselves as feel-good liberals, invoking the rights of the Constitution on behalf of Koresh and the other “individualistic” Christians within the compound.
Aside from the desire to pander to Christian conservatives and the gun lobby, the Waco hearings are also an attempt to play to the libertarian-anarchist wing of the party. Behind the attack on the ATF is anarchist frothing for the role of county sheriff in government. In Waco, the sheriff was on friendly terms with Koresh and clearly had no intention of challenging the Davidians, despite the accusations made against the group. Indeed, various Republicans at the hearings came awfully close to suggesting that the sanctity of private property should have acted as a barrier against any federal intrusion. The argument that what Koresh was doing was his business and nobody else’s will get any politician, Christian right or other, firmly clobbered in the polls.
At first look, the new love affair with the role of county sheriff might seem to go well with the overall Republican effort to decentralize government, removing power from Washington and spreading it out to the states — whose governors Republicans see as natural allies in the revolution to remake the federal government within the framework of states’ rights. But states’ rights is not county rights, and invariably states are opposed to county rights, siding again and again with the federal government against efforts to wrest control of land and water from the feds. State governments, especially in the West, where county rights is a much-publicized movement, are generally driven by their urban citizenry, who stand to lose power should rural, often sparsely populated, counties suddenly grab more political power.
Western revolutionaries, such as the Wise Use and county movements, have gained national prominence, and a degree of legitimacy, over the last year, but just how the Republican right, centered around the followers of former interior secretary James Watt, intends to rope in these looser-than-loose cannons is unclear. Whipping up emotions over the sovereign rights of the county sheriff may be good as a Gingrichian sound bite, but is a card no serious Republican politician who wants to stay in office is apt to play.
Why, to cite but one example, would any serious Republican (or Democratic politician) in Nevada want to put rural Nye County, the hotbed of the county secession movement, on an equal footing with Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the nation?
And playing to anarchist Republicans almost inevitably opens an attack on the whole structure of local government. In Oklahoma, for instance, the Oklahoma Tax Commission revoked Woodward County agent June Griffith’s appointment after she filed what she called her “sovereignty papers.” According to the Enid News & Eagle, “similar papers show up in courthouses across Northwest Oklahoma, with only the filing party’s name changed, rejecting Social Security numbers, birth certificates and marriage licenses and renouncing U.S. citizenship.”
In northwestern Oklahoma this movement, which threatens to play havoc with the local Republican organization, “appears to be little more than a loosely organized collection of disgruntled property owners who have lost their land in foreclosure actions and who hold forth on farms and in homes across Northwest Oklahoma to redress their grievances against the system.” The result is clogged court filings with false judgments against banks, bogus liens, phony subpoenas for state prosecutors, lawsuits against federal, state, and county governments.
Through the Wise Use, county, and property rights movements, the GOP has built a supercharged engine of conservative politicking. This attack group leads the fight against environmentalists and is the driving force of every movement aimed at tax reduction. It is an angry and highly motivated group that Republican politicians have actively encouraged, and one that they can scarcely afford to have split and turn on itself.
That, though, as Democrats have learned over years of internal rift, is always a danger when mobilizing angry constituencies. The Waco hearings exposed one more time that the fragile coalition that makes up the Republican right is itself riven with contradictions.
It is seldom understood, for example, that the Christian right is not made up of anarchists. As a group, it believes in strong federal government that can institute and enforce the repressive codes of social conduct in birth control and education that they advocate. Unlike the racist survivalist faction, the Christian fringe has no interest in retiring to some wilderness tract in the Northwest. It wants to take power in Washington and then exercise it.
When you strip down the revolutionary rhetoric coming from Congress, it isn’t hard to see what a dangerous game the GOP is playing.
If the Republican majority were seriously interested in addressing the Waco raid, then, turning to the Treasury Department’s excellent indictment of its own handling of the matter, it could seek to prosecute the leaders of the department for dereliction of their duty. Top of the list is former Treasury head Lloyd Bentsen, a conservative Republican in all but name, whose handling of the raid points to a clear case of incompetence and dereliction, leading up to direct violation of constitutional rights.
Also, the Treasury’s report makes a powerful case against the ATF as an institution. Add to that the bureau’s recent history of sexual harassment cases, not to mention its racist “good ol’ boys” reunion. Here, sunset legislation to abolish this agency, turning its duties over to other existing law enforcement agencies, would be a welcome and most constructive step forward.
Why not abolish the ATF? That would definitely play to the anarchist crowd, and to the money bags at the NRA. It would help carry on the sense of revolution infused by Gingrich. But it would also run the powerful risk of opening its sponsors to charges they are soft on crime — a charge that right-wing Democrats showered on the hearings from the beginning. Most importantly, it would turn over the duties of the ATF to other law enforcement agencies, i.e., the Secret Service, something the NRA would fight hard to avoid.
Sooner or later the Republican anarchists will get the message that they are being played with by the Republican right, and bolt off into the gullies and under the rocks from which they only lately have emerged. They will especially get the message when the Republican right sides with the government in wiping them out, which can’t be far from happening. ■
Additional reporting by Julian Foley, Pat McDonald, Vinita Srivatava
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 16, 2020