D.J. Mulloy's study of the 1990s militia movement, American Extremism, posits that the movement's conspiracy theories were evidence less of personal paranoia than a bona fide analysis of American history.
Black helicopters are spying on law-abiding Americans. The backs of road signs are coded with directions to guide invading United Nations forces. The New World Order has a secret weather machine in Brussels that is being used to scorch American farms.
For most Americans, these wild conspiracy theories are what remain vivid about the militia movement that exploded on the American political scene in the early 1990s — reaching some 858 groups by 1996 — only to implode by the turn of the millennium.
Many scholars, too, view these loony "ideas" as central to the militia movement, considering them another example of the "paranoid style" of American politics, a phenomenon first described in 1965 by historian Richard Hofstadter in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays.
Hofstadter analyzed the John Birch Society, the rise of McCarthyism and other extreme right movements, all of which he concluded had a distinguishing characteristic that later historians would apply to the militias: "[T]hey regard a 'vast' or 'gigantic' conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces."
D.J. Mulloy, a research fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, disagrees. In American Extremism: History, Politics and the Militia Movement, the eighth volume published in the esteemed Routledge series "Studies in Extremism and Democracy," Mulloy rejects the paranoia thesis. Instead, he evaluates the militia movement in the context of mainstream American beliefs.
Mulloy points out that it was not just the militias that were antigovernment in the 1990s. Surveys show that Americans' trust of their government hit extraordinary lows at the same time, something reflected politically in the 1994 Republican Party's "Contract With America."
Unlike scholars who see right-wing extremists and their ideas as paranoid, Mulloy looks past the movement's conspiracy theories and evaluates its historical analysis. He finds that the militias espouse many of the same historical viewpoints found in the American mainstream, though they employ them differently to justify their extremist politics.
For Mulloy, the conspiracy theories touted by the militias come not from paranoia, but from "their view of history."
Though his analysis is interesting, Mulloy's argument ultimately fails because its historical focus leaves too much of the movement out. For example, Mulloy extensively discusses the Militia of Montana's views, but he ignores that group's belief in such wacky ideas as the Brussels weather machine as well as its violent rhetoric — not to mention its close ties to open neo-Nazis.
Overall, the book largely ignores the violence that came out of this movement. Another bias results from Mulloy's focus on the saner militias. A case in point is his repeated use of the rather subdued Missouri 51st Militia's publications.
There is a more serious flaw in the work. Mulloy's text reveals his deep sympathy for his subjects, an emotional connection that causes him to excuse the movement's violence and hatred. For example, Mulloy describes militia members as akin to Jimmy Stewart's character in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1941). He calls them "wide-eyed innocents, inspired and awed" by the Founding Fathers and motivated to act by "corrupt politicians who no longer play by the established rules."
Mulloy dismisses the anti-Semitism that underlies many of the movement's "theories," claiming that even though several of the conspiracy theories signed on to by the movement may be anti-Semitic in origin, militia members likely were unaware of that deeper context.
In the end, these sympathies lead Mulloy to describe militia members as naïve, perhaps silly people who "believe too much." And he would prefer it if the reader saw militia members that way, too.
Mulloy claims that by labeling the militias as Hofstadter-type paranoids or as threats, instead of viewing their conspiracy theories as the result of a need to reconcile their love of America with what they see as the current corrupt situation, the militias will be "pushed toward the very members of the anti-Semitic and white supremacist right" that watchdogs like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League worry about.
But that is an odd conclusion that absolves the militias of any responsibility for their own ideas and behavior. It also requires setting aside the violence perpetrated by the militia movement and ignoring the anti-Semitism that underlies much of the movement.
Indeed, many militia thinkers were racists to start with, and many others have gone white supremacist over the past few years. They got there by following the logic of their own conspiracy theories and beliefs, not because they were treated unsympathetically.