American antigovernment movement rooted in nation's past

Barak Goodman’s new documentary, “Oklahoma City,” is far and away the best treatment, in print or on film, of the 1995 bombing that left 168 people dead. It is accurate, revealing, smart in its analysis, and studiously avoids the temptation to go down the countless rabbit trails blazed by clueless conspiracy theorists.

The special merit of the film is that it looks seriously at the antecedents of the worst domestic terrorist attack in American history — the rise of revolutionary right-wing groups like The Order in the 1980s, the deadly standoffs in the early 1990s on Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and near Waco, Texas, and the gun control measures introduced by President Bill Clinton in 1994. These threads are described in fulsome detail.

But the radical antigovernment movement that produced Timothy McVeigh and accomplices Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier goes back even further. It may be a worthy addition to Goodman’s work to explore this long, historical arc.

In the widest sense, antigovernment fervor in the United States begins with the birth of the nation in the throes of a revolution against a far-off and imperious monarch. Unlike European nations, which historically looked to government to solve the people’s problems, Americans would go on to develop a sense of going it alone and preferring that the government keep its nose out of their business.

The examples start early. In 1786, just three years after the Revolutionary War ended, Shay’s Rebellion, driven by tax and other economic injustices, broke out in Massachusetts. Five years after that, in 1791, farmers in Western Pennsylvania, infuriated by a steep tax on whiskey, launched the Whiskey Rebellion. Both were nourished by the idea of a government estranged from the people’s interests.

That sense was further strengthened by the realities of life on the frontier, where survival more often than not depended on the wits of individual pioneers and the use they could make of their guns. Government support and even charity were scarce to nonexistent, and self-reliance became a peculiarly American virtue.

As the decades passed, the federal government also came increasingly to be seen as the overbearing enemy of the country’s extreme right. After the Civil War, after all, it was the government that militarily occupied the South, set up freedmen’s bureaus and gave former slaves their citizenship. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal created the beginnings of a real government safety net, which also ushered in the age of modern taxation. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the government once again was viewed by the radical right as an enemy that was helping minorities and curtailing the powers of the majority.

The pattern continued into the contemporary era. The Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and the Wise Use movement of the 1980s, both of them aimed at forcing the federal government to turn public lands over to local communities and allowing their commercial exploitation, gave a new boost to antigovernment feeling, with many believing the government cared more for spotted owls than humans.

President Ronald Reagan, in his first, 1981 inaugural address, gave specific shape to this resentment, asserting that “government is not the solution for our problem; government is the problem.” Twenty years later, a similar quote, from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, famously recapitulated that antigovernment view. “I don’t want to abolish government,” Norquist said then. “I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

The identification of the government as an enemy of the far right solidified with the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union. The American radical right, deprived of the bogeyman of communism, looked for a new enemy and found it in the government. This was, in a real way, the culmination of the antigovernment trend that began during the Revolution.

 By the time of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, fully 39% of the American people agreed with the proposition that the federal government was “so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” Since the bombing, that remarkable percentage has grown to shocking proportions — 52% in 2001 and almost six in 10 Americans in 2010.

Goodman is absolutely right to point to the events at Ruby Ridge and Waco, among others, as proximate causes for McVeigh’s horrific mass murder. And he is right, as the film points out clearly, to note that the bombers were a product of the white nationalist movement, just as much as the antigovernment movement.

But while there are similarities between the Oklahoma City bombing and similar kinds of attacks in Europe, the 1995 outrage in America’s heartland was to a very large extent the product of a uniquely American history and culture.

Mark Potok is a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the editor in chief of its investigative magazine, Intelligence Report. As a reporter at USA Today, he covered the Waco standoff, the birth of the militia movement, the Oklahoma City bombing and the trial of Timothy McVeigh. Potok was recently interviewed for the American Experience film “Oklahoma City,” which debuts PBS on Feb. 7.