How will the next president deal with the terrorist crisis of 2010-11? No, not those terrorists. I mean the domestic extremists who, history suggests, are due for a resurgence.
Forecasting a wave of political extremism might sound like apocalyptic prophecy, but it has a sound basis in American political history. In November, it is possible that a liberal Democratic administration will be elected to replace the long-established conservative Republican leadership. Such a transition has occurred three times in the past 80 years, in 1932, 1960 and 1992. (For various reasons, the defeat of Gerald Ford in 1976 does not fit the model.) In each period, within two to three years, the nation had a frightening upsurge of radical right-wing, paramilitary movements.
In each case, these angry movements spun off terrorist cells that plotted assassinations and bombings. Significantly, these upsurges only characterize the shift from conservative to liberal administrations. Paramilitaries remain few in number and marginal under GOP administrations.
After Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, an array of far-right movements borrowed the styles and imagery of European fascism. The most influential group was the Silver Shirts, which mixed violent anti-Semitism with New Age-style occultism. By the end of the decade, the pro-Nazi Christian Front was arming for a coup d'etat in which it planned to assassinate New Deal politicians, bomb East Coast cities and massacre Jews.
Paramilitary movements again flourished after the election of John F. Kennedy, when the far right was convinced that the administration was under thorough communist influence and some militants formed an armed insurgent movement that pledged to overthrow a Red federal regime. These militants, who adopted the historic name "Minutemen," built up arsenals on a terrifying scale, and their propaganda sheets listed politicians whose heads were "in the cross-hairs" of a sniper's rifle. Some Minutemen funded their operations by bank robberies, others allied with a booming Ku Klux Klan that boasted tens of thousands of active members.
If these older movements never succeeded in putting their most extreme plans into action, the militia movement of the Clinton years left a stronger mark. By 1994, an estimated quarter of a million Americans were affiliated with "patriot" militias that armed and trained to resist a left-liberal "new world order." As before, some activists drifted into dangerous extremism. Some linked up with racist and anti-Jewish movements. When terrorists struck the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, no doubt remained as to just how perilous such links could be. Some fanatics had even further-reaching ambitions, seeking to obtain biological weapons. "The Turner Diaries," the novel that became the era's manual of the ultra-right, ends with the hero piloting a nuclear-armed suicide flight against the Pentagon.
It's not mysterious historical cycles but perceived dangers, and government responses, that explain these recurrent upsurges of extremism. Over the last century, conservative administrations have presented themselves as standing firm against external threats. Incoming liberal governments may believe that such threats are exaggerated, or at least choose to focus on domestic priorities.
In the 1930s, as in the 1960s and 1990s, conservative critiques painted liberal administrations as not just naive or weak but actively treacherous, plotting to sell out the country to its enemies. Facing such a threat -- however imaginary -- radicals resorted to the age-old American tradition of taking up arms to resist tyranny. Witness the very name of the Minutemen.
Could it happen again? Imagine a scenario in which a Democratic administration withdrew from Iraq, and conservatives denounced the betrayal of sacrifices made by the armed forces. Then consider all the personnel who have cycled through private security firms in Iraq and elsewhere, whose knowledge of military organization and weaponry could make them an effective nucleus of a new militia movement. If a disintegrating economy were fueling popular fear and unrest, the elements would be in place.
Those are a lot of ifs. But anti-government activism may be less worrisome than the means that could be used to combat it. Democratic administrations repeatedly used the paramilitary threat to justify the expansion of law enforcement powers. And today, the government's long experience of intrusive surveillance powers and questionable interrogation techniques could easily be turned against domestic as well as foreign enemies. Who is prepared to criticize official excesses during a terrorism panic?
History may or may not repeat itself following the 2008 election. But we should not be surprised when debates over terrorism and civil liberties start, quite literally, to come home.