What is Right-Wing Populism?

The Patriot movement is a form of “right-wing populism,” a reaction to progressive social change by a group that sees itself as losing power, and challenges elites as well as minorities, both of which they see as unproductive, parasitic elements of society. While left-wing populists also challenge elites, right-wing populists instead seek to mobilize “the people” through demonization and scapegoating, conspiracy theories, and apocalyptic narratives and millennial visions.

They tap into a deep history of “producerist” thinking in U.S. life. The protagonists in the producerist story are the people in a society whose work involves creating tangible things. The bad guys are both “unproductive” elites, who lord over the producers, and groups socially beneath them, who may be seen as “lazy, sinful, or subversive.”(1)Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000), 6–7. Elites are said to be redistributing the wealth created by the producers’ hard work to these undeserving groups as a form of political patronage.  Different versions of this story have different political implications. In a common version, factory workers and farmers are the heroes, the elites are Wall Street bankers, and the lazy groups are poor people on welfare. In the White supremacist version, the producers are White, the elites are Jewish, and the lazy and sinful groups are people of color. The western Patriot movement sees the producers as farmers, ranchers, and loggers; the elites as socialists, the Federal Reserve, and the banking system; and the subversive groups as Syrian refugees and Black Lives Matter protestors.

Demonization and scapegoating works by dehumanizing others, and then blaming them for society’s problems. Various groups have been demonized in U.S. history, including Native Americans, African-Americans, Jews, Catholics, and various immigrant groups. Today, Muslims and dark-skinned immigrants are demonized by Donald Trump and FOX News. The majority group’s problems and frustrations are blamed on those being scapegoated, distracting attention from the actual social and economic causes of the problems. This process also acts to unify the main group and give them a sense of righteousness.(2)Ibid, 7–9.

Conspiracy thinking takes a scapegoated group and sees them as secretly plotting against common people. These secretive conspirators are seen as holding vast power, wielding it for evil purposes, and standing at the center of world events. Conspiracy thinking therefore sees social conflicts as a struggle between Good and Evil that transcends the actual situation at hand. Conspiracy theories are famous for their loose adherence to facts, which must be made fit into the story. There is often some element of truth in a conspiracy theory, but it is followed by various leaps of logic.(3)Ibid, 9. In Burns, Oregon, Patriot movement activists claimed the United Nations, environmentalists, Chinese mining interests in cahoots with Hillary Clinton, and French mercenaries were conspiring to drive local ranchers off of the land.

Last, the apocalyptic narratives and millennial visions of right-wing populists anticipate an imminent showdown with these evil elites. This could be the start of a new Christian era, or a civil war to “reclaim the nation.” Millennialism is the idea that a perfect society can be brought into being. While not a negative belief on its own, it can fuel dangerous situations when combined with these other elements of right-wing populism.(4)Ibid, 11. See also Apocalyptic Aggression, www.apocalypticaggression.com. Some elements of the Patriot movement wish to launch a “second American revolution,” which will overturn hundreds of years of American history and set the clock back to their ideal society of 1776. The implications of this for not just for the political system—but for racial, gender, and sexual inequalities—should not be overlooked.

The Three Percenters promote apocalyptic narratives in which they are the heroes of the story. (Source: Facebook)
The Three Percenters promote apocalyptic narratives in which they are the heroes of the story. (Source: Facebook)

Some people want to dismiss right-wing populists as people who are not in a normal mental state. This is not true; these are usually cross-class movements composed of people who are largely the same as everybody else. While their claims are sometimes bizarre or conspiratorial, they seek to address their grievances (whether real or perceived), by using different kinds of political tactics, including perfectly normal ones like running for office. However, as right-wing populists, they end up mobilizing people to defend an unequal distribution of social and economic power.(5)Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, 13-14. For example, a right-wing populist may claim there is a United Nations plot to disarm all Americans so that China can invade more easily. However, the political action they take to counteract this is to support a Republican candidate who opposes gun control. Wild ideas may motivate rather pedestrian political acts.

Right-wing movements are complex, and often involve fanning some form of popular resentment.(6)Jean Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999). This report will use the term “Hard Right” as Berlet and Lyons conceive of it. The Hard Right is against a democratic vision of society, in which different groups are mobilized to have a voice and participate in the political system. The Hard Right may either be elitists or build mass movements; some call for authoritarian rule, which others stop short of trying to destroy democratic institutions.(7)Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, 16. For expanded definitions and other resources, see “Explore the Different Sectors of the US Right,” Right-Wing Populism in America, www.rightwingpopulism.us/sectors-pop-ups.html.

Keeping this framework in mind, this report will explore what the Patriot movement looks like today, on a both national level and in Oregon; how it has developed over several decades; the issues it organizes around and tactics it uses; the social and economic factors driving this movement; and what kind of positive actions we can take when Patriot movement groups organize in our communities.

Chip Berlet's schematic of right-wing populism in America, revised 2016
Chip Berlet’s schematic of right-wing populism in America, revised 2016