Rural Radicals

From Bacon's rebellion to the populists to Oklahoma City, violent rural movements have deep roots in American history.


Ros Davidson
April 18, 1997 7:49PM (UTC)

saturday marks the second anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. One hundred sixty-eight people died, more than 500 were injured and two men, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, have been charged with the crime. Jury selection in McVeigh's trial is expected to be completed perhaps by next week. Nichols is scheduled to go on trial soon after McVeigh.

The stunning crime focused attention on the extreme right wing in America, especially on rabidly anti-government militias. But rather than harming the movement, according to Klanwatch and other hate group monitors, the bombing and attendant publicity has actually drawn more people to it.

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Salon spoke to Catherine McNicol Stock, author of the recently published
"Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain" (Cornell University Press). Stock, a Yale-trained historian, is assistant professor of history and director of the
American Studies Program at Connecticut College in New London, Conn. Her previous book was "Main Street in Crisis: The Great Depression and the Old Middle Class on the Northern Plains" (1992, University of North Carolina Press).



The immediate reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing
was, "No American would do that -- it had to have been planted by an
outsider, perhaps someone from the Middle East." But you
argue that such acts have an all-American heritage.

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Yes, one thing I try to say -- and it gets me in trouble
sometimes -- is that some of the basic ideology of right-wing extremists
should be definitely considered all-American. And some of the people who had similar beliefs we consider to be quite heroic.

Going back to colonial times.

Right. Ethan Allen, for example, of Vermont, or Nathaniel Bacon, who led
Bacon's Rebellion, are early examples of anti-government radicalism. In 1676, Bacon led a group of former indentured servants on a march on the
capital of Virginia, called Jamestown at that time, and
especially against its aristocratic and arrogant governor, William
Berkeley.

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These were rural rebellions.

What they wanted was more access to land; they wanted to have their own homesteads.
They also wanted equal standing in the government -- they didn't want
Berkeley and his cronies to have all the power while the newly
freed fellows had no power. Well, that's a very all-American
idea. And Bacon is often considered to be a precursor of the American
Revolution. He rose up against Gov. Berkeley in the same way
that 100 years later all of the colonists would rise up against
the British. I also should point out that on the
way to Jamestown, Bacon massacred as many Native Americans as he
could.

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Most people would think of the American Revolution as
"progressive" and democratic with a small "d." Are you suggesting that it's not just rhetoric when right-wing extremists today say they are acting in the spirit of the Revolution?

The point I try to make is that some of their ideas go very far back in our past. And they were held by people on the left, especially on the agrarian
left, as recently as the 1930s. What's really important to realize is that these ideas have now been completely co-opted by the far right, and that the hatefulness and
the regressiveness in some of these ideas have won the day.

And the violence.

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Yes, historically, there's been a vigilante
style for redressing grievances. You see rural radicals in a
bunch of these historical movements pretty much taking these issues
into their own hands, often violently.

How did this traditional heartland radicalism re-emerge in our times?

In the 1980s, during the farm crisis in the Midwest and the Far West,
right-wing organizers found a lot of interest and new recruits. The
Posse Comitatus (a far-right group opposed to taxation) organized
lots of folks in Nebraska and Iowa. A lot of terrible things were happening at the time. In the 1970s, when the FHA (Farmers' Home Administration)
were giving loans to farmers to expand their acreage, (Secretary of
Agriculture) Earl Butz said, "get bigger, get better or get out." So
farmers started to expand. Then interest rates went sky-high. They
couldn't pay back their loans and a federal agency
foreclosed on their farms. That didn't make people feel very good
about the government!

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Where were the Democrats, part of whose base was supposed to be rural America?

The Democrats were concerned with urban problems -- urban crime problems, in particular -- and were trying to forge a coalition of wealthy Easterners and
minorities. That left middle-class white rural people out of
the equation. The Republican Party was only concerned with wealthy
people. So both major political parties walked
away from the problems of rural America. People there felt alienated, they had no voice in the political process.

Which you say was a common theme in rebellions of the past.

Absolutely. When we think of the American Revolution, we tend
to think of people in Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston getting
fed up with the centers of economic and political power in London.
But at that same moment people on the frontier were fed up with the
centers of economic and political power in Boston, Philadelphia and
Charleston. One historian at the turn of the century described
this by saying there were two revolutions. It wasn't just about
home rule, it was about who would rule at home. Was it going to be
these big, powerful guys or ordinary back-country Americans?

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Were the themes of these early rebels similar to those of the McVeighs of today?

Yes, particularly with centralized power, both economic and political
power. In the Whisky Rebellion in the 1790s, a group of Pennsylvania frontiersmen
refused to pay a tax that was imposed by the federal government.
They said, "I thought we just fought a war about taxation with no
representation." They thought the federal government had no
right to tax their whiskey. That's one trend that holds a lot of
these groups together.

The modern militias refuse to recognize any authority higher than the local
sheriff.

And they only recognize the first 10 Amendments, and
they're going to run their affairs their own way. Again, we've seen
this over and over again. You see it in the 1930s in the
Farmers Holiday Movement strikes, and lynch mobs and posses and
union massacres in the Far West. You see this style of taking the law into their own hands over and over again.

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Was there a populist, democratic rural radicalism that was less extreme and less violent?

In the book, I separate out two strands, "producer radicalism"
and vigilantism -- what I call the politics of hope and the politics
of hate. I argue how close those two sides of the coin
have always been.

"Producer radicalism"?

"Producer radicalism" or "producerism" is a term
historians use for democratic or progressive movements. Agrarian
liberalism is another term, or Jeffersonian liberalism. These were movements in which small farmers, small landholders, have tried to get a fair share. The one movement that most people know about is the Populist Party in the 1880s and 1890s. Some were cotton farmers, some were wheat farmers, some were in extractive industry, and they said, "Look, big business is getting too big a share of the profit from what small producers make. The profit should go to the person who makes it, and farmers who are growing food shouldn't be starving to death." At that time the
railroads were charging exorbitant amounts to Western farmers to
ship their products.

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That time has been called the "Populist
moment," a moment in America when anything seemed possible. But I like to remind America, too, that many Southern Populists helped create the Jim Crow laws in the South, and that Populist rhetoric was absolutely rife with anti-Semitism.

How do you tie these historical issues of rural America to Timothy
McVeigh, who is from a small rust-belt town in New York state?

In my book I include small industrial towns in what
I consider to be rural areas. Rural America is not all farms. But even if you don't agree with me, you have to admit that Terry Nichols (McVeigh's alleged accomplice) comes exactly from this background. He loses his farm during the farm crisis.
In a lot of ways I think of McVeigh as
the blue-collar, rust-belt loser who was making minimum wage as a
security guard. Then he meets and links up with this classic
prototypical rural radical, who had been hard-core since he lost his farm.

McVeigh and Nichols are accused of blowing up a federal building, which you see as an anti-big-government or "anti-bigness" act.

Henry Wallace called it "big bureaucrats with their briefcases." In the New Deal period, it was called the "brain trust." That anti-bigness includes big business and
corporate farms, too.

You know "Little House on the Prairie," Laura Ingalls
Wilder's book written in the 1930s? Set in the 1880s and '90s, it appears to be total rural nostalgia. Wilder's daughter claims they were written as an attack against the New Deal. So I went through the
books looking for references to the government, and in every case
it's this big, ugly, alienating, incompetent machinery up against the
intimate, small community of people on the frontier.

Do you seen anything specifically new that sets the McVeighs apart from these historical antecedents?

A lot of people make connections to
McVeigh's Gulf War experience -- you know, learning to kill and hate.
More important than that, I think, is the Vietnam generation that's in
a lot of these movements. A lot of these guys did learn to kill, to love
weapons and to hate the government in Vietnam. The
government didn't let them win, and they wanted to win.

How many McVeighs and Nichols do you think are out there today?

I've been on a lot of radio shows, and people call in from rural
areas and they say, "You know I wouldn't blow up a building but it
feels like there's no place left for white men in this country anymore." And they don't sound like lunatics. They say, "Honest to God,
I can't get a decent job!"

We used to hear a lot about "angry white men." You're saying that we really need to be looking at angry rural white men.

There's significant economic dislocation in both
manufacturing and agriculture in rural America. The only work many people can get is at places like McDonald's -- and you're supposed to
be grateful. Many of the manufacturing jobs, like meat packing, that have returned to
states like Iowa and
Wisconsin, to semi-industrial rural America, now employ
immigrant workers who work for minimum or sub-minimum wage. That just makes things even more dreadful.

What other issues come up when you're on talk radio?

Waco. Waco is really something that people are still struggling
with. They say, "You can't possibly think that what the government
did at Waco was right." And of course I don't!

You have some personal links to the subject you write about.

One of the things that first interested me in being
a historian was that my grandparents, who were from North Dakota, all their lives carried these incredibly strong negative feelings about Roosevelt. They admitted that Roosevelt had essentially saved North Dakota and many of their friends from
utter and complete failure, had made a big difference in the Depression, and essentially saved the world in World War II. But my grandfather just
basically thought Roosevelt was a Communist. He was one
of these people who thought farm programs killed anybody's sense
of self-worth and that welfare was wrong. I'm listening to all this
during dinner table conversations in the 1970s. But it was
still so current for them! So I became interested in what certain periods in America could have been like to provoke such strong feelings.

Did any of your relatives act on those feelings?

After my grandfather died, my grandmother
learned that the minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Grand
Forks had been masquerading -- he was not ordained.
So I looked into this a little and found that he was actually the Grand Dragon
of the Ku Klux Klan. He married my McNicol grandparents. My
grandmother, I assume, never knew this about him. But one of her
parents was a deacon in the church and my great-grandmother ran the
Sunday school. You can't tell me they didn't know that about the
minister! The KKK was extremely active in Grand Forks. And my
grandparents were the most wonderful people I ever knew.

That's why, when I was writing "Rural Radicals," I felt a little as if
I was writing about my own people. I tried to tell the truth. In Clinton's first inaugural he spoke of the honor and
cruelty of the American past and of having to know them both. When
I teach, that's what I always say: We're going to know them both.
So live with it!


Ros Davidson

Ros Davidson is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Ros Davidson



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