nytimes article

Linking Theory to Violent Action

Chip Berlet

Chip Berlet is a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a group based in Somerville, Mass., that studies extremist and authoritarian movements. He is co–author, with Matthew N. Lyons, of “Right-Wing Populism in America.”

The alleged shooter at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum spread historical white supremacist views and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories through a Web site that included the hoax document “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and a link to a Holocaust denial Web site.

The attack demonstrates why it is a mistake to ignore bigoted conspiracy theories. Law enforcement needs to enforce laws against criminal behavior. Vicious bigoted speech, however, is often protected by the First Amendment. We do not need new laws or to encourage government agencies to further erode our civil liberties. We need to stand up as moral people and speak out against the spread of bigoted conspiracy theories. That’s not a police problem, that’s our problem as people responsible for defending a free society.

Demagogues and conspiracy theorists use the same four “tools of fear.” These are 1) dualism; 2) scapegoating; 3) demonization; and 4) apocalyptic aggression.

It is the combination of demagogic demonization and widespread scapegoating that is so dangerous.

The basic dynamics remain the same no matter the ideological leanings of the demonizers or the identity of their targets. It is the combination of demagogic demonization and widespread scapegoating that is so dangerous. In such circumstances, angry allegations can quickly turn into apocalyptic aggression and violence targeting scapegoated groups like Jews or immigrants. Meanwhile, our ability to resolve disputes through civic debate and compromise is hobbled.

Apocalyptic aggression is fueled by right-wing pundits who demonize scapegoated groups and individuals in our society, implying that it is urgent to stop them from wrecking the nation. Some angry people in their audience already believe conspiracy theories in which the same scapegoats are portrayed as subversive, destructive or evil. Add in aggressive apocalyptic ideas that suggest time is running out and quick action mandatory, and you have a perfect storm of mobilized resentment threatening to rain bigotry and violence across the United States.

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