Timothy McVeigh Was No Libertarian: The Fallacy of Conflating Two Very Different Types of “Anti-Government” Movements

Some commentators are associating the Oklahoma City bombings of 15 years ago and other far right violence with the rise of “anti-government” sentiment in opposition to the Obama health care bill and other recent expansions of federal spending and regulation. Former President Clinton’s recent New York Times op ed is a good example of this genre:

We should never forget what drove the bombers, and how they justified their actions to themselves. They took to the ultimate extreme an idea advocated in the months and years before the bombing by an increasingly vocal minority: the belief that the greatest threat to American freedom is our government, and that public servants do not protect our freedoms, but abuse them. On that April 19, the second anniversary of the assault of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, deeply alienated and disconnected Americans decided murder was a blow for liberty.

Byron York catalogues several other examples of similar rhetoric. From such statements, you might think that Timothy McVeigh and friends were libertarian foes of big government who hoped that their terrorist attacks would somehow lead to tighter constraints on government power.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. In reality, McVeigh was a neo-Nazi and his attack was inspired by the Turner Diaries, a 1978 tract that advocated the use of terrorism to overthrow the US and establish a government explicitly based on Nazi Germany. If you suffer through the experience of actually reading The Turner Diaries, as I did, you will find that author William Pierce did not support anything remotely resembling limited government; indeed, he explicitly repudiated limited government conservatism inthe book.

Rather, Pierce promotes the establishment of a totalitarian state modeled on Hitler’s (the book refers to Hitler as “the Great One”). There is absolutely no evidence that McVeigh’s attack or Pierce’s book were motivated by concerns about “American freedom” understood in a libertarian or conservative sense or that they sought to strike “a blow for liberty.” Rather, they were motivated by a desire to suppress Jews and non-whites and establish a Nazi-like “Aryan” state. Likewise, the original German Nazis also supported unconstrained government power, including in the economic realm. They weren’t the National Socialist Party for nothing.

If you study other instances of extremist right-wing violence in modern American history, most of it looks similar to McVeigh’s in the sense that it is motivated by racist, anti-Semitic, or authoritarian sentiments rather than a desire to limit the power of government. Think of the Ku Klux Klan (may of whom were economic populists, and favored a massive government role in enforcing segregation) or violence by various Neo-Nazi groups that, like McVeigh and Pierce, look to Nazi Germany as a model. The longtime Neo-Nazi activist who attacked the Holocaust Museum last year is a recent example of the latter. These people are “anti-government” only in the sense that they hate and fear the present government; by that definition communists are “anti-government” too. They have no general desire to constrain government power or to limit government control of the economy.

By contrast, the Tea Party movement that many seek to conflate with McVeigh is primarily motivated by wholly different concerns. As a recent New York Times survey concluded, “When talking about the Tea Party movement, the largest number of respondents [who were supporters of the movement] said that the movement’s goal should be reducing the size of government.”

This is not to say that it is completely impossible for genuinely anti-government libertarians or conservatives to engage in terrorist violence. The fact that such incidents have been vanishingly rare so far does not mean that they can’t happen. Nasty, potentially violent people can be found in almost any political movement. I don’t endorse the all too common assumption that depraved people are only found among our ideological opponents, whereas “our” side is morally pure.

It’s also true that statist racists and neo-Nazis have obvious reasons to hate Obama and that they might therefore try to latch on to movements that oppose the administration for wholly different reasons. That does not, however, make the latter racists or neo-Nazis themselves. Similarly, genuine communist totalitarians such as Fidel Castro (who called Obamacare “a miracle”) might endorse Obama’s health care plan as a step in the right direction. That does not mean that Obama himself is a communist.

The bottom line is that Clinton and others have drawn an unwarranted connection between “anti-government” movements that seek to limit government spending and regulation and a very different set of groups that have no real objection to big government as such. Instead, they seek to use massive state power to enforce racism, anti-Semitism, and neo-Nazi totalitarianism. No one should confuse that with a genuine anti-government ideology motivated by concerns about the fate of “American freedom.”

UPDATE: The point made in this post also undercuts claims that libertarian anti-government rhetoric somehow inspired McVeigh-like violence even if the libertarians don’t intend such a result. Clearly, the violence was actually inspired by neo-Nazi ideology that is very far removed from libertarianism (or even limited government conservatism).

UPDATE #2: In writing the initial post, I did not take sufficient account of McVeigh’s statements written while he was in prison. In this April 2001 letter to Fox News, McVeigh describes his motive for the attack as “retaliation” for the federal government’s “increasingly militaristic and violent” actions, including the 1993 Waco incident. This is not inconsistent with the neo-Nazi ideology of the Turner Diaries, since most of the actions in question seem to have been against far right groups. Still, it could be interpreted in a more libertarian “anti-government” sense as well. The letter also includes attacks on US foreign policy similar to those made by various groups on the far right and far left.

McVeigh’s wikipedia entry claims that he described himself as a “libertarian” while he was in prison and voted for Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne in 1996, citing various news reports. However, extensive research in the Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw newspaper data bases finds no corroboration for this wikipedia claim, except for a 2001 Washington Post article (not available online, as far as I can tell) that quotes McVeigh as saying he was a libertarian in the context of expressing his position on vegetarianism. There is no corroboration for his supposedly having voted for Browne.

On balance, I see no reason to alter my bottom line conclusion on McVeigh. When you look at the evidence that emerged from the time of the attack itself, it is clear that The Turner Diaries was the principal inspiration. I suspect that in later years, McVeigh sought to characterize his motives in ways that would be more likely to win a measure of mainstream sympathy and perhaps help him avoid the death penalty. Still, this additional evidence is relevant and I thought I should point it out.

UPDATE #3: Some commenters and people who have e-mailed note possible pre-attack statements by McVeigh that point in an anti-government direction. In my view, these either 1) predate his reading of the Turner Diaries, or 2) are compatible with hating the existing US government without opposing big government generally (the view held by Pierce and other neo-Nazis). I also think it’s very clear that The Turner Diaries was the book that actually precipitated his attack, even if he hated various aspects of US government policy previously. I do have to acknowledge, however, that McVeigh’s thought turns out to be more complex and multifaceted than I initially thought, and it’s arguable that his position was a hodgepodge of different views hostile to the US government, some of them inspired by neo-Nazism, but others much less so.