“Extremists” are one of the famous bogeymen that American politicians invoke to sanctify their own power. But the definition of “extremism” has forever been in flux. The only consistent element in definitions of extremism is that politicians always win.
In the 1770s, people who suggested that the king of England had no right to rule America were considered extremists. Even a 2013 Pentagon instructional document declared that “the colonists who sought to free themselves from British rule” were an example of “extremist movements.”
In the 1850s, Southerners who suggested freeing the slaves were considered dangerous extremists who were often censored into silence. Northerners who suggested that the South needed to be militarily ravaged were considered extremists, at least until John Brown was awarded sainthood.
In the 1920s, people who suggested that the president should have the power to confiscate citizens’ gold were considered extremists — if not communists.
After 1934, people who denounced the federal confiscation of Americans’ gold were often considered extremists.
In the post–World War Two era, presidents routinely invoked fighting “extremism” to sanctify their killings or smear their critics.
In 1952, when Republicans criticized the Korean War as useless, President Harry Truman condemned “reckless and irresponsible Republican extremists” and “the false version of history that has been copyrighted by the extremists in the Republican Party.” But the lies and atrocities that permeated the U.S. military campaign in Korea were sufficiently widely recognized to destroy Truman’s presidency.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson declared, “Extremism in the pursuit of the Presidency is an unpardonable vice, and moderation in the affairs of the Nation is the highest virtue.” The media portrayed Johnson as a moderate choice even though he was heavily bombing North Vietnam and, despite his denials to voters, preparing a massive military escalation of the conflict.
In 1965, after Johnson sent U.S. Marines into the Dominican Republic to prop up a military junta that had just seized power, he announced that “the Dominican people … [do] not want government by extremists of either the left or right.” As long as he denounced extremists and recited bogus warnings of Communist takeovers, the thousands of Dominicans killed in the subsequent fighting became sacrifices on the altar of moderation.
In 1966, in a speech at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Johnson lamented, “There remain in Asia voices of extremism and apostles of militancy.” The prior year, his State Department had secretly endorsed a brutal crackdown by the Indonesian military on suspected communists (or people who lived in the vicinity of suspected communists). Half a million Indonesians were slaughtered with Johnson’s approval in carnage that the CIA labeled “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.”
Clinton and Bush
Bill Clinton routinely used extremism to tar political opposition. In 1999, he told the Democratic Leadership Council that “we are still confronting a level of extremism and partisanship [from Republicans] which is truly chilling for the long-term interests of America.” But it wasn’t the Republicans who had engaged in six years of non-stop lying to stretch and sanctify federal power. On the eve of the 2000 election, Clinton declared, “Someone needs to be doing what I’ve done for the last six years, which is to stop extremism in Washington, D.C., and you certainly only have one choice: Al Gore.” Gore lost, in part because many voters feared he would bring more extremism in Washington.
Prior to September 2001, anyone who suggested that the U.S. government lead a crusade to “rid the world of evil” would have been labeled both an extremist and a loon. But when George W. Bush promised exactly that three days after 9/11, the media cheered and his approval ratings soared.
In 2004, after the U.S.-controlled Afghan government held a fraud-ridden election in 2004, Bush proclaimed, “The success of Afghanistan’s election is a standing rebuke to cynicism and extremism and a testimony to the power of liberty and hope.” But Afghanistan soon plunged into a downward spiral, spurring even more U.S. government rigging of subsequent Afghan elections.
In 2004, Bush sanctified his war on terrorism: “This struggle between political extremism and civilized values is unfolding in many places.” And any methods the Bush administration used — including torture — were “civilized” by definition because the opponents were extremists.
Extremists were one of Bush’s favorite straw men. Bush told a group of journalists, “We actually misnamed the war on terror. It ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world.” Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank suggested an acronym for Bush’s new declaration of war: SAIEWDNBIFSWHTUTAAWTTTSTCOTFW.
In his 2005 State of the Union address to Congress, Bush boasted of the recent Iraqi elections, “The whole world now knows that a small group of extremists will not overturn the will of the Iraqi people.” Iraq’s 2005 election was more akin to a Soviet Bloc referendum than a New England town meeting. American troops traveled around broadcasting a get-out-and-vote message at the same time they raided people’s homes. After soldiers passed out thousands of sample ballots, the top UN election official condemned U.S. military interference.
In 2009, in his first speech to Congress, Barack Obama declared, “To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend — because there is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America.” Obama invoked extremism to justify any and every power grab he committed. As part of its war against violent extremism, the Obama administration claimed a right to kill Americans without a trial, without notice, and without any chance for targets to legally object.
In a December 2009 speech at West Point, Obama announced that he would send far more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan as part of the “struggle against violent extremism” — which he said would be “an enduring test of our free society.” More than a thousand Americans subsequently were killed in Afghanistan in an escalation which did nothing more than prolong the war. The CIA had sought to warn Obama that his “surge” would be a failure, but a little crowding in Arlington Cemetery was a small price to pay for burnishing Obama’s tough-guy image.
In 2011, Obama justified bombing Libya so that that nation would not become “a new safe haven for extremists.” After the United States helped topple Libya’s dictator, extremists seized control of much of the nation and violence claimed thousands of victims (including four Americans killed in Benghazi in 2012). The slave markets that began openly operating in Libya after the U.S. bombing were not formally part of the president’s anti-extremism campaign.
In 2014, Obama justified U.S. military intervention Syria: “What we’re also fighting is an ideological strain of extremism that has taken root in too many parts of the region.” The Obama administration launched more than 5,000 airstrikes on Syrian targets but its pretensions of virtue were the only consistent aspect of its policies. The U.S. government provided arms and money to radical groups tied to al-Qaeda and other Muslim fanatics as part of the U.S. campaign to topple the Assad government. U.S. policy was so muddled that Pentagon-backed Syrian rebels openly battled CIA-backed Syrian rebels.
In May 2017, Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia and proclaimed that the United States and the Saudis “seek to embark on new initiatives to counter violent extremist messaging, disrupt financing of terrorism, and advance defense cooperation.” The fact that Saudi government officials had provided financial aid to the 9/11 hijackers (15 of the 19 were Saudis) was not permitted to tarnish the photo opportunity.
Three months later, the White House issued a readout of Trump’s phone call with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud that stressed that the leaders “discussed the need to defeat terrorism, cut off terrorist funding, and combat extremist ideology.” The press release was not cluttered with the fact that the Saudis have perennially been among the world’s largest financiers of terrorism and radical Islamic movements.
In November 2017, after gunmen killed hundreds of people in a mosque in Egypt, Trump proclaimed, “The world cannot tolerate terrorism. We must defeat them militarily and discredit the extremist ideology that forms the basis of their existence!” Two years later, he astounded attendees at an international summit by hailing Egyptian ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as “my favorite dictator.” Sisi is notorious for killing dissidents, mass arrests, and brutal detention of anyone who protests his abuses. But since Sisi usually followed orders from Washington, his designation as a moderate was irrevocable.
The definition of “extremism” is often a flag of convenience for the Establishment. As a Pentagon training manual on the danger of hate groups noted, “All nations have an ideology, something in which they believe. When a political ideology falls outside the norms of a society, it is known as extremism.” In other words, beliefs that differ from prevailing or approved opinions are “extremist” by definition. And who gets to say what is acceptable to believe? The same politicians and government agencies whose power is buttressed by prevailing opinions.
“Extremism” is even more vaporous than “terrorism.” With terrorism, at least the malefactors are conniving to inflict violence. An extremist, on the other hand, is someone with a bad attitude who might do something unpleasant in the future. Crackdowns on supposed extremists can provide the perfect tool to demonize political opposition at home and abroad.
Politicians denounce extremism at the same time the establishment media blanches from publicizing government abuses. The greater the taint of being accused of extremist tendencies, the easier it becomes for government officials to cover up atrocities.
In early 2004, before Abu Ghraib photos leaked out, people who said the U.S. government was torturing detainees were considered extremists. A decade later, after a Senate report documented how the CIA had set up a worldwide torture regime, people who favored vigorously prosecuting CIA torturers were considered extremists. Similarly, people who claimed that the U.S. government was massively illegally violating Americans’ privacy after 9/11 were considered extremists. After Edward Snowden leaked documents in 2013 proving that the National Security Administration had illegally seized the emails of millions of Americans, only extremists favored prosecuting NSA chieftains who had lied to Congress and the American public about their illicit surveillance.
Americans have perennially acquiesced in the government’s seizing of almost unlimited power in the war against extremism. But to permit politicians to define extremism is to let them preemptively vilify their most dangerous critics. Luckily, it is not yet illegal to suggest that the government itself has become the greatest extremist of them all.
This article was originally published in the October 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.