“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 US 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 US 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.”
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 US 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 US 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.‘Extremism’ as a Ticket to Tyrannize