The shooting at the Holocaust Museum yesterday has had the predictable but still unfortunate result of launching another discussion about the rise of right-wing extremism. In my opinion, James von Brunn’s madness does not lend itself to easy classification. He is, it seems, a bitter misanthrope who hates just about every one. His ties to Nazism certainly indicates a closer affinity to extreme left-wing views (I agree with Jonah Goldberg’s thesis in Liberal Fascism about the leftist tilt of said ideology), but at the same time I also happen to think that such virulent anti-everything mania does not have much of a leftist or rightist tilt.
The incident does spark a question that Jonah briefly touched upon yesterday, but which I think is worthy of some discussion: What is a right-wing extremist? I suppose the answer to that question is tied to another question—what is a right-winger? If we’re associating right-wing political views with traditional conservatism, then the very term extreme right-winger is in fact an oxymoron. Conservatism is by its nature anti-radical. So it would seem that anyone engaged in radical behavior is behaving in an un-conservative fashion and thus, could never be termed a right-wing radical.
Does it mean that there’s no such thing as right-wing radicalism, or extremist right-wingery? Are all extreme political ideologies of the left? Perhaps it might be soothing to those of us with a conservative political temperament to believe that all the nuts are on the other side of the spectrum, but that doesn’t strike me as particularly realistic. So what then?
Getting back to Goldberg, he attempts to answer the question this way:
I don’t have a systemic answer because I think the “right” in the Anglo-American tradition has a fork in it. One branch heads off toward extreme anti-statism, the other to extreme traditionalism to the point of monarchism or some such. I think you could make a persuasive case that a serious anarcho-capitalist libertarian was a rightwing extremist. I also think you could make the case that those who want to restore the monarchy in, say, France are rightwing extremists.
So the extreme right would then encompass Hobessian authoritarians and anarcho-libertarians, two camps that would seem to be quite in opposition. But are they? Remember that Hobbes’s absolute sovereign is one whose power is concentrated very narrowly, focusing mainly on preserving order. It’s authoritarian rule, but the ruler doesn’t get involved very much in day-to-day activities. The anarchists get rid of the ruler, but it’s still a free-for-all out there. Therefore I think it’s reasonable to conclude that both are extreme ends of the same side of the political continuum.
Of course there are such things as authoritarian totalitarian systems—just look at North Korea and Cuba as examples. So perhaps the way to view these extreme right-wing ideologies is by examining not who rules, but how. The political continuum could thus be judged as going from an extreme left where every facet of one’s life is subject to the whims of some governing entity, to an extreme right where there is little control if any over daily affairs. Government is either not seen or simply non-existent.
But is such a state right-wing? It certainly isn’t conservative, but the title of this post isn’t “What is an Extreme-Conservative?” Now, as someone who is of a slightly libertarian bent economically (though not quite a full-fledged Cato booster) this particular labeling scheme has me a bit nervous. But, maybe we also have to get over our fear of the word extreme. That term gets tossed about so frequently, and we instantly object to it as though we’re vampires reacting to sunlight. But as Barry Goldwater put it, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
We can dig further down this rabbit hole and ponder what is an extremist, but we might be reaching Clintonian levels of parsing, so I’ll try to end on just a few more quick observations. Those of us who are passionate about ideas can easily be labeled as extremists by all sides. Unless we specialize in a particularly noxious brand of wishy-washiness, we’re likely to hold very strongly to certain opinions, whether they be of a political, religious, or any other type. That alone is enough to be branded an extremist in certain quarters. When it comes to people like James von Brunn, the word “extremist” is an inapt way to describe them. We have already have useful terms to such noxious individuals, and any of them will do. Since some are unprintable I’ll end on this note: Stephen Tyrone Johns’ family is little concerned right now about which label to apply to von Brunn’s psychosis.