Chris Matthews Asked SPLC's Potok When Did Scary 'Black Helicopters' Anti-Government Talk Start? With Reagan

On Tuesday night's Hardball, MSNBC's Chris Matthews invited Mark Potok of the leftist Southern Poverty Law Center to estimate when all this frightening and hateful anti-government militia talk started. Potok argued it began with Ronald Reagan, and his supposed description of "the federal government as a kind of enemy."

Matthews said one could be concerned about government growing too large, "But then there are people who've taken up arms. There are people who are worried about the black helicopters. There are people that think now not that government's a problem but government's the enemy, that it's foreign, that it's almost like the old Kremlin wall, you know? They think of it as hostile. When did that start, Mark?"

POTOK: Well, I think one could make the argument that, that really began with Ronald Reagan and the description of the federal government as a kind of enemy.  And it was very much ginned up through the decades by talk radio, and so on. 

And we saw the first iteration, it seems to me, of real focused rage against the federal government in the 1990s, when the militia movement took that standard and brought it to new heights, or really depths. You know, and that, as we all know, culminated in the murder of 168 people in Oklahoma City back in 1995.

Matthews complained:

Just yesterday, a white supremacist from Tennessee pleaded guilty to plotting to kill then presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008. It was to be the grand finale of a cross-country killing spree aimed at African-Americans.  His co-defendant pled guilty in January. Well, there you have it. What is going on right now, Mark, in this country? Because it's not all right wing. Much of it is.

POTOK: I mean, I think we are seeing out there a real explosion of rage, of fear, of frustration, and I think a great deal of it is being stoked not only by groups and ideas of the radical right, but by many people in the ostensible mainstream who are kind of feeding the flames.

MATTHEWS: Who?

POTOK: You know, it's good to see—people like John Boehner coming out and criticizing some of the talk, that it is very much a day late and a dollar short at this point.  You know, and there are many things going on out there that have people extremely upset.

MATTHEWS: Do you think those Republican members of Congress who waved the Gadsden flag, the “Don't tread on me” flag, which is a symbol of fighting tyranny, is good or bad in terms of calming things down? That was a flag that was used to fight an enemy imperial nation, London, the British empire, which basically had us under its hoof.  Now it's being used to attack our own government

POTOK: Yeah. I mean, I think it‘s very symbolic of the sorry past that we have come to as a nation in terms of our political discourse.  You know, the Gadsden flag is very much also in, in contemporary society the flag of the militia movement.  It's the "Don't mess with us," you know? And it really implies, "Don't mess with us at the point of a gun."

So no, I don't think they should be waving the Gadsden flag.  I don't think they should be talking about watering the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants.  I don't think they should be talking about death panels and secret invasion plans by Mexico. You know, I think all of these things merely stoke up the fear out there, and fear leads quickly to frustration, and ultimately, to rage. And I think that, that rage is reflected in some of the events that you  mentioned in your introduction.

What's bizarre is how Matthews disposed of the arrest of Norman Leboon, who threatened to kill House Republican leader Eric Cantor. Somehow, when John F. Kennedy was killed, it was a  period of dangerous right-wing anger just like today:

I do believe there's dangers when the zeitgeist gets very nasty. People from the left begin to operate even if the right wing were the ones who stirred things up. You saw that with the threat against Mr. Cantor from Virginia by that Philadelphia guy. Now, maybe he's disturbed.  We'll find that out as the psychiatric report is given. But it seems like, you know, saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot Jack Kennedy, a man of the far left, a Castro guy, killed Kennedy at the time that the right wing was the big danger.

Matthews closed the segment with Potok and fellow "hate" expert Brian Levin: "You know, guys, I can remember exactly the Zeitgeist of the fall of 1963.  I'll say no more. I felt it. I know what it feels like. We're not quite there, but that spitting on people—we'll get to more of that on the show today.  Spitting on people like Adlai Stevenson and members of Congress is the first step towards real violence."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis