Yesterday we learned more details about the White House’s continued indifference to or actual interference with the DHS’s efforts to combat violent white supremacist extremism and terrorism. This is hardly surprising. There’s basically no clear line separating the kind of folks Trump invited to his social media ‘bias’ festival at the White House and various white supremacist propagandists who radicalize guys like the shooter in El Paso. But it’s misleading to see this as particular to Trump or this administration. This goes back at least 25 years and is in its own way comparable to NRA-backed legislative mandates preventing federal public health officials from funding research on gun violence.
Many point to 2009 when a DHS report on rising right-wing violent extremism became a huge brouhaha after it was leaked to conservative media. Then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano vaguely pushed back in defense of the report. But the Department basically caved to rightwing pressure and halted efforts to monitor and counter this rising terrorist threat. As the author of the report, Daryl Johnson, explained two years ago: “Work related to violent right-wing extremism was halted. Law enforcement training also stopped. My unit was disbanded. And, one-by-one, my team of analysts left for other employment. By 2010, there were no intelligence analysts at DHS working domestic terrorism threats.”
But even this only scratches the surface of the pre-history. Rightwing extremist violence also surged in the early mid-90s. This was largely driven by a Democrat in the White House for the first time in a dozen years (it’s a pattern as sure as clockwork). But there was a major push on Capitol Hill to valorize right wing radicals as an oppressed minority targeted by out of control federal law enforcement. This was the context of Wayne LaPierre’s infamous 1995 attack on federal law enforcement officials as “jack-booted government thugs [who guns laws had given] more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.”
There was “Ruby Ridge”, the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas and more. Some of these incidents did reveal needless or at least unwise escalation by federal officials. But the real impact was to make federal law enforcement extremely wary of ever enforcing the law – whether it be about firearms, land use or anything else – if the suspects were white right-wingers in the American West – a fact peculiarly in evidence in the clownish Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 and the earlier, related Bundy ranch stand off in 2014.
There was also a notorious but now little remembered hearing up on Capitol Hill in June 1995, soon after Republicans took over the Congress and only a couple months after the destruction of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City by militia member Timothy McVeigh. Republicans brought “militia” leaders from across the country up to the Hill in a hearing clearly intended to humanize them and present them as ordinary Americans standing up for their rights. This was before the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. But there was a concerted effort, through these and other means, to limit or stigmatize any effort to combat criminal activities, menacing and related hate crimes by far right extremists.
It’s happening today in perhaps a more open and concerted way. But this isn’t new. The LaPierre nugget itself actually shows some of the pre-history of Trumpism and continuity over the last three decades. A year before the “jack-booted thug” line LaPierre told an NRA convention that “our media has become the master over the very Constitution that created it. Forget Stalin’s Russia. Forget Hitler’s Germany. The mightiest propaganda machine the world has ever known is right here in 1994 America.” This consistent pattern of Republicans acting aggressively to prevent scrutiny, monitoring or action against violent far right extremists stretches back almost 30 years. They have been extremely successful.