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Opinion: Right wing’s long history of deflecting on extremism

The new attorney general — Merrick Garland — was the ideal person to speak at the memorial: he worked on the prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombers, and in his recent confirmation hearings, vowed to not only prioritize the investigations into the insurrection, but to focus on the extremism behind it.
Garland, however, was not the only speaker at the event. Though he praised Garland’s work on the case and acknowledged the tragedy of the loss of human life that day, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt also slid in a bit of grievance politics. “There are groups that refuse to listen to another point of view,” he grumbled before slyly referencing one of the right’s current hobby horses, liberal cancel culture. “They try to cancel anyone who sees the world differently.”
His comments may not seem so over-the-top. But they come at a time when some on the right are rewriting extremism as legitimate grievance, driven not by far-right ideologies but liberal actions and ideas (and, in some cases, arguing that right-wing violence is actually conducted by leftists in disguise). Even as the rubble was smoldering in Oklahoma City in 1995, similar claims were being made on the right.

It has, in fact, been a major challenge to understanding and addressing right-wing extremism over the past quarter century: when incidents of right-wing violence occur, the right tries to deflect and derail, rather than joining efforts to take on extremist threats.

In April 1995, when two anti-government terrorists — Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols — detonated a truck bomb at a federal building in Oklahoma City, the nation reeled in horror. As historian Kathleen Belew documents in “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,” McVeigh and Nichols had circulated among militia and White power groups for a few years.
They attended some of the early meetings of the Michigan Militia, and McVeigh and Nichols both read White power literature. And journalists rushed to make sense of the movements the bombers had connected with: the militias, the White-power groups, the anti-government radicals.
Meanwhile, Congress quickly convened hearings into the militia movement, which had been growing since the early 1990s, especially after the horrifically botched federal raids at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Texas, in 1993.

But part of the problem was that members of Congress had connections with the militias, too.

Representatives who came into office as part of the 1994 Republican landslide, like Idaho’s Helen Chenoweth and Texas’s Steve Stockman, found themselves on the defensive as journalists explored their alleged radical ties. Soon after the bombing, Stockman had to distance himself from the far right when his office received a faxed “first update” on the bombing from an anti-government activist’s office; Stockman denied knowing the woman who sent it.
After the bombing, Chenoweth tried to shift focus to what she saw as the validity of the militias’ underlying arguments, urging Congress to “look at the public policies that may be pushing people too far.” When an Idaho paper suggested she was “quickly becoming the poster child” for the militias, she called the criticism “outrageous and grotesque and incredibly cynical,” and continued to press for some of the militia movement’s pet causes, from the repeal of the assault weapons ban to requiring federal agents to get written permission from local authorities in order to operate in an area.

In part, as a result of some Republican hesitance to denounce militias too harshly, the congressional hearings into the growing militia movement wound up highlighting, even glorifying the militias by allowing them to present themselves as regular Americans defending their basic freedoms.

“We view the militia movement as a giant neighborhood watch,” John Trochmann, head of the Militia of Montana, testified. In the weeks after the bombing, Trochmann suggested that it had been a false-flag operation by the US government to discredit peaceful militias, saying the bombing “reeks of a very internal high-tech government operation.”
Afterward, then-Rep. Chuck Schumer of New York dismissed the hearings as “a soapbox for the radical right.”
Likewise, when former President Bill Clinton condemned “promoters of paranoia” a week after the bombing, aiming at the fringe far-right radio programs that helped grow the militia movement, Rush Limbaugh immediately went on air to flip the script.

Though the administration clarified immediately that they did not mean programs like Limbaugh, he nonetheless used the moment to indulge in grievance politics. “I believe the people who have been ranting and raving about starving schoolchildren, calling those people involved in legitimate political dialogue ‘extremists,’ are in fact promoters of paranoia and purveyors of hate and divisiveness,” he said, adding that “anyone who uses Oklahoma City for political purposes should incur the wrath of the American people and be voted out of office.”

Limbaugh wasn’t just taking aim at Democrats: he was shifting the conversation away from the very real threat of far-right violence — violence that had just killed 168 people in Oklahoma City.

And it makes sense that he and others on the right did so. Because the militia movement passed through the porous boundaries between the Republican Party, the conservative movement and the violent fringe, many Republicans felt the need to soft-pedal their criticism.

The lines between, say, the National Rifle Association, which called federal officers “jack-booted thugs,” a reference it later apologized for, was not so different from the language used by militias, who benefitted from the organization’s increasingly radical pro-gun orthodoxy. The congressional hearings that seemingly tried to find “good” militias served the same purpose.
Nor was that the only time grievance politics interfered with efforts to get a handle on the growing threat of right-wing violence. In the early days of former President Barack Obama’s administration, the Department of Homeland Security issued an intelligence assessment on the surge in right-wing extremism that started when Obama announced his campaign.

Republican officeholders and conservative pundits erupted, arguing that the report, which discussed the vulnerability of returned veterans to recruitment by extremist groups, reflected the administration’s anti-military bias.

At the time, House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said, “To characterize men and women returning home after defending our country as potential terrorists is offensive and unacceptable.” Other Republican members called for hearings not into the rise in right-wing extremism, but into DHS and the creation of the report. They demanded it be retracted, and it was. In fact, the team that created the assessment was ultimately dissolved.
These efforts to downplay and demonize efforts to understand and expose right-wing extremism have serious consequences. The militia movement continued to grow in the late 1990s. And the 2009 DHS report now reads as alarmingly prescient, but it took the federal government much longer than it otherwise might have to assess and respond to the threat of far-right violence after the attack on the department. The DHS now calls white-supremacist violence the “most persistent and lethal threat to the homeland.”

That’s why, while Stitt’s words at the memorial may sound like an offhand attempt to insert culture wars commentary into a moment of serious reflection, they are worth taking seriously: they are part of a long trend on the right of using grievance politics to undermine efforts to tackle extremism, rather than working to address and dismantle that threat.

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