Right-Wing Terrorists Have Been a Threat for Decades
On Oct. 8, Federal prosecutors dropped a bombshell: they had arrested and charged six men who were allegedly planning to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as part of a wider terrorist plot to overthrow that state’s government.
Within days, another seven men were arrested as part of the wider conspiracy that included a self-described “militia” group named the Wolverine Watchmen. These co-conspirators were charged by state prosecutors with various terrorism and weapons offenses. A 14th man was charged Oct. 15, and there is every possibility that more people may be charged in the coming days and weeks.
The members of this conspiracy have a long history of promoting right-wing, anti-government ideologies, including a willingness to commit violence and armed insurrection. Some of the conspirators are also suspected of supporting the Boogaloo movement, which has been implicated in a number of violent crimes and property damage aiming to incite a civil war.
To recap the origins of the plot: as the novel coronavirus spread, unchecked, throughout the US, Trump and the federal government did little to nothing to contain it or mitigate the damage it was doing. Trump instead foisted that responsibility onto the state governors (while playing political favorites with who would receive vital supplies and equipment).
So Whitmer, using the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act of 1945, declared a state of emergency and ordered the same kind of shutdowns recommended by scientists and doctors around the world — actions that, while extreme, have been effective in containing the spread of the coronavirus and saving lives. She was not the only governor to do so — though she was frequently singled out for criticism by Trump.
As a result, several protests (backed by many of the same people and organizations that funded the Tea Party) erupted in Michigan and other states that had implemented these shutdowns.
Two days after these protests, the president tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”
A little more than two weeks after the president’s command to “liberate” their state, armed protesters swarmed the Michigan capitol building protesting the lockdown, calling Whitmer a “tyrant” (among other things), chanting “Lock her up!”, and lynching her in effigy.
Many lawmakers were rightfully afraid, and those who owned bulletproof vests wore them. State police had to physically restrain the heavily armed protesters from storming the floor of the state House of Representatives.
These protesters comprised members of various conservative groups, including militias, open carry and Second Amendment proponents, anti-abortion protesters, anti-vaccination protesters, plus several people who said they were not associated with any group, but were simply opposed to the state-mandated shutdowns. Several of the alleged terrorists arrested last week were present as well.
During that protest, Trump tweeted that the armed protesters were “very good people” and that Whitmer should “See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
It’s important to note that in early October, days before the alleged terrorist attack was foiled, the Michigan Supreme Court struck Whitmer’s emergency orders down, stating the Emergency Powers Act itself is unlawful. The protestors had won, at least temporarily, legally and without the use of violence. Yet there was no indication any of the alleged conspirators considered shelving their plans to kidnap and try the governor for treason.
Many were shocked that a plot of this magnitude had been brewing here in the United States. However, anyone who has been paying attention to the threat posed by right-wing extremists shouldn’t be too surprised. The US has seen an increasing amount and intensity of right-wing extremist violence since 2016. The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks hate groups and incidents of hate crimes, found that In 2018, 49 people were killed by right-wing extremists — more people than in any other year since the Oklahoma City bombing. In 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that a majority of the bureau’s domestic-terrorism investigations were related to white supremacy.
For many Americans, this wave of right-wing terrorism might seem like an entirely new phenomenon, something that sprang, fully-formed, from the president’s Twitter feed or the fever-swamps of 4chan and 8chan.
But that is not the case. Like so many problems the US is dealing with now, the threat from right-wing terrorists has been with us for decades. Though they spread their message via social media instead of photocopied ‘zines, the recent crop of terrorists sounds a lot like the anti-government “militias” that have been around since the 1980s: hatred of government, belief in wild-eyed conspiracy theories, an all-consuming passion for “protecting the Second Amendment,” and an eagerness to take up arms to defend themselves against what they view as “tyranny.” Most (but not all) of these groups also espouse white supremacy.
Timothy McVeigh, before he blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, frequently wrote and spoke about how the government had turned tyrannical and was going to take away everyone’s guns any day now — and patriots needed to take up arms against it. And he was not alone: besides his two accomplices, he was sheltered and aided by a network of anti-government, white supremacist groups across the country. His attack remains the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in US history, killing 168 people, including 19 children, yet only McVeigh and his two accomplices were ever charged.
The Oklahoma City bombing put right-wing terrorism back on the FBI’s radar, even while the number of right-wing terrorist crimes and plots continued to increase. According to the SPLC: “Conspiracies hatched since the Oklahoma City attack have included plans to bomb buildings, banks, refineries, utilities, clinics and bridges; assassinate politicians, judges, civil rights figures and others; attack Army bases, National Guard armories and a train; rob banks, armored cars and individuals; amass illegal machine guns, missiles and explosives; and engage in huge tax and financial schemes.”
The FBI dedicated more of its efforts toward monitoring and infiltrating these terrorist groups, increasing its domestic terrorism caseload from 100 more than 900. At the state and local level, almost every major law enforcement agency developed some form of domestic terrorism task force. It seemed as though federal law enforcement was finally taking right-wing terrorism seriously.
However, only six years after the Oklahoma City bombing, the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. As a result, most of the resources that had been dedicated to fighting terrorism were pulled away from the domestic right-wing threat and refocused on Islamic extremist threats.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Now largely off law enforcement (and media) radar, incidents of right-wing extremist violence continued to rise after Sept. 11, 2001, far outnumbering attacks by Islamic extremists.
In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security (an agency created in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks) released a series of reports about national security threats. One of these reports was about the threat from right-wing violence. While it downplayed the threat from right-wing terrorists, it did warn that with the election of the nation’s first African American president, along with widespread economic hardship, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the threat of potential gun-control legislation, the climate would be ripe for right-wing extremists to recruit and radicalize more people.
It went on to identify the ways in which Americans could become lured in and radicalized by these groups, and one group that DHS identified as being potentially vulnerable to radicalization were veterans who were having a hard time re-assimilating.
Republican pundits and lawmakers slammed the report, claiming it painted all veterans as potential terrorists (tellingly, the national commander of the VFW didn’t agree with that characterization). Under intense public pressure from Republicans, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano withdrew the report.
But Napolitano’s DHS was right. In addition to all the factors detailed in the report, the rise of social media gave jet fuel to right-wing extremists’ recruitment. From January 2008 to the end of 2016, according to data compiled by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and Type Investigations, of the 197 domestic terrorist plots (both foiled and executed), right-wing extremists accounted for 115 (or 58 percent), more than all left-wing and radical Islamic plots combined. Right-wing violence was also more deadly: nearly a third of their attacks resulted in fatalities.
But federal law enforcement didn’t (or wouldn’t) recognize the growing threat from right-wing extremists, instead focusing on the much smaller threat from Islamic extremists. When right-wing extremists did commit terrorist attacks, officials — and the media — often refused to call them “terrorists” or charge them as such.
The law enforcement agents who knew right-wing extremists posed a threat were pushed aside. According to a Time article from August 2019: “In more than a dozen interviews … current and former federal law-enforcement and national-security officials described a sense of bewilderment and frustration as they watched warnings go ignored and the white-supremacist terror threat grow. Over the past decade, multiple attempts to refocus federal resources on the issue have been thwarted. Entire offices meant to coordinate an interagency response to right-wing extremism were funded, staffed and then defunded in the face of legal, constitutional and political concerns.”
This willful blindness and even denial of right-wing terrorism was no accident. Department of Homeland Security officials recently went public with the fact that they had been pressured to downplay the threat of white supremacists and right-wing extremists. That pressure came, ultimately, from the White House.
Terrorism Under Trump
While it’s clear that right-wing terrorism has been around since long before Trump’s presidency, it’s also undeniable that it has skyrocketed during his tenure. Since the year Trump took office, the number of right-wing terrorist attacks has tripled. At least 87 people were killed by far-right terrorists during his first three years in office; if the 58 people killed by Stephen Paddock in the 2017 Las Vegas massacre are included, the total climbs to 145. During that same time, Islamic extremists killed 17, and left-wing extremists killed four.
Yet the president stubbornly refuses to denounce white supremacists or right-wing terrorists; he won’t even utter the phrases. When pressed, he gives half-hearted, vague statements, claiming he doesn’t know anything about the group in question. If public outcry is great enough, he’ll eventually give a stilted, forced statement clearly written by someone else. If he truly does loathe white supremacists and right-wing terrorists, one has to wonder why, after four years, he continues to flail and claim ignorance when directly asked about them, and why it takes days for him to come up with a clear statement of condemnation.
Instead, the president usually defends right-wing terrorists by lying about the circumstances of the attack — such as in the case of Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse, where Trump said the young man charged with killing two people “did nothing wrong” and “exercised his God-given, constitutional, common law and statutory law right to self-defense.” Worse, Trump unethically pressured DHS officials to make public comments sympathetic to Rittenhouse.
Perhaps even more troublingly, in nearly every instance where the president is asked to denounce the latest right-wing extremist attack, he quickly pivots to blaming Antifa and the left. He continues to falsely claim it is the left who is responsible for all the violence, painting an image of cities across America engulfed in flames and lawlessness. These sentiments are echoed throughout the right-wing media bubble, further stoking hatred and violence toward leftists, Democrats, and the marginalized communities long hated by the right.
This May Be Just the Beginning
The terrorist plot against Whitmer and the Michigan state government was the entirely predictable result of the president’s incessant defending and encouraging violent extremists. But it probably isn’t the last we’ll see from them.
It is no longer hyperbolic to fear that, should Trump lose the election in November, the right-wing terrorists he has been courting might commit violence aimed at keeping their commander in chief in power. In fact, retired military commanders Lt. Colonels John Nagl and Paul Yingling wrote an open letter to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley warning that Trump, a “lawless president” who is “following the playbook of dictators throughout history” … “is assembling a private army capable of thwarting not only the will of the electorate but also the capacities of ordinary law enforcement.” (Italics mine). While Nagl and Yingling were referring to militarized Homeland Security agents, the warning is equally, if not more, relevant to the threat from decentralized, radical right-wing extremists.
Trump has demonstrated, again and again, that he is willing to deploy paramilitary forces against his political opponents. And we have seen how frequently right-wing, civilian extremist groups work hand-in-hand with these forces (see: a Portland police lieutenant recently caught conspiring with the far-right group Patriot Prayer).
In fact, Trump has urged his followers to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” a thinly veiled order to engage in voter intimidation. He consistently repeats the unfounded (and possibly GRU-sourced) conspiracy theory that the upcoming election is somehow “rigged” or fraudulent — stirring up anger and desperation among his followers. He repeatedly paints Antifa and the left as violent, existential threats to our nation. This rhetoric incites stochastic violence.
And it appears to be working. In public, right-wing extremists have either “predicted” or openly threatened violence if Trump doesn’t win the election. In private, according to organizations that monitor far-right extremist groups, there has been intensifying conversations about these very topics, and many of these groups are preparing to take up arms as vigilantes to “support law and order.”
The threat of right-wing terrorist attacks in the wake of the upcoming election is clear. We can only hope that in smashing the terrorist plot that was brewing in Michigan, law enforcement — both state and federal — will now, finally, take the threat of right-wing extremists seriously.