Yesterday, Senate Republicans voted down a bill to strengthen the federal government’s ability to monitor domestic extremism. The practical implications of this legislative defeat are relatively modest. But it has much larger significance as another indicator of the Republican Party’s unwillingness to dislodge the faction of violent extremists that has gained a foothold on its right flank.
In its substance, the bill consisted of a few modest provisions that until recently would have been unobjectionable. It would have established a new office to monitor and prosecute domestic terrorism in each of the FBI, the Justice Department, and the Department of Homeland Security. It would have required regular reporting on domestic terror threats as well as a focus on “white supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration of the uniformed services.” It did not create new federal powers, define new crimes, or define additional groups as terrorist. In response to concerns from civil libertarians, it made clear it would conform “with applicable civil rights and civil liberties laws and regulations.”
The bill was defeated by nearly unanimous Republican opposition. What’s more revealing than the fact of the Republican opposition was its nature. Conservatives did not raise practical objections, but instead treated the very idea of cracking down on far-right extremists as an attack on their political allies.
“This bill would more accurately be called the Democrat plan to brand and insult our police and soldiers as white supremacists and neo-Nazis,” complained Rand Paul. “It’s like the disinformation board all over again,” added Josh Hawley, referring to a short-lived DHS office designed to combat disinformation, but which Republicans believed would be used to discredit conservative rhetoric. Hawley’s comparison is revealing — in both cases, he sees the legislation as a threat to his party’s coalition.
The grim truth is that they are correct to perceive this.
During the Trump era, several right-wing extremist organizations either formed, or expanded their reach in response to a president who articulated recognizable conspiratorial white-nationalist themes, and used wink-and-nod gestures to indicate their activity was welcome.
The most influential of these groups is the Oath Keepers. Stuart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers’ founder, helped plan for violent action on January 6, 2021, and dozens of the group’s members were arrested in conjunction with the attack. ProPublica has found a list of nearly 50 state and local Republicans involved with the Oath Keepers. One famous Oath Keeper is Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers, who helped promote the Trump-backed “audit” of the state’s 2020 election results and has gained a national brand as a result. Another influential Oath Keeper is Frank Eathorn, chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party and the leader of its efforts to defeat Liz Cheney.
Rogers is a former Air Force officer, and Eathorn is a former cop. Both personalize the Oath Keeper strategy of infiltrating both the security services and the GOP, and forming what is, at least in embryonic form, a paramilitary wing of the Republican Party.
Most Republican officials regard these figures as kooks, threatening to derail the party’s agenda with unproductive messages and tactics. But they also don’t want to risk a rupture with their allies.
When confronted with positions by their coalition partners they feel unable either to openly renounce nor to defend, an apparatchik’s standard response is to deflect. Marco Rubio’s statement is characteristic. Rubio attacked the bill on the grounds that the true extremism problem lies in the Democratic Party:
Rubio here is echoing the Fox News–promoted narrative that the Democratic Party is in league with violent extremists. If this was remotely true, of course, a natural response would be to enhance government monitoring of violent extremists. Why wouldn’t Rubio like the government to keep a close eye on the Marxists and antifa members who have rampaged the country out of loyalty to the agenda of Joe Biden?
The answer, of course, is that it’s not true. It is true that there are a handful of radical left-wing groups that have engaged in violence, and it’s also true that criminals in some cities used the George Floyd protests as cover to engage in looting and theft. But it’s not true that this violence has any connection to the Democratic Party agenda. (Indeed, antifa greeted Biden’s inauguration by marching to vandalize Democratic Party headquarters and chant “Fuck Joe Biden.”)
The Anti-Defamation League has tabulated 450 murders over the last decade carried out by political extremists. Of those, right-wing extremists committed about three-quarters, with Islamic extremists responsible for an additional 20 percent. Left-wing extremists were responsible for merely 4 percent of political murders.
The Republican mainstream is dismissing the danger, not because there are too few right-wing extremists to matter, but there are too many of them to risk alienating. The Republican Party mainstream may feel discomfort or even disgust at the white nationalists and vigilante networks inspired by Trump. But the Trump experience has shown that, at the end of the day, most of them prefer a white nationalist or a right-wing terrorist to a Democrat.