Paranoid rise of the militant right: Inside the growing threat of domestic extremism

The DOJ has announced plans to focus more resources on domestic extremists. What's motivating this violent fringe?

By Heather Digby Parton


Published October 16, 2015 12:01PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

A startling quote from a Justice Department official this week, which went largely unnoticed should have added some perspective to a number of current political debates. It came from Assistant Attorney General John Carlin, who heads up the DOJ's National Security Division.

Carlin said:

"We recognize that, over the past few years, more people have died in this country in attacks by domestic extremists than in attacks associated with international terrorist groups."

If the American people knew this, wouldn't they be justified in asking what in the world is going on here? After all, we spend massive amounts of money on anti-terrorism security, both here and around the world, and yet we shrug our shoulders at the body count from domestic terrorism?

The president just this week announced that our longest war, the war in Afghanistan, would have to be continued with all the costs and sacrifices that entails, and the political establishment nodded sagely and agreed that there was little choice if we wanted to keep Americans safe. We are very committed to fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here. But somehow our own homegrown terrorists don't seem to have created quite the same level of concern.

Of course, there are reasons for that.

Recall that when the Obama administration first took office, the right staged a full blown hissy fit over a Homeland Security report which noted the potential for violence among right-wing extremists in the wake of the election of the first black president, owing also to a hostility to immigration and the potential for military veterans to be radicalized in a bad economy.

"The department is engaging in political and ideological profiling of people who fought to keep our country safe from terrorism, uphold our nation's immigration laws, and protect our constitutional right to keep and bear arms," said Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis.

The reaction was so hysterical that the DHS ended up retracting the report and drastically reducing the number of analysts studying the issue. In 2011 the Washington Post reported:

The decision to reduce the department’s role was provoked by conservative criticism of an intelligence report on “Rightwing Extremism” issued four months into the Obama administration, the officials said. The report warned that the poor economy and Obama’s election could stir “violent radicalization,” but it was pilloried as an attack on conservative ideologies, including opponents of abortion and immigration.

In the two years since, the officials said, the analytical unit that produced that report has been effectively eviscerated. Much of its work — including a digest of domestic terror incidents and the distribution of definitions for terms such as “white supremacist” and “Christian Identity” — has been blocked.

Multiple current and former law enforcement officials who have regularly viewed DHS analyses said the department had not reported in depth on any domestic extremist groups since 2009.

The river of blood from mass shootings and various extremist threats seem to have convinced them that this is not something they can ignore any longer, regardless of the political pressure. They are even creating a new position called the "Domestic Terrorism Counsel," which will aid prosecutors around the nation with strategy and legal analysis.

In making the announcement, Carlin pointed out that terrorists can be motivated by "the full spectrum of hate," including bigotry, anarchism and racism. Considering FBI chief James Comey's rather startling assertion that the Charleston massacre did not fit the definition of terrorism, this would seem to be a change of direction for the DOJ.

Surprisingly, Carlin also indicated that law enforcement he talks to around the country is specifically concerned about so-called sovereign citizens who reject all government authority. These would be the Cliven Bundy types who don't recognize the federal government. They are in league with other right-wing extremist like the Oath Keepers, who also reject the authority of the federal government, but they do it in the name of the U.S. Constitution, along with militias and 2nd Amendment zealots, all of whom are armed to the teeth.

Nobody knows what influences someone to act on extreme ideology, but there are some common threads. Social media seems to be one way in which fanatics of all ilks find inspiration and common cause with others, as well as a vehicle to tell their own stories. But since anti-government sentiment seems to be the number one concern at the moment (even surpassing the "lone wolf" domestic islamic terrorist threat), one wonders if the Republican candidates for president might want to think a little bit about their rhetoric on the stump.

Here's Ted Cruz talking to an Iowa audience about the Democratic debate:

“It was more socialism, more pacifism, more weakness and less Constitution,” he told about 100 people crammed into a motel lobby in Kalona, a small town in southeastern Iowa. “It was a recipe to destroy a country.”

Speaking after the campaign event with reporters outside the Dutch Country Inn, Cruz acknowledged that he hadn’t actually watched the debate. During much of it, he was stumping at a Pizza Hut a half-hour away.

But he had firm views on what viewers saw.

“We’re seeing our freedoms taken away every day and last night was an audition for who would wear the jackboot most vigorously. Last night was an audition for who would embrace government power for who would strip your and my individual liberties,” he said.

"Auditioning for the jackboot"? You have to give him credit for a colorful turn of phrase. But as Ed Kilgore pointed out, this isn't just benign hyperbole:

Cruz is one of those presidential candidates (along with Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee for sure; the exact position of several others is unclear) who claim the Second Amendment gives Americans the right to revolutionary violence against their own government if it engages in “tyranny” or doesn’t respect our rights...isn’t it possible, perhaps even likely, that at least a few of his supporters might think he’s signaling that the time is near to get out the shooting irons and start executing the Tyrant’s agents?

Nobody can or should curtail free speech, whether it's on the internet or on the campaign trail. Law enforcement has to respect the civil liberties of everyone, even anti-government crazies. But Ted Cruz is running for president of the United States, the very government he is railing against. And it's irresponsible, not to mention incoherent, for him to encourage this level of paranoia. If he's doing it solely for political purposes it's feckless and ill-considered.  If he means it, it's worse.

There is probably no way to know exactly how much influence these insurrectionist conservative leaders have on the extreme fringe.  But at the very least this foul rhetoric does little to discourage the violent impulses of a group of people who are already unaccountably angry and are armed to the teeth.

Federal law enforcement will not look at these political leaders as the inspiration for anti-government terrorism and it shouldn't. They'll be looking at much more prosaic forms of influence. But the rest of us shouldn't let them off the hook. There's a violent impulse in our culture that's expressing itself in all sort of ways these days. It's hard to imagine anything more dangerous than political leaders encouraging it.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton