Wed, Jul

A Quashed Obama-Era Report on Right-Wing Extremism Could Have Saved Lives


GUEST COMMENTARY - A few days ago, a white supremacist murdered three innocent Black people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville. Like the shooter in Buffalo and Dylann Roofin Charleston, he had a manifesto that espoused white nationalist talking points and conspiracy theories. The prevalence of racist attacks in recent years underscores the alarming rise of right-wing domestic terrorism in the United States. The problem I want to address is: Who at the highest levels of government is to blame for this?

In this instance, you can place much of the blame at the feet of Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made it his mission to erase the country’s history of anti-Black violence in his state’s education system. The Biden administration could surely utilize the bully pulpit more to attack domestic terror (after all, their FBI director, Chris Wray, has stressed that one of the greatest threats to U.S. democracy is right-wing extremism). And of course, you cannot talk about the surge in right-wing terror without discussing Donald Trump, who famously refused to denounce white supremacy. But an overlooked source of the problem is that the Obama administration kowtowed to Republican lawmakers and talking heads as soon as they criticized a 2009 report sounding the alarm about the threat of right-wing extremism.

The prescient report angered a slew of House Republicans who called for Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano to be fired. Then-House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) described the report as including “about two-thirds of Americans, who, you know, who might go to church, who may have served in the military, who may be involved in community activities.” (As an aside, imagine what Boehner must think of himself a decade later describing actual terrorists as church-going community leaders. It is darkly amusing.). After the backlash from Republicans, the Napolitano-led DHS rescinded the report and the department dedicated to tracking domestic terrorism was, as The New York Times described, “essentially disbanded.”

Let’s not mince words here: The Obama administration caved to GOP pressure. And because of not wanting to anger Republicans, over a decade later, that analyst’s fears have materialized. 

Yes, that’s right, the Obama administration continued to give Republicans exactly what they wanted by peeling back much of its work on countering political violence. DHS cut the number of personnel studying domestic terrorism unrelated to Islam, canceled state and local law enforcement briefings, and held onto almost a dozen reports on extremist groups. There was some talk in the administration about the potential harm it would do to turn a blind eye to those groups. And yet, that’s precisely what the White House did, deferring to Republicans and ultimately contributing to this dangerous moment in history.

Let’s not mince words here: The Obama administration caved to GOP pressure. And because of not wanting to anger Republicans, over a decade later, that analyst’s fears have materialized. Rather than ignoring the cries from House Republicans as well as conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh—who claimed that “there is not one instance they can cite as evidence where any of these right-wing groups have done anything”—the Obama administration bowed its head to the mob and neutered its own ability to combat domestic terrorism.

The results of that ill-advised decision? In the 14 years since the report was released and then quashed, right-wing groups have increased the size of their ranks and unleashed violence against marginalized individuals with growing frequency. In addition, they have increased their presence in the nation’s militaryand policing institutions. Far-right extremists’ infiltration of the armed forces and law enforcement now poses an internal threat to the state’s security apparatus.

Washington Post analysis explains that since 2015, right-wing extremists have been involved in 267 domestic terrorist plots or attacks, resulting in 91 fatalities. The Post shows that a majority of those deaths were caused by white supremacists who targeted Jewish people, Black people, immigrants, and those who identify as LGBTQIA+. Republicans in 2009 fully mobilized themselves against the DHS’ foresighted report warning of the mounting potential for reactionary violence. In the face of that pressure, the Obama administration rescinded the report and then largely ignored the threat of right-wing terror.

The Biden administration has an opportunity to rectify this problem. As the former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Sherrilyn Ifill pointed out in the wake of the killing in Jacksonville this past weekend, the administration could declare white supremacist violence a national emergency. With nothing more than the president’s signature, the administration would be able to direct federal resources to combat the threat posed by far-right extremists. Congress can end a national emergency, but imagine the sheer backlash congressional Republicans would face for attempting to force a vote to eliminate an effort to correct a problem… they quite literally created.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the tragic shooting of three innocent Black people in Jacksonville. Again, Ron DeSantis’ crusade against minorities in his state and the Trump administration deserve the lion’s share (full stop). But the DHS’ silenced report from 2009 could have saved lives. People would still behere, white nationalists would likely not be marching in the streets, and we would have actual protocols in place to fight against this form of domestic terrorism. However, that is not the world we live in. We are here and now we must learn our lesson about what happens when well-meaning people lack sufficient political spine to fight with the malignant cancer known as right-wing extremism.

(Chris Lewis (He/Him) is a senior researcher on the Governance Team at the Revolving Door Project. He holds a BA in Political Science from the George Washington University. Chris has worked for several campaign organizations and progressive watchdog groups such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Accountable.US, and Media Matters for America.)