Despite the complaining of politicians and commentators, a warning from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2009 was remarkably prescient.
The April 2009 report, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” said — as the title suggested — that right-wing extremists had seized on the election of U.S. President Barack Obama the previous November as a key point in their recruitment strategy.
According to the DHS:
Many rightwing extremists are antagonistic toward the new presidential administration and its perceived stance on a range of issues, including immigration and citizenship, the expansion of social programs to minorities, and restrictions on firearms ownership and use. Rightwing extremists are increasingly galvanized by these concerns and leverage them as drivers for recruitment.
While the report stipulated that it had “no specific information” stating that these elements were planning violent acts, the DHS did say that extremist groups were moving to “recruit and radicalize” military veterans in order to exploit their training and skills for their purposes, adding:
These skills and knowledge have the potential to boost the capabilities of extremists—including lone wolves or small terrorist cells—to carry out violence. The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today.
The report was also twisted and weaponized in far right circles online, as chain emails and social media posts painted its findings as overly critical of “pro-life Christians” and third-party political voters as a means to marginalize critics of the Obama administration. However, the document itself only mentions Christianity in a very specific instance:
Antigovernment conspiracy theories and “end times” prophecies could motivate extremist individuals and groups to stockpile food, ammunition, and weapons. These teachings also have been linked with the radicalization of domestic extremist individuals and groups in the past, such as violent Christian Identity organizations and extremist members of the militia movement.
The mention of veterans prompted David K. Rehbein, national commander for the American Legion veterans’ group, to send a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano criticizing the letter.
“I think it is important for all of us to remember that Americans are not the enemy,” Rehbein said in the letter. “The terrorists are.”
Let me be very clear: we monitor the risks of violent extremism taking root here in the United States. We don’t have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group; we must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence.
We are on the lookout for criminal and terrorist activity but we do not — nor will we ever — monitor ideology or political beliefs. We take seriously our responsibility to protect the civil rights and liberties of the American people, including subjecting our activities to rigorous oversight from numerous internal and external sources.
Regardless, right-wing broadcasters attacked the agency; Michelle Malkin, for example, called it a “hit job on conservatives.” And as CNN reported, radio hosts Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh also ranted about the DHS report on the air:
“You have a report from Janet Napolitano and Barack Obama, Department of Homeland Security, portraying standard, ordinary, everyday conservatives as posing a bigger threat to this country than al Qaeda terrorists or genuine enemies of this country like Kim Jong Il,” [Limbaugh] said, referring to the leader of North Korea.
“What does Big Sis say these right-wingers are concerned about?” [Savage] wrote on his Web site, referring to Napolitano. “Illegal aliens, the increasing power of the federal government, gun grabs, abortion and the loss of U.S. national sovereignty. In other words, anyone who is worried about preserving our borders, language, and culture is on Big Sis’ watch list.”
In August 2017, Daryl Johnson — the analyst who compiled the original report for the DHS — expressed vindication for his findings in an op-ed for the Washington Post, saying that “reinvigorated alt-right extremists” had organized in opposition to Black Lives Matter protests and same-sex marriage among other issues, and coalesced following Donald Trump’s election as Obama’s successor.
Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, militia extremists, and other radical right-wing zealots march side-by-side at pro-Trump rallies across the country. Trump’s endorsement of the border wall, the travel ban, mass deportations of illegal immigrants — these ideas were touted on white supremacist message boards merely 10 years ago. Now they’re being put forth as official U.S. policy. Such controversial plans have placated white supremacists and anti-government extremists and will draw still more sympathetic individuals toward these extremist causes along with the sort of violent acts that too often follow, like Charlottesville.
Johnson and his report gained even more visibility in the wake of the January 2021 right-wing attack on the U.S. Capitol, which tried (and failed) to stop Congress from upholding the will of the American people to confirm the election of U.S. President Joe Biden.
“This Capitol insurrection that we just had last week — some people were like OK, this is the climax of the story,” Johnson told NBC News shortly after the attack, which caused the deaths of five people. “No, it’s not. This is ushering in a new phase of violence and hostility.”
Other security experts slammed Republican lawmakers’ responses to both the original 2009 report and Biden’s vow to target white nationalists in his inauguration speech, according to an analysis published in January 2021 by USA Today:
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, said politicians’ incredulous response 12 years ago to what he and other experts knew to be “patently, undeniably true” about right-wing extremism helped set the tone for the past two administrations.
“Their capability to seriously monitor the domestic extreme right has been wiped out by their own stupidity and political cowardice,” Potok said. Instead, he added, it “became a manufactured controversy” over Obama and the Democrats disrespecting the troops.
Sean Smith, the former assistant secretary for public affairs for [Napolitano], called the reaction at the time “part of a deliberate attempt to create pseudo-scandal.”
“The Republicans are better at it,” he told USA Today. “They always have been better at it.”
Johnson’s findings were further corroborated in September 2021 when Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that his agency is currently conducting around 2,700 investigations concerning domestic terrorism — more than doubling the 1,000 or so open investigations underway in the spring of 2020.
Update 9/22/2021, 8:13 pm: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. -AG