Mainstreaming Domestic Terrorism

In April 2009, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report leaked to the public entitled “Right Wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” was released within months of President Obama’s inauguration, sketching the broad strokes of a nascent white nationalist backlash. Yet the report was pilloried by a variety of pundits on the right. However, the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina—and a rising tide of extremist attacks before it—confirm many of the worst predictions in the report.

The DHS report focused on several key themes. Officials correctly theorized that the election of Barack Obama could “drive efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda….” The number of far-right organizations increased from 139 in 2008 to 1,360 in 2010.

The DHS report also frequently highlights the importance of economic recessions, free trade agreements, and a “perceived” loss of jobs in both manufacturing and construction. Unfortunately, this was one of the least commented on passages from the report. The U.S. lost more than five million jobs in manufacturing between the beginning of the Great Recession and 2014, and many of those losses can be blamed on free trade agreements. Wages are flat; many of the jobs gained since the recession actually pay less overall. Far from being a “perceived” issue, the government could have fully examined the very real connections between widespread economic pain and the growth of far-right “patriot” and hate group movements.

Conservative commentators attacked the report immediately, but not because it lacked a nuanced discussion of economics. Peter Roff (among many others) commented in U.S. News and World Report that the DHS report represented “little more than a nine page screed against phantoms.” Roff pointed to a report issued by the Bush administration on left wing extremism as being substantively different and less political than that of the Obama administration’s. He also criticized the DHS for indicting “people who hold certain political beliefs that are well within the mainstream of American political thought….” In this he proved to be far more correct than he might have imagined.

The massacre of nine African Americans by Dylann Roof, a self-described white nationalist, at the Emanuel AME Church is now revealing the connections between far-right organizations and mainstream conservative figures. It also validates the 2009 DHS report. Days after the brutal shooting, Roof’s political manifesto emerged online. In some sense it is a standard white nationalist screed. Yet Roof points to organizations that influenced his thinking—including the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), a lesser-known but influential group on the right. The Council of Conservative Citizens emerged in 1985 as a modern day descendant of the White Citizens’ Councils of the Old South. Several prominent businesspeople and politicians formed the backbone of the early organization. Today Jared Taylor, a prominent “racial realist,” serves as the spokesperson for the group. Opposition to interracial marriage is a key part of the organization’s platform, as is the promotion of supposedly conservative Christian values. The groups members have vociferously spoken out against the civil rights movement, denounced the legacy of Martin Luther King, and engaged in the crudest possible racial characterizations of African Americans.

The CCC has also long been tied to conservative politicians, even after the Republican Party’s connection to the group became known in the late 1990s. Leonard Wilson, a former committeeman for Alabama, is on the organization’s board. Former Majority Senate Leader Trent Lott was a member while serving as a representative. Jess Helms had close ties to the organization while serving in the North Carolina State Senate and as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Dozens of conservatives have spoken at CCC events over the years or have connections to the group, including Congressperson Roger Wicker of Mississippi; Haley Barbour, former governor of Mississippi and chairman of the Republican National Committee; Senator Gary Jackson of Mississippi; Representative Bob McKee of Tennessee; and Mike Huckabee during his time as Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas. Bob Barr, a former Libertarian Party Presidential candidate in 2008, spoke before gatherings of the CCC on several occasions. Other conservative scions have connections to the groups as well, including Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.

In 1997, the CCC presented a Confederate Flag from the South Carolina Statehouse (a flag similar to the one later taken down from the same location by activist Bree Newsome in the aftermath of the Charleston shootings) to Jean-Marie La Pen of the National Front, a French white nationalist party. Three years before, Congress passed a measure condemning the Nation of Islam as an extremist group in the aftermath of a racially charged speech given by spokesman Khalid Abdul Muhammad, but it has failed to issue a similar condemnation of the Council of Conservative Citizens in the aftermath of Charleston. Indeed, there has been little official effort to recognize the attack as an act of domestic terrorism at all.

A recent report by the New America Foundation analyzed domestic terrorist attacks by jihadists and far-right wing groups and lone attackers since September 11, 2001. They found that far-right extremists have killed nearly twice as many people as Islamist radicals. These findings not only help repudiate the singular focus on the Islamist threat within America—they also call for a popular recognition of the domestic terror threat posed by the extremist-right. The media is largely ignoring the issue, however, save for the New York Times, Al Jazeera, and a few other publications. A recent Syracuse University study found wide discrepancies in the tenor of the coverage given to domestic terror attacks by extremists not affiliated with Islam or the political left. According to the CCC report.…“It indicates that news organizations experience a degree of cognitive dissonance when non-Muslims (or individuals affiliated with the dominant hegemonic culture) commit terrorism-like violence.” Despite the media’s blind spot, the attacks (and attempted attacks) that have taken place since the DHS report in 2009 reveal a stark picture. They echo the warning that “right- wing extremism is likely to grow in strength” if trends continue.

In April 2009, Richard Poplawski, a white supremacist, killed three police officers in Pittsburgh in the second worst assault on law enforcement since the World Trade Center attacks. In 2012, neo-Nazi Wade Michael Page shot six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. That same year Jerad and Amanda Miller killed two police officers in an ambush in Las Vegas; they left a swastika and a Gadsden flag on the bodies before moving on to murder a shopper at a nearby Walmart. There has also been a string of failed or interrupted attacks by a variety of individuals on the extreme right as well, including the attempted bombing of a Martin Luther King Day parade in Spokane, Washington. Authorities also uncovered an effort by white supremacists to assassinate Barack Obama and carry out a campaign of mass murder against anonymous African Americans. The number of assaults against law enforcement officials is a notable element of many of the attacks. A recent survey of domestic law enforcement agencies recorded that 74 percent of jurisdictions found “anti-government extremists” to be a more serious threat than Islamic militants.

The rhetoric and vitriol that is commonplace in white nationalist and far-right circles is also making its way into the mouths of public figures on the right. Anne Coulter has long made a living writing inflammatory books like How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must): The World According to Ann Coulter, If Democrats Had Any brains They’d be Republicans, and Mugged: Racial Demagoguery from the Seventies to Obama. She has managed to carve out a place in the mainstream media while also essentially providing many of the talking points of white nationalists.

In her latest book, Adios America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole, she ups the ante. A bevy of white nationalists are cited or directly mentioned in the book. In chapter ten, she cites the work of white nationalist Peder Jensen, better known as Fordjman, who Norwegian mass-murderer, Anders Breivik, cited over 100 times in his manifesto. She also cites Robert Spencer, co-founder of “Stop Islamization of America.” He appears numerous times in Breivik’s manifesto as well and is banned from entering the United Kingdom. Peter Brimelow’s work also appears. Brimelow, who once spoke at the mainstream Conservative Political Action Council, has called for Texas to secede, the organization of a campaign to protect “white rights,” and the abolition of Martin Luther King Day—which Brimelow contends has turned into a day of “anti-white indoctrination.” Additionally, he has close connections to Jared Taylor of the Council of Conservative Citizens.

If Anne Coulter is the pundit channeling white nationalists, then Donald Trump is the candidate giving voice to many of their views. Trump is currently polling second among prospective presidential candidates, even as he unleashes a tirade of invective at immigrants. His candidacy is also garnering the support of groups on the far right, including the Council of Conservative Citizens. Fellow Republican candidates are trying to distance themselves from Trump, but it is more difficult for them to distance their party from the tenor of his remarks.

While still clearly a minority, the far right—not Islamic terrorists—now present the greatest clear and present danger inside of America. The 2009 DHS report has proved prescient in many respects, and it should be revived and revisited in the wake of the Charleston massacre and the attacks and plots of others on the right. The problem is exacerbated by the inability of mainstream media and the Republic Party to confront violent acts committed by non-Muslim assailants as actual terrorism. While Republicans have called government reports about far-right groups “propaganda,” events and the statistics are proving the DHS largely correct. And all the while the rhetoric of extremists continues to seep into the mainstream.


 Sean Posey is a photographer, activist, historian, and chair of the Urban Department at the Hampton Institute, a working class think tank.