The attempted takeover of the US Capitol by a group of pro-Trump insurrectionists — including military veterans — who aimed to disrupt certification of Joe Biden’s electoral college victory was a manifestation of rising right-wing extremist activity that has been ignored or downplayed for political reasons for years, former Department of Homeland Security officials and extremism experts say.
Since late last week, the seat of America’s legislature has been ringed by increasingly heavy layers of physical security measures meant to prevent a repeat of the 6 January attack. US officials have judged the threat to President-elect Biden’s inauguration to be so severe that National Guard troops have been quartered in the Capitol building itself for the first time since the country’s 1861-1865 civil war.
While initial reports cast the attack as a spontaneous event following a speech given by Trump that same day, court documents and further investigations indicate that it was carried out in part by numerous individuals with military experience.
For ex-Department of Homeland Security analyst Daryl Johnson, the number of veterans participating in the attack was not a surprise. In 2009, Johnson, then a supervisor of DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, authored a report on the danger posed by right-wing extremists. In it, he noted that veterans returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan could be targets for recruitment by extremist groups.
“These people are convinced that they’re freedom fighters, that they're fighting for our Constitution, and that they're patriots, so it doesn't surprise me that veterans are at the center of this… But the problem is they're on the wrong side of history, and their misperceptions and disinformation and egging-on by political leaders… has incited them to carry out these heinous acts,” he said.
Much of what Johnson calls “egging-on by political leaders” is now being attributed to Trump and his allies, who spent the nearly two months between Biden’s 3 November victory and the 6 January congressional certification stoking baseless claims that the election had somehow been stolen from him by malfeasance and fraud perpetrated in cities with large minority populations. Johnson worries that such sentiments — and the militancy of newly emboldened, radicalized Trump supporters — are not going away.
“You’ve got a hardcore set of supporters that have sworn allegiance to Trump, and who knows what type of things he's going to do after he's out of office… and you’ve got the Democrats in power now, which these groups tend to thrive under because they're fearful of gun restrictions and expanding minority rights and things that,” he said. “So even if we decided today to devote a lot more resources, money, time and attention to this problem, because they've had such a long time to gain momentum and recruit and radicalize it's going to take years to stem the momentum of these movements.”
When Johnson first warned of the danger posed by right-wing extremists, he was almost universally excoriated by Republican politicians and prominent figures in conservative media, all of whom accused him of smearing American service members or targeting conservatives for their political beliefs. By 2010, his team had been disbanded and he had left DHS to start his own consultancy.
Republicans have failed to take such domestic terror threats seriously, he explained, because the GOP “depends on these types of people to win elections and to get votes.”
“I think it's a deliberate political strategy on the part of Republicans and conservatives… to swing elections… by sowing this fear and creating these conspiracy theories,” he said. Johnson also singled out Trump himself for his culpability, adding that the president “has coddled these people and egged them on [throughout] his whole administration.”
Former DHS Assistant Secretary for Threat Prevention and Security Policy Elizabeth Neumann, who also helped stand up the White House Homeland Security Council during the George W Bush administration, said Republican elected officials — frequently prodded by right-wing personalities such as Alex Jones and Sean Hannity — often overreacted to attempts to raise the alarm about right-wing extremists. Even violent threats from militia groups or so-called “sovereign citizens” were protected by this overreaction because of a perception that any push to target domestic terror threats would lead to the targeting of gun owners.
“Nobody was articulating that everybody that is a part of a militia is going to kill a law enforcement officer… but there were some on the right that took that, and made it seem like ‘Oh, my gosh, they're spying on us… they’re gonna come after us,’” she said.
Neumann characterized the furor over Johnson’s work during the early Obama years as the doing of “really irresponsible elected officials”. She singled out her own party as the driver of a climate of fear among national security and law enforcement professionals that has prevented the threat of domestic terrorism from receiving the attention it deserves.
“Republican officials overreacted and used it as… probably a fundraising point or yet one more thing that they could politicize, like ‘they're now spying on Americans and…maybe we need to dismantle them,’” she said. “It was the Republicans that were irresponsible with it. And that forced this pendulum swing and had this chilling effect… over the course of the next 10 years.”
Yet in recent years, US officials have made attempts to raise the profile of domestic threats in the public consciousness.
In testimony before a House Homeland Security Committee hearing this past Setember, FBI Director Christopher Wray told representatives that racially motivated violent extremists account for most of his agency’s work on domestic terrorism threats.
"Within the domestic terrorism bucket… racially motivated violent extremism is, I think, the biggest bucket within that larger group. And within the racially motivated violent extremist bucket, people subscribing to some kind of white supremacist-type ideology is certainly the biggest chunk of that," he said.
But Neumann, whose work at DHS led her to also identify such extremists as a significant threat to the United States, said the broader benign neglect that characterized much of the US government’s posture towards violent right-wingers turned to mandated willful blindness in the lead-up to last year’s presidential election.
It was when Trump began making self-described anti-fascists — “antifa” — a centerpiece of his campaign rhetoric that DHS and the FBI started getting pressure from the White House to not talk about threats from right-wing extremists, she said.
“All of a sudden you see this big shift, and they're not allowed to report on white supremacism. Because you’ve got to focus on the left-wing violent extremists,” Neumann explained.
But the pressure on law enforcement to ignore violent threats from racially motivated extremists goes beyond that from President Trump, according to a former leader of the White Power movement who now fights right-wing extremism.
In a phone interview, Free Radicals Project founder Christian Picciolini said it’s “pretty clear” that white nationalists are part of the Republican base — and Republicans know it.
“I would bet my measly savings that you couldn’t find a single white nationalist who is a Biden supporter,” he said. “I think everybody… who is part of the right wing or the conservative side… they certainly have to admit that adjacent to their party are a lot of really unsavory characters like neo-Nazis, white nationalists, QAnon supporters [and] militia members.” Picciolini added that the failure of Republican leaders to acknowledge such elements within their coalition and excise them from it is “just shameful,” and will cost them votes in the future.
“To not acknowledge that there are people within their party who will probably call themselves Nazis before they call themselves Republican but are voting Republican… to not cut them out really is, I think, [long-term] political suicide,” he said.