In her final show on network TV, media maven Oprah Winfrey shared some of her life lessons with viewers. One of the most profound was that our life is always talking to us, but it’s up to us to listen. She said, “Your life is always speaking to you. First it whispers … it’s subtle, those whispers. And if you don’t pay attention to the whispers, it gets louder and louder .… You don’t pay attention to that, it’s like getting a brick upside your head. You don’t pay attention to that, the whole brick wall falls down.”
The proverbial brick wall is falling down.
The violent events that unfolded last week—three acts of domestic terrorism apparently at the hands of conservative white men—were nothing like we’ve seen in modern times. For many, these depraved acts remain unlinked. But for those who have been paying close attention, they are clearly connected to a larger pattern of right-wing extremism and white nationalism that has been gaining steam over the last ten years: a whisper that politicians and law enforcement have willfully chosen to ignore.
In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Intelligence and Analysis issued a report meant exclusively for internal use. The report outlined very clearly that future terrorism threats were not coming from outside our borders as the right wing would have us believe, but rather from homegrown domestic terrorists. The report argued that the 2008 economic collapse, combined with the election of the nation’s first Black president, presented fertile ground for the rise in hate-fueled right-wing extremism.
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Before officials could even begin to unpack what it exposed, the report leaked within conservative circles, which were outraged by the term “right-wing extremism.” Those conservatives pressured the DHS, led at the time by Janet Napolitano, to rescind the report. Faced with mounting political pressure and against its better judgment, DHS not only caved to the pressure, but also disbanded the unit in charge of domestic terrorism work.
Fast-forward nine years and this report reads like the worst trailer to a disaster film ever seen. Pipe bombs, mass shootings, and militia movements: All were outlined as possibilities of actions that heavily armed right-wing extremists would take to slow the pace of what they believe is some kind of multi-racial Antifa taking over their lily-white America.
In recent years, we’ve watched one mass shooting after another. Time after time, elected officials and media outlets refer to each white male perpetrator as a “lone wolf” or “mentally unstable,” and refuse to investigate or even analyze the pathology of white male rage and white nationalism. We’ve witnessed angry white militia members occupy government land in Princeton, Oregon, and right-wing extremists march proudly down a street, unmasked and emboldened, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Each incident has gotten louder and louder, with last week sounding alarms around the nation that the United States is under siege.
While some will argue that Donald Trump has nothing to do with this epic failure to heed DHS’s warnings, as he wasn’t president at the time of the report, that assessment is short-sighted and couldn’t be further from the truth. Even before he entered the 2016 presidential race, he was a staunch supporter and leader of the “birther” movement, which questioned the legitimacy of President Barack Obama’s ascent to the White House, claiming he wasn’t American. Trump then launched his 2016 bid for the presidency by stoking racial resentment against undocumented immigrants, referring to them as rapists and murderers. Since he took office, he has only continued to wave the flag of white nationalism. Trump has placed a target on the backs of everyone who isn’t white, straight, cisgender, male, and Christian. His initial hirings of known white nationalists like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Jeff Sessions only reaffirmed his commitment to right-wing extremism.
More recently, when the president of the United States failed to condemn the right-wing extremists marching in Charlottesville, he signaled to the extremists that he understood them—“there are good people on both sides.” And when he declared last week that he was a “nationalist,” he was saying to these groups that not only does he understand them, he’s with them.
Trump’s rhetoric and policy priorities have only served to embolden the right-wing extremism that the DHS tried to warn us about nine years ago.
Daryl Johnson, the former head of DHS’s domestic terrorism department, penned an op-ed last year in the Washington Post, titled “I warned of right-wing violence in 2009. Republicans objected. I was right.” In it he discusses how this heavily armed group of extremists, fueled by hate and powered by entities like Fox News, numbers in the tens of thousands. They are anti-government, anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-fill-in-the-blank. And yet the media has failed to responsibly cover what has clearly become a considerable threat—the terrorists conservatives have warned us about don’t come from far-off places, with dark skin, and practice a different religion. No, they are white conservative men whom the right-wing extremist propaganda machine has convinced that life would be perfect for them and “go back to normal” if only it wasn’t for these pesky minorities getting in the way of them living the good ole American dream.
While we have seen some social media companies and traditional media networks take a stand against the Alex Joneses of the world, cable news and the non-stop coverage of Trump and his rallies have become a right-wing extremist propaganda machine. For instance, following the series of pipe bombs mailed to CNN and prominent Democrats, cable news outlets continued to cover a Trump rally where his supporters were chanting “CNN sucks” and “lock her up” about people whose lives were just threatened, further normalizing this behavior.
The acts of domestic terrorism that we watched last week aren’t the acts of a deranged and unconnected few—they are in fact threads of a larger fabric of hate that has a stranglehold on this nation. Ignoring that fact doesn’t make it untrue or disappear. All it does is leave us unprepared and vulnerable to the next attack.
So, the question now is, do we begin to take steps to hold our country’s leaders accountable, or do we continue to pretend like these acts of violence aren’t predictable and predictors of a much larger issue—armed and unchecked right-wing extremism?