Twenty‐eight years ago today, two Army veterans utilized a truck bomb in Oklahoma City to kill 168 people, including 19 children. It was the high watermark of right‐wing violent extremist activity in the 20th century, justified by its key perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, as a reaction to alleged and actual state‐sponsored violence against other Americans.
McVeigh had been inspired by a small but influential white supremacist novel called The Turner Diaries which espoused a “leaderless resistance” concept. The author, William Luther Pierce III, wrote it under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald and went on to found the white supremacist National Alliance.
After federal agents used lethal force in incidents involving white separatists Randy Weaver and his family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho (in 1992) and the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas (in 1993), Pierce’s novel became McVeigh’s blueprint for action.
Pierce and his novel influenced every major white supremacist activist of the 1980s and 1990s, as chronicled by authors such as Kathleen Belew and organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center. Individuals or groups inspired by Pierce’s work would go on to commit a range of crimes, including murder.
But if McVeigh and those with similar views thought his mass murder in Oklahoma City would spark the revolution against the “System” (i.e., the federal government) as described in The Turner Diaries, he and they were epically mistaken. The so‐called “leaderless resistance” model was flawed because it failed to recognize that successful revolutions do, in fact, need real leaders and real, unified organizations to carry them out.
While other acts of violence by white nationalists and similar extremists continued after the Murrah Federal Building bombing in April 1995, those engaged in such acts represented, at least politically, a violent, savage nuisance. They were not a credible threat to the survival of the Republic, because throughout the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, no political figure with a true national following, high name recognition, and even a modicum of charisma ever publicly embraced, much less sought the help of, the kind of element in American society that lived the violent white supremacism advocated by Pierce.
Until Donald Trump.
Trump’s election in 2016 and his entire term in office were embraced by white supremacist groups like the relatively new Proud Boys, who loved his anti‐immigrant, anti‐Black Lives Matter, “America First” rhetoric and policies. His anti‐establishment, pro‐Second Amendment stance was also embraced by right‐wing, armed militias like the Oath Keepers—a national organization heavily populated with former and even current members of the military and law enforcement communities.
And as Trump battled then‐candidate and former Vice‐President Joe Biden for the presidency in the 2020 election, Biden and presidential debate host Chris Wallace confronted Trump about the rising tide of right‐wing street violence in the country, particularly that perpetrated by the Proud Boys. When the Proud Boys were mentioned by name, Trump’s response was telling:
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump declared. “But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right‐wing problem.”
Just over two years after the attempted coup in which the Proud Boys played a critical role in breaching the U.S. Capitol, former Proud Boy and cooperating government witness Jeremy Bertino told a federal jury that Trump’s “stand back and stand by” both surprised and elated him at the time.
“I believed we were supposed to be the leaders of the country, of the right‐wing. The tip of the spear.”
And so they were “the tip of the spear” on January 6, 2021.
Trump’s ascension to the presidency demonstrated how a politician with authoritarian traits and proclivities could, on relatively short notice, make use of those mobilized paramilitaries to try to seize & keep power.
It is true that to date, no direct evidence has emerged of a functional command‐and‐control relationship between the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, or other like‐minded groups and Trump himself. But Trump did not need a direct command control relationship with the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys. They were only too eager to take his de facto direction voluntarily.
Indeed, Oath Keepers founder and leader Stewart Rhodes had in December 2020 urged Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to remain in power, and even days after the failed January 6, 2021, insurrection attempted to reach Trump and offer the services of his group to help Trump stay in power. Rhodes was subsequently convicted of seditious conspiracy.
In the future, an executive branch in the hands of a more capable presidential authoritarian who understands how to effectively employ armed, right‐wing paramilitaries and as well as the levers of government power might succeed where Trump failed. Even a losing presidential candidate not currently an office holder could potentially make use of such paramilitaries to violently contest the outcome.
The fact that law enforcement at all levels is infiltrated by such elements—a fact the FBI recognized less than three years before the January 6, 2021 attempted insurrection—makes the prospect all the more plausible and perilous.
I’ve written previously about the need to strengthen our existing governmental institutions through the elimination of the thousands of political appointee positions in the federal bureaucracy that could be exploited by a future would‐be authoritarian president. The second critical component of that process and preventing another attempted right‐wing coup involves purging law enforcement and the U.S. military of any extremist elements. Being an active member of such an organization while simultaneously serving in a law enforcement capacity with the responsibility to enforce the law—fairly and impartially regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.—should be expressly prohibited.
In the case of existing law enforcement officers, frequent reviews of their records—the investigations they open, their quality, how impartial they are in obtaining and reviewing testimony, evidence, and related facts, etc.—can provide a fairly clear indicator of whether an officer is biased or is otherwise a cause for concern. There is nothing preventing Congress from enacting legislation to mandate such reviews by an independent body outside of the control or influence of the leadership or rank‐and‐file of a given federal law enforcement agency, and tying any federal funding for state and local police departments to how well state and local officials conduct such reviews.
A failure to take the kinds of actions I’ve described will ensure a further decline in public trust in government in general and law enforcement at all levels in particular. Governmental institutions increasingly perceived as illegitimate and even a threat to community safety will incentivize still more people to arm and organize locally (example: John Brown Gun Club chapters), setting the stage for violent confrontations that will kill and maim far more than those wielding weapons against their ideological opponents. Such a breakdown is the stuff civil wars are made of.