As Alt-America has grown, especially online, so has the violence that inevitably accompanies it: acts of domestic terrorism, hate crimes, and threats of civil war backed by a wave of citizen militias
In the days before he walked into Charleston’s Mother Emanuel church with a gun and murdered nine people, Dylann Roof put together a manifesto. It was a bizarre, rambling tract loaded with racial and political animus, much of it cribbed from white-supremacist groups with ties to South Carolina’s Republican establishment. In the final section, Roof wrote:
"I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me."
Roof ’s manifesto was reminiscent of a similar document penned in 2008 by a conservative Tennessee man named Jim David Adkisson. Adkisson was enraged by the looming nomination of a black man as the Democratic candidate for the presidency.
“I’m protesting the DNC running such a radical leftist candidate,” Adkisson wrote. “Osama Hussein Obama, yo mama. No experience, no brains, a joke. Dangerous to America, he looks like Curious George!” He was appalled by the race-mixing mores of modern times as exemplified by Obama’s mother: “How is a white woman having a niger [sic] baby progress?” he asked.
In July 2008, Adkisson walked into a Unitarian Universalist church in downtown Knoxville during a performance of a children’s musical, armed with a 12-gauge shotgun. He opened fire, killing two people and wounding seven more.
The image most Americans have when they think of terrorism is an act committed by someone wearing a turban. That is mostly a result of the al-Qaida attacks of September 11, 2001, and their lingering aftermath, especially a declared ‘war on terror’ that focused on battling radical Islamists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.
In much of the public imagination, Adkisson’s and Roof’s rampages were isolated incidents. In reality, however, they were key manifestations of a larger, more disturbing phenomenon, one which has been ignored or even actively discounted by elected officials and the mainstream media – rightwing domestic terrorism.
In the seven and a half years between those two attacks, domestic terrorism in America – acts that are plotted and executed on American soil, directed at US citizens, by actors based here – spiked dramatically. But hardly anyone noticed.
During that time span, there were 201 total cases of domestic terrorism in the United States – almost three times the rate of the preceding eight years. The large majority of these crimes were committed by rightwing extremists – some 115 in all, compared to 63 cases of Islamist-inspired domestic terror, and 19 cases of leftwing-extremist terrorism.
Rightwing extremist terrorism was more often deadly than Islamist extremism: nearly a third of incidents involved fatalities, for a total of seventy-nine deaths, whereas just 8% of Islamist incidents caused fatalities. However, the total number of deaths resulting from Islamist incidents was higher – 90 – due largely to three mass shootings in which nearly all the casualties occurred: in 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas, and in 2015 in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida, in 2016. Incidents related to leftwing ideologies, including ecoterrorism and animal rights actions, were comparatively rare: 19 incidents resulted in five deaths.
For at least a generation, rightwing homegrown extremists have been far and away the largest source of terrorism in the United States. The most damaging domestic terrorist attack ever committed on American soil was the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and injured another 680. Initially, media speculation focused on Islamic radical terrorists as the possible source of the terrorist attack, but the perpetrators, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, turned out to be white rightwing extremists.
Timothy McVeigh was convicted of setting off the bomb that killed 168 people.
Before Obama’s election in 2008 – and partly in anticipation of that event – the rate of rightwing domestic terrorist incidents began to rise dramatically, seemingly triggered by Jim David Adkisson’s crime. And it remained at that same high level for most of the Obama presidency.
In 2011, the Senate did hold hearings on the subject of right-wing extremist violence in the wake of neo-Nazi Wade Michael Page’s murderous rampage at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in which six worshippers died. At that hearing senators heard from Daryl Johnson, a veteran domestic-terrorism analyst. Johnson was unequivocal:
"The threat of domestic terrorism motivated by extremist ideologies is often dismissed and overlooked in the national media and within the US government. Yet we are currently seeing an upsurge in domestic non-Islamic extremist activity, specifically from violent rightwing extremists. While violent leftwing attacks were more prevalent in the 1970s, today the bulk of violent domestic activity emanates from the right wing."
Despite this grave reality, officialdom and the media have continued to focus only on terrorism threats plotted by Islamist radicals. Rightwing pundits in particular have viciously attacked and silenced anyone who tries to bring up rightwing violence in the framework of terrorism. They have grown touchy about their own ideological and rhetorical proximity to the extremism that is fueling the violence.
In American public life today there is an alternative dimension, a mental space beyond fact or logic, where the rules of evidence are replaced by paranoia. It is a space that has been opened up and fortified in no small part by rightwing media, and that has proven fertile ground for domestic terrorism.
Welcome to Alt-America.
Alt-America is an alternative universe that has a powerful resemblance to our own, except that it’s a completely different America, the nation its residents have concocted and reconfigured in their imaginations. In this other America, suppositions take the place of facts, and conspiracy theories, often pedalled by media outlets from Infowars to Fox News, become concrete realities. Its citizens live alongside us in our universe, but their perception of that universe places them in a different world altogether, one scarcely recognizable to those outside it.
Among other pathologies, many Alt-Americans freely fantasize, in print and on YouTube, about their desire to execute liberals, terrorists, “race mixers,” and other traitors. I call this desire eliminationism – a politics, and its accompanying rhetoric, whose goal is to excise whole segments of the population in the name of making it “healthy.”
This mindset is a common feature of authoritarianism. The Holocaust was a particularly horrifying case of eliminationist genocide perpetrated by an authoritarian regime. Eliminationist rhetoric lays the groundwork by dehumanizing, using the kind of talk that reduces human beings to vermin and diseases, such as when you hear immigrants described as “rats in a granary,” or Muslims as “a cancer” – beings fit primarily for elimination. The rhetoric gives tacit or explicit permission for the final essence, violent acts, beginning with hate crimes and escalating into mass roundups and genocide.
One of Alt-America’s most powerful and abiding effects is to displace people from a sense of concrete reality by putting them in an epistemological bubble that insulates them from facts, logic, and reason. From within this kind of bubble, objectifying other people, rendering those outside the bubble as the Other, and then demonizing them, is almost inevitable. Once other people are conceptualized this way, inflicting violence not only becomes simple but in fact may even appear to be necessary. Certainly, that is how they rationalize it.
This is the point at which Alt-America represents a real danger to American democratic institutions, threatening to displace them with a crude and frightening authoritarianism, enforced by state-sanctioned vigilantism.
This is how the repression of public discussion about the threat posed by rightwing domestic extremists works.
On April 4, 2009, Margaret Poplawski awoke sometime around 7am, and discovered that one of the two pit-bull puppies belonging to her son, Richard, had left a puddle on the floor. She woke him up and yelled at him to clean up the mess. A violent verbal shouting match erupted, and eventually Margaret called the cops to have Poplawski thrown out of the house.
When officers arrived, Margaret invited them in. She didn’t realize that her son was standing directly behind her holding an AK-47 and wearing a bulletproof vest. He opened fire on the cops at point-blank range, killing them both. When a third cop arrived on the scene, Poplawski killed him, too.
Poplawski, it soon emerged, was a classic far-right conspiracist. He left an easily followed trail of postings on the internet that gave the public a good deal of insight into his motives for gunning down three police officers. Many of these were on white- nationalist websites such as Don Black’s Stormfront, where Poplawski had an account to which he regularly posted. Poplawski was also a fan of conspiracy-mongers Alex Jones and Glenn Beck.
Poplawski believed that the federal government, the media, and the banking system were all largely or completely controlled by Jews. He thought African Americans were “vile” and non-white races inferior to whites. He also believed that a conspiracy led by “evil Zionists” and “greedy traitorous goyim” was “ramping up” a police state in the United States for malign purposes.
He had posted a link to Stormfront of a YouTube video featuring Glenn Beck talking with Congressman Ron Paul about concentration camps set up by Fema. (These nonexistent camps are a staple of rightwing conspiracies.) Many of his posts in the weeks leading up to the April 4 shootout indicated an increasing level of paranoia about a coming economic and political collapse under President Obama.
Poplawski appeared to have bought into SHTF/Teotwawki (Sh!t Hits The Fan/The End Of The World As We Know It) conspiracy theories hook, line, and sinker. The neo-Nazi Stormfront forums and the antigovernment Infowars site fueled his racist, antisemitic, and conspiratorial mindset.
But an astonishing thing happened to the Poplawski case when it was picked up and reported on by the mainstream media: most of the information relating to his white-supremacist background and motives vanished.
Instead, the leads of the news stories around the country focused on Poplawski’s dog peeing on his mother’s carpet as the incident that sparked the killings.
The New York Times at first completely ignored the white-supremacy aspect of the story, running an Associated Press story that only briefly alluded to Poplawski’s paranoid fears and instead focused on the role of the peeing dog. The MSNBC headline was “Fight over Urinating Dog Got Police to Ambush”; CNN’s was “Urinating Dog Triggered Argument Resulting in 3 Officers’ Deaths.” Only later, when a Times reporter filed a story, did any discussion of the killer’s background appear.
Unlike the mainstream media, law-enforcement analysts who studied domestic terrorism were not blind to the reality of what was happening, for Poplawski’s was not an isolated case.
On April 7, 2009, moved to action in part by the Pittsburgh incident, the federal Department of Homeland Security released an intelligence assessment titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” But this report too would be effectively suppressed by the rightwing media.
The DHS assessment had first been commissioned in 2008 by Bush administration officials and had just been completed when the Poplawski shootings occurred. Alarmed, DHS officials opted to hurriedly release it as a bulletin to “federal, state, local, and tribal counterterrorism and law enforcement officials,” citing the Poplawski incident as “a recent example of the potential violence associated with a rise in rightwing extremism.”
The DHS memo, like an earlier analysis by a Missouri law enforcement team, warned that conditions were ripe for a resurgence in rightwing extremism:
Historically, domestic rightwing extremists have feared, predicted, and anticipated a cataclysmic economic collapse in the United States. Prominent antigovernment conspiracy theorists have incorporated aspects of an impending economic collapse to intensify fear and paranoia among like-minded individuals and to attract recruits during times of economic uncertainty. Conspiracy theories involving declarations of martial law, impending civil strife or racial conflict, suspension of the US Constitution, and the creation of citizen detention camps often incorporate aspects of a failed economy. 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 report’s unambiguous language may have reminded mainstream conservatives just how close to the radical fringe they had drifted – and that evidently freaked them out. Their immediate response was not merely to deny any such proximity, but to express outrage that anyone would point it out.
A week later, a story in the right-wing Washington Times described certain aspects of the bulletin, namely, that it defined “rightwing extremism in the United States” as including not just racist or hate groups, but also “groups that reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority … It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.”
The howls of wounded indignation from the mainstream right were immediate. Michelle Malkin, one of the most widely read rightwing bloggers, promptly ran a post headlined “The Obama DHS Hit Job on Conservatives Is Real” in which she called it a “piece-of- crap report” that “is a sweeping indictment of conservatives.”
However, the report’s authors couldn’t have been more clear as to what it was about: it carefully delineated that the subject of its report was “rightwing extremists,” “domestic rightwing terrorist and extremist groups,” “terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks,” “white supremacists,” and similar, very real threats described in similar language. The people it described were so extreme in their views that they had the potential for violence.
The report said nothing about conservatives; the word never appeared in its text. Nonetheless, over the next few weeks, cable-news pundits and their guests repeated the narrative that the report had “smeared conservatives” as well as “our military veterans.”
The claim that veterans were implicated in the extremism arose from a portion of the bulletin warning that returning veterans who have been radicalized, or were already right-wing extremists, pose a particular threat.
The DHS report echoed an assessment made by the FBI a year before. In a July 2008 report titled “White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel since 9/11,” the FBI concluded that not only had neo-Nazis and other white supremacists successfully joined the ranks of American armed forces serving in Iraq—though it counted only about 200 of them—but that the hate groups from which they operated were also actively seeking to recruit military personnel already serving.
The DHS bulletin was not without analytical and methodological issues, but mainstream conservatives ignored these relatively minor flaws and instead created a loud, fake controversy over issues drawn from an intentional misreading and distortion of the bulletin. Over the next few weeks a national chorus of conservative pundits erupted, not just at Fox News but also on CNN, MSNBC, and elsewhere, asking why Homeland Security wanted to demonize veterans and conservatives.
On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly speculated:
This is the bottom line on this: The federal government has changed from a conservative-oriented federal government under the Bush administration to a liberal-oriented federal government under Obama …
So, of course, these people, instead of saying, you know, we might have some Muslim problems, maybe there’s a little cell somewhere talking to Pakistan and getting orders. No, it’s the Glenn Beck guys, but we don’t really have any evidence. But this is what’s on their mind because that’s the way they think.
Soon there was a clamor for the head of Janet Napolitano, the DHS director, from Rick Santorum, Rush Limbaugh, and a number of other prominent conservatives. Veterans’ groups – particularly the American Legion – jumped aboard the outrage bandwagon and began demanding that Napolitano apologize.
She eventually met with the commander of the American Legion and offered her apologies, at least for the wording of the section on veterans, but this apology never fully satisfied the rightwing pundits, who continued for years afterward to grouse that the DHS was “profiling conservatives as rightwing extremists.”
Fox hosts speculated that the DHS bulletin had really been intended to intimidate the Tea Party protesters, some of whom might fit the description of right-wing extremists in the bulletin. Many others were thinking along similar lines. The day before the protests, Rush Limbaugh told his radio audience, “This speech of Obama’s and the DHS report yesterday are timed for one reason, and that’s the Tea Parties tomorrow ... The DHS report ... there is no proof here, no proof offered, no evidence offered, that anything they project is true.”
Amid all this wild speculation, the DHS in short order proved prescient about the imminent likelihood of rightwing violence. On May 31, 2009, a radical “sovereign citizen” murdered an abortion provider, Dr George Tiller, in Topeka, Kansas, as he attended church services. Then, on June 11, an elderly white-supremacist, James Von Brunn, walked into the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and began shooting, killing a security guard before being shot himself.
There were many more such incidents to come.
In January 2016, an armed anti-government militia group occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters in protest the jailing of two ranchers for arson.
As Alt-America has grown, especially online, so has the violence that inevitably accompanies it: acts of domestic terrorism, hate crimes, and threats of “revolution” and “civil war,” backed by a wave of citizen militias. All of them gained impetus during the Obama years and there was a significant wave of such incidents in 2015 and 2016, very likely fueled by the Trump campaign.
Eliminationist rhetoric is common to Alt-America, as the public frequently saw in the Trump campaign. It was, after all, a campaign initially predicated on a racially charged conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States (a requirement for any president). The campaign’s opening salvo, against Mexican immigrants, was openly eliminationist in calling for their mass deportation, and soon included similar demands for Muslims and the LGBT community. Trump’s constant campaign message was unmistakable as to just how he intended to “make America great again”: get rid of these people, deport them, prevent them from ever entering the country in the first place, and lock up or silence the rest of them.
Indeed, the Trump campaign itself had an effect on the ground similar to that of eliminationist rhetoric generally: it seemingly gave permission, in its stubborn refusal to bow to “political correctness,” for people to act and speak in an openly bigoted and spiteful fashion. It was as though the campaign lifted the lid off the national id, and the violent, vicious tendencies that had been held in check for years came crawling right out. The murder, in Charlottesville, of the anti-racism protester Heather Heyer by a white supremacist was only the most visible example.
Domestic terrorism attacks in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and San Bernardino, California, in the fall of 2015 and the massacre of forty-nine people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the following summer, were all committed by nonwhites ostensibly motivated by Islamist extremism. In their wake various experts on terrorism and media pundits and government officials began raising concerns about the role of the internet in radicalizing Muslims and fueling such violence.
But the massive media and public attention to these incidents also underscored how disproportionate this response was compared to the response to acts of terrorism committed by those influenced by white supremacism or other kinds of far-right extremism.
Both media accounts and law enforcement officials were reluctant to identify Dylann Roof ’s rampage as domestic terrorism, despite the fact that it easily fit the FBI definition of terrorism: politically motivated acts of violence intended to influence policy and/or terrorize the public.
When an anti-abortion extremist shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in November 2015, and killed three people, and when a militia gang was arrested for plotting to bomb a Kansas Muslim community in October 2016, not only were the crimes not identified as domestic terrorism, but the cases received relatively little media and public attention. All of these incidents, like so many of the ones that came before them, had one thing in common: their perpetrators had been radicalized online. Dylann Roof spent most of his days reading alt-right websites.
It was little noted, despite plenty of evidence, that the same phenomenon believed to be fueling terrorist acts by Muslim radicals was occurring simultaneously on a large scale in a complete separate region of the internet: among radical white male nationalists of the alt-right. The people being radicalized were not brown-skinned foreigners who subscribed to a different religion, but young white men and women in white America’s neighborhoods and churches and colleges, white America’s sons and daughters.