Two months ago, Republicans talked as if they had Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on the ropes. The news that Napolitano’s agency had drafted and distributed an assessment of “rightwing extremist activity,” sparked two months of attacks, denunciations, and outright mockery from GOP members of Congress and conservative activists. From his perch in the House, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Napolitano had “a lot of explaining to do.” On Twitter, Newt Ginrgrich demanded that the author of the report tender his resignation. At anti-tax Tea Parties, T-shirts and signs mocking the agency — “I am a rightwing extremist,” or “Are you on Janet’s List?” — were as visible as boxes of Earl Grey.
Then, on Wednesday, an 88-year-old retiree named James von Brunn was arrested after a shootout inside the Holocaust Museum that left security guard Stephen Johns mortally wounded. The details of von Brunn’s life and views spilled out across the airwaves and across the Internet, revealing ties to neo-nazi groups, virulent anti-semitism a belief in the racially charged conspiracy theory that President Obama was born in Africa. Notes found in his car and years of chat board and blog comments turned into a quick portrayal of Von Brunn as a right-wing, violent extremist.
The conservative criticism of DHS, which had been waning, became much quieter. TWI contacted many of the members of Congress who had either demanded Napolitano’s resignation or signed on to a resolution — which passed the House Homeland Security Committee unanimously — but none chose to address the “rightwing extremism” report or on the ongoing investigation into von Brunn. The only official comment any member of the Republican leadership came from Boehner to Brian Beutler of TPMDC, a harshly-worded warning that “trying to exploit this awful tragedy to score political points — from the right or the left — is simply grotesque.”
Coming only ten days after the murder of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller and only nine days after the murder of Pvt. William Long, a military recruiter in Arkansas, the Holocaust Museum shooting has propped open a door on the complicated politics of extremism. Republican politicians, who have flirted with the rhetoric of “revolution” and attacks on the president’s “fascism,” are hesitant to push the envelope for fear of the sort of political backlash that hit them in the 1990s. Conservative activists and pundits are taking a more pro-active stance, attempting to debunk any idea of a wave of extremist violence or, failing that, to define extremists like von Brunn as lone wackos or leftists.
Republicans have reason to worry about being tied to extremists who commit crimes influence by fringe, right-wing, or eliminationist ideology. One week after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, Dick Morris — then an adviser to President Bill Clinton, now a commentator for Fox News — sketched out the political effects of what was that the largest terrorist attack on American soil. “Temporary gain: Boost in [approval] ratings,” wrote Morris. “Permanent possible gain: sets up Extremist Issue vs. Republicans.”
Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.), who led a one-hour April 21 floor debate to attack Napolitano and the “rightwing extremism” report, used this very example to explain why the report was so dangerous. “Those of us who have a little age on us,” said Carter, “like I do, can think back to the Clinton administration and can remember how many times when anybody ever criticized the Clinton administration you would hear the First Lady then and now Secretary of State say, ‘Well, it’s all a plot by those right-wing extremists, those right-wing extremist organizations.’ President Bill Clinton would say, ‘Well, they don’t agree with my party and with what we’re saying here, but it’s really the people you’re hearing from who are right-wing extremists.’ They label talk show hosts as right-wing extremists. All this fear was generated about right-wing extremists.”
Carter did not immediately comment on the von Braun case or the DHS report to TWI, although Republican staffers handling the issue said that he had been “leading the charge.” There were other signs that enthusiasm about this — whether or not Republicans view it as being unfairly stoked by liberals — has simmered down on the Hill. On May 6, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) submitted a resolution to the House Homeland Security Committee demanding that the DHS produce “all source materials used in the drafting of that Intelligence Assessment” as well as the roles that administration officials had in disseminating the report. The resolution sailed through committee and was referred to the House calender on June 4, four days after the Tiller murder, when it also picked up co-sponsorships from Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). But it has stalled since then, and Bachus and Young did not respond to calls on the bill after the museum shooting. Republican staffers who did talk about the resolution explained that no one had signed on thinking that it would pass, and that it was “pretty much dead already.”
With a few exceptions, such as Beliefnet.com founder Steven Waldman, conservative activists and writers have welcomed the GOP’s radio silence while rejecting the idea that the DHS report has any relevance to the rash of extremist attacks. They’ve pointed out the report seemed to lump in returning Iraq War veterans and hardcore federalists with anti-Semites, and that the agency did not stand by its wording. “The DHS report is a sideshow,” said one McCain campaign veteran who spoke under condition of anonymity. “People beat them up because that report was full of politically stupid language. Napolitano apologized for it, and she had to, because it was tone deaf and stupid.”
At a press conference originally called to comment on how the Tiller murder would affect the battle over Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination, Randall Terry, whose Operation Rescue became identified with the hardcore abortion clinic protesters of the 1990s, attacked the DHS report and said that the agency had no right to monitor anti-abortion rights movement “Let me pre-empt all the bloggers in the world,” Terry said. “Here’s where the bloggers are going to head: the white supremacists and the pro-lifers really are terrorists, just like the paper from Homeland Security said… they’re going to go ‘See, she was right! Pro-lifers and these white militiamen from Idaho, they’re all terrorists!’” Anti-abortion activists, said Terry, already assume that the agency is abusing their civil liberties.
Other conservatives spent Wednesday explaining that von Brunn was not actually right-wing, and that his anti-Semitism and his conspiracy theories about the attacks of 9/11 pegged him as a left-winger. Leon Wolf of the conservative RedState.com wrote that the media’s treatment of the story — “because von Brunn is a racist, he must be a right-winger” was wildly off-base. “Von Brunn would have been banned within his first three comments of posting at RedState, but would likely have enjoyed a long career as a recommended diarist at DailyKos.” Michelle Malkin, a conservative columnist who spent several days asking why President Obama did not immediately respond to the murder of Pvt. William Long, pointed to von Brunn’s hatred of neoconservatives and cited an FBI visit to the offices of the Weekly Standard as proof that he was an “equal opportunity hater.”
“From what I can tell,” explained Jonah Goldberg, the author of the 2008 bestseller “Liberal Fascism” and a writer for National Review, “his hatreds echoed the kind of stuff we hear from the Kos crowd, Chris Matthews, Andrew Sullivan et al.” Goldberg called Von Brunn “objectively crazy,” but argued that “his hatreds would be easier to find at an ANSWER rally than at CPAC.”
The responses to von Brunn from some of the far-flung groups who attacked or appropriated the “rightwing extremist” report was not quite so definitive. The Thomas More Law Center, which filed a suit against the DHS on behalf of a veteran offended by the report, did not comment and warned that chief counsel Richard Thompson “would not be comfortable commenting at this point.” A spokeswoman for the Liberty Counsel, a legal group that offered its members “Right Wing Extremist” business cards, simply said that the cards were “not going to change” after the events at the Holocaust Museum.
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