In a moment of candor during the 1992 presidential campaign, then-Republican National Committee chairman Rich Bond admitted that the constant right-wing attacks on the “liberal media” served a strategic purpose: “If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.”
This is a game GOP elites have played for decades, not only in targeting the media but also in shaping political discourse more broadly to their benefit.
Last month in El Paso, Patrick Crusius murdered twenty-two people, targeting a shopping mall popular with Mexicans, shortly after he appears to have posted a manifesto warning of a Hispanic “invasion” of the United States, a term popular among the race-baiting corners of the right (and with our president). The slaughter brought renewed attention to one of the most insidious of those Republican efforts to work the refs—a 2009 media frenzy over an otherwise obscure report produced by the Department of Homeland Security.
In 2009, Darryl Johnson, then directing a small domestic extremism unit in DHS’s Office of Intelligence Assessment, wrote a report warning that the conditions were ripe for the growth of right-wing extremism in the United States.
At the time, Johnson, a self-described conservative, did not predict a coming surge in violence. But he believed that the election of a black president, the financial crisis, and other factors created conditions in which far-right movements could gain new adherents.
The report was met with a concerted fury from the right-wing media and GOP officeholders. Then-House minority leader John Boehner called on then-DHS secretary Janet Napolitano to explain why her department used the word “terrorist” to describe “American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.” Then-congressman and now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that the report was political correctness run amok, designed to soft-pedal the threat of Islamic terrorism.
The outcry had its intended effect.
Napolitano apologized, the DHS pulled the report, and the domestic extremism unit was essentially disbanded.
Since then, however, Johnson’s fears have come to pass—and then some.
Killers motivated by extremist and white supremacist beliefs perpetrated massacres at a Sikh temple in 2012, a black church in Charleston in 2015, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, in 2018, and the recent attack in El Paso, to name a few. FBI leaders have told Congress that right-wing extremism has become the biggest source of deadly attacks on American soil, accounting for almost all domestic politically motivated murder over the past two years.
And yet, there is no concerted federal effort to confront the problem.
Prior to her departure from the DHS, Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen sought a regular briefing with President Trump on a range of topics, including domestic terrorism. She was rebuffed.
U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin, who chairs the House Oversight subcommittee with jurisdiction over Homeland Security, said recently that the DHS appears to have no “comprehensive strategy to address white supremacist violence.”
And the Brennan Center notes that the scope of far-right violence is impossible to fully ascertain because, despite a congressional mandate to do so, neither the FBI nor the Justice Department gathers accurate national data on it.
It’s not that greater investment in rooting out violent domestic extremism would stop every attack. But law enforcement has thwarted some potentially deadly threats in recent years, suggesting that greater attention to the seriousness of the problem would lessen their frequency.
Neither John Boehner nor Mike Pompeo were trying to encourage or defend right-wing extremism. And no doubt they were as horrified as anyone by the sickening events in El Paso.
Political parties, of course, always try to play the media environment to their advantage. As the old saying goes, politics ain’t bean bag.
But the right’s ability to shout down efforts to confront profoundly serious threats to our country’s well-being have had grave consequences.
In this case, working the refs wasn’t just a game. Johnson’s 2009 report was not in any serious sense a partisan gambit. The frenzied effort to quash it was.
We’re still dealing with the aftermath.
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INDY Voices—a rotating column featuring some of the Triangle’s most compelling writers—is made possible by contributions to the INDY Press Club. Visit KeepItINDY.com for more information.
JONATHAN WEILER is a teaching professor in global studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-author of Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide and Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.
NEXT WEEK: COURTNEY NAPIER, a Raleigh native, community activist, and co-host of the podcast Mothering on the Margins.