The Defense Department defines terrorism as the “unlawful use of violence or threat of violence to instill fear and coerce governments and societies.” Given the official definition, it is easy to conclude that Americans live in an era of domestic terror. The January 6 insurrection, the Michigan militia plot to abduct and assassinate Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the home invasion and beating of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, and several mass shootings accompanied by racist manifestos all fit the description. In the background is the dark and dangerous reality of escalating hate crimes against Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and LGBTQ Americans, as well as increased violence targeting abortion clinics and death threats registering in the thousands against school board members, librarians, and election workers. Although Islamic terrorism and left-wing violence certainly exist on American soil, the predominant use and threat of violence intending to “instill fear and coerce governments” comes from the right wing. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s statistically exhaustive annual Murder and Extremism study, right-wing ideology was behind 76 percent of extremist murders in the United States from 2009 to 2019. The numbers remained roughly the same in 2020.
In 2022, I spoke to Javed Ali, a former Department of Homeland Security and FBI staffer. In light of January 6, I asked if bipartisan denouncement of right-wing domestic terrorism is possible. Ali prefaced his answer with the hope that he was wrong and the wish that it never happens, but then said that universal acknowledgment of the severity of the right-wing threat would require a bombing on the scale of Oklahoma City.
Jeffrey Toobin’s brilliantly researched and argued new book, Homegrown: Timothy McVeigh and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism, makes Ali’s assessment seem optimistic.
In Homegrown, the journalist and legal analyst recalls the story of McVeigh, a perpetually beleaguered loser who failed out of college, dropped out of the Army, and struggled to hold down a job before orchestrating and executing the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. With the Oklahoma City blast, he murdered 168 people, including 19 children. McVeigh was executed in 2001. His only known accomplice, Terry Nichols, who did not participate in the actual bombing, but helped McVeigh secure necessary chemicals and equipment, received a sentence of life in prison.
Toobin begins with the following thesis: “The insurrection on January 6, and much else in the contemporary conservative movement, show how McVeigh’s values, views, and tactics have endured and even flourished in the decades since his death.” Toobin adds: “His brand of right-wing extremism lives on, even thrives, to this day.”
McVeigh’s ideology was never on the fringe of American politics, Toobin demonstrates. Instead, it was an artery of the Republican and far-right cardiovascular system. McVeigh was a daily listener of Rush Limbaugh’s and a subscriber to the NRA’s official publication. Like his favorite sources of news and commentary, he believed that the federal government, especially under President Bill Clinton, was at war against the citizenry, attempting to revoke the Bill of Rights and impose tyranny. McVeigh interpreted the 1993 FBI siege of the compound in Waco, Texas, where 82 Branch Davidians and four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents died, not as evidence of incompetence by the ATF or an illustration of the dangers of leader David Koresh’s death cult theology, but as irrefutable proof of his conspiracy theory.
Not that Waco alone compelled McVeigh to turn violent—far from it. He was obsessed with guns. Clinton’s signing of the Brady Bill, and more significantly, the assault weapons ban, convinced McVeigh that the president was a dictator and that America was rapidly transforming from a constitutional republic into a police state. An avowed white supremacist, McVeigh also embraced the “Great Replacement Theory,” which posits that “Jewish globalists” conspire to crush whites by opening the borders to immigrants of color.
To the politically uninitiated, these beliefs would sound paranoid and delusional, but as Toobin makes clear, they are the mainstream doctrine of the Republican Party. During McVeigh’s lifetime, Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, and other right-wing talk show hosts with millions of listeners regularly advocated violence against liberals (and would often later claim they were “joking”), while then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich referred to Democrats as “evil,” “sick,” and “treasonous.” The language of right-wing politicians and media personalities could serve as examples during a college seminar on “eliminationist rhetoric,” the political science term for language that leads its audience to conclude that engagement with opponents is futile and the only solution is destruction.
Among countless examples, Toobin chooses statements from former President Donald Trump, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, Senator Ted Cruz, and Tucker Carlson to demonstrate how violence has become central to Republican rhetoric. Case in point: he quotes Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, often depicted as a responsible alternative to Trump, saying that someone should “throw Anthony Fauci off a bridge.”
While tracing a clear line from the Oklahoma City bombing to January 6, Toobin persuasively argues that the federal government, the Democratic Party, and the mainstream press also bear some responsibility for failing to address the spreading hatred and violence within Republican politics.
The media industry and the broader culture allowed hate-mongers like Limbaugh to profit in the millions and become a household name. But more specifically, Toobin faults the Department of Justice investigation and prosecution of McVeigh led by Merrick Garland. During McVeigh’s prosecution, the future jurist and attorney general refused to speak of any association between McVeigh and the rising movement of right-wing hostility to government, racial diversity, and modest restrictions on firearms. The most influential newspapers and television networks took their cues from Garland, routinely presenting McVeigh as a “lone wolf”—an estranged eccentric with an unhealthy obsession with Waco.
Clinton, who gave Toobin an interview for Homegrown, suspected that the Oklahoma City massacre was the work of white extremists from the start, telling his staff, “This was domestic, the militias. I know these people…I’ve been fighting this all my life.”
In several speeches following McVeigh’s slaughter of innocent life, Clinton implored audiences to understand the connection between McVeigh’s violence, political hate speech, and the movement that fueled it. Ongoing demands of the presidency would cause Clinton to shift focus, and without any other major figures sounding the alarm about right-wing violence, the conversation could not compete with the cacophony of daily news and partisan argument. The attacks of 9/11 turned the discussion of terrorism exclusively to Islam. Later, the Obama administration capitulated to right-wing extremists by withdrawing a Department of Homeland Security report on the dangers of far-right hate groups and their ability to recruit within the military. Right-wing pundits, Republican politicians, and the American Legion voiced the absurd allegation that Obama harbored resentment toward veterans, and rather than fight back, he pulled the report.
As one of America’s greatest historians, Richard Hofstadter, made clear in his famed 1964 study, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, those struggling for the full activation of multiracial democracy have always had to contend with paranoiacs who indulge “heated exaggeration and conspiratorial fantasy” in their fear that a “hostile world is directed against a nation, culture, and way of life.” Hofstadter believed that between 10 and 15 percent of Americans were right-wing paranoid conspiracy theorists, and he conceded that their bizarre and volatile mindset is “ineradicable.”
Toobin’s journalistic assessment of McVeigh and his paranoid style of politics generates an inescapable conclusion: The problem is getting worse. In the period that Hofstadter examined, few in the Republican Party other than Joseph McCarthy were willing to speak directly for the paranoiac. At least in the 1990s, McVeigh operated mainly in isolation. Before the bombing, the 26-year-old was a fixture at gun shows but never joined a large or powerful group of like-minded militants. Today, thanks to the internet and social media, white supremacists, anti-government extremists, and other dangerous radicals can instantly connect, encourage each other’s prejudices, and, as January 6 showed, even hatch plots.
Weighing McVeigh’s legacy, Toobin finds that his politics have infected the Republican Party, the right-wing media echo chamber, and violent hate groups like the Proud Boys, who were instrumental on January 6 and often enjoy cozy relationships with Republican officials.
Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican Party nomination. His rallies and social media comportment continue to turn darker, more paranoid, more hateful and violent. Recently, he hugged a January 6 insurrectionist, consoling her for “going through a lot.”
It is difficult to predict how the story of a once staid and respectable political party’s transformation into an authoritarian movement will end, and Toobin wisely refuses to read tea leaves. What is clear is that the democratic process, liberal values, and the civil rights revolution that began in the 1960s are winning even as the Republican Party rots. The U.S. bears no resemblance to the country of McVeigh’s dream—an agrarian white patriarchy. That’s the good news. The bad news from Toobin’s remarkable work is that as long as the right wing fails to get its way, violence and threats against democracy and the people it is intended to represent will continue at the hand of Timothy McVeigh’s ideological heirs.