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How the GOP Absorbed Far-Right Extremists

What started as campaign rhetoric became government policy and, for a few days, a congressional caucus.
April 22, 2021
How the GOP Absorbed Far-Right Extremists
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) speaks during a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol on February 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. The House voted 230 to 199 to remove Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) from committee assignments over her remarks about QAnon and other conspiracy theories. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Don’t expect the un-announcement of the America First Caucus to last for long.

For those who missed it, some of the least savory members of Congress—Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar, Louie Gohmert, and Barry Moore—briefly launched a new congressional organization, the America First Caucus last week. A few days later, they withdrew the announcement under a hail of criticism.

The only material manifestation of the new confederacy of conspiracists was a seven-page manifesto filled entirely with clumsy, gnarly prose (even by government standards), punctuated with clunkers like this: “America was founded on the basis of individual and state sovereignty, to ensure that no free American would be lorded over by a Monarch ever again.” Pretty rich from people who took their slogan from a wannabe autocrat who claimed the presidency gave him “total authority” to “do whatever I want.”

The document also lambastes the “Theory of Comparative Advantage, which was first proposed by David Richardo [sic] over two centuries ago.” Free trade, say the America Firsters, “accomplishes many of the same nefarious economic goals that mass immigration does.”

It all comes back to immigration, the issue for which the confederacy of dunces reserves all its fire. America is “more than . . . a series of abstract ideas,” they insist. “America is a nation with a border, and a culture, strengthened by a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” Having failed to correctly spell the name of a famous Briton already, the decision not to try to name any specific Anglo-Saxon political traditions can only be regarded as prudent.

But the creed against immigrants isn’t just dim—it’s dark. It includes classic xenophobic tropes about “weeding out those who could not or refused to abandon their old loyalties . . . stay[ing] in the country at the expense of the native-born,” and calls to “abolish unnaturalized birthright citizenship, which actively encourages hostile interests to undermine the legitimacy of democratic self-governance by engaging in subversive ‘birth tourism’ and chain migration.” (Emphases added.)

No wonder the cacophony of condemnation for the authors was so intense. After promising the announcement of the caucus “very soon,” Greene’s spokesman, erm, clarified over the weekend that she is “not launching anything.” Gosar also denied any involvement in the document or the caucus.

That probably won’t last long. While the style was amateurish and crude, the substance of the America First Caucus is no different from what the Republican party standard has been for some time. If anything, the America First manifesto is slightly more nuanced and tamer than “not sending us their best . . . They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Or “very good people on both sides.” Or “shithole countries.” Or retweeting screams of “white power!” Or telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

In case anyone still has doubts, the policy inside Trump’s White House was quite clear: White nationalists and other right-wing extremists, even violent ones, were to be considered political allies.

The question of whether Trump himself helped cause the dramatic rise in right-wing violence or was a symptom of it is complicated and may never be fully solved. The best answer is probably a bit of both.

Obviously there were right-wing terrorists before Trump became a political figure, the Oklahoma City bombers being only the most famous instance. There were international examples, too—the perpetrator of the massacre in Norway in 2011 became an international martyr for right-wing extremists.

But the pace accelerated after Trump won the election. During my time in government, we witnessed the murder of Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting (the perpetrator of which invoked Trump’s much-ballyhooed immigrant caravans as part of his motivation), and the El Paso Wal-Mart shooting where the shooter drove over 600 miles to kill Mexicans. Both the Pittsburgh and El Paso attackers made reference to racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, the latter decrying the Hispanic “invasion” of Texas and explaining his actions as a defense of his country from cultural and ethnic replacement. These spectacular crimes occurred amid an overall increase in right-wing violence, and the White House knew it, yet refused to address the poisonous ideology that drove the violence.

The 2019 Christchurch shooting in New Zealand was an object lesson. In response to the livestreamed carnage, heads of state from around the world gathered to address the challenges of countering far-right and all extremist violence, specifically on social media. But the Trump administration chose to not to sign on to the Christchurch Call to Action.

Most people in the White House knew there was no chance that Trump would participate in the announcement of the Call to Action, but at one point those of us in Vice President Mike Pence’s office had convinced him to go instead. It would have put him on the stage with the world leaders committed to countering extremist networks.

But fear of losing “the base” led Pence to pull out of the event just three days beforehand. There was considerable debate within our office about whether the Call to Action represented a possible infringement of First or Second Amendment rights, during which it became clear that such concerns were excuses not to alienate key constituencies—with some White House advisers conflating gun rights and right-wing extremism as if the two couldn’t be dealt with separately.

Ultimately, the United States was represented at the Christchurch Call to Action meeting not by the president or the vice president or even the secretary of state, but by Kash Patel, who at the time was deputy senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council—or, in diplomatic terms, basically a nobody. The message about the Trump administration’s approach to far-right extremist violence couldn’t have been clearer. Given the challenges we were encountering on the issue of right-wing extremism, the absence of prominent American leadership at this event was notable—and noted.

The event included the launch of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) as an independent organization designed to help governments, the private sector, and experts counter extremist threats online. The first director of GIFCT is an American, Nicholas Rasmussen, who served as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center and on the National Security Council staff under both Bush and Obama.

As a non-signatory of the Christchurch Call to Action, the United States remains an outlier among democracies—a legacy of Donald Trump. He propelled his campaign with xenophobic rhetoric and he governed as an ally of right-wing violent extremists. He helped elevate groups like the Three Percenters to the point that they became like a paramilitary wing of the Republican party. Others in the party have followed his example. Why should anything in the America First manifesto be shocking?

In a new essay, Sarah Longwell discusses the ongoing threats to American democracy and the maddening lack of urgency in our national response. For as ham-fisted as the launch of the America First Caucus was, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as the comical blunderings of fringe figures. What it represents is significant. Under four years of Trump’s leadership, the Republican party has allied itself with what FBI Director Christopher Wray has called a “metastasizing” threat.

The danger of the modern Republican party isn’t that it is populist and has nutty ideas about free trade and can’t spell. It’s not that it favors lib-owning cultural warfare over policy and good government. It’s not that Trump is a moral Lilliputian and every other significant member of the Republican party (with a handful of exceptions) is either a sociopath or a weakling.

The danger is that, just as the Big Lie about election fraud became de rigueur for Republican politicians after the election, explicit white nationalism may become the central motivating principle for much of the party. Gosar spoke at a white nationalist conference immediately before addressing CPAC. Sen. Ron Johnson has begun dabbling in so-called “replacement theory”—the same theory that led the Charlottesville marchers to chant “Jews will not replace us!” Tucker Carlson recently invoked replacement theory on his show.

And as we saw on January 6, the party is willing to incite violence when it feels like its hold on power is threatened.

The America Firsters will be back. They will be better organized. They will have more followers. They will be better armed.

What are we going to do about it?

Olivia Troye

Olivia Troye is a former career intelligence professional who served as Vice President Mike Pence’s Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor, as well as his lead staffer on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. She is now director of the Republican Accountability Project and Republicans for Voting Rights.