We Were Warned: Obama Administration's Prescient Report on Right Wing Terrorism

In the wake of Charlottesville - and really, in the wake of the Trump presidency - it has become commonplace to note that right wing, white supremacist extremism (including violence) is on the rise in America.

But here's something no one is talking about: the Obama administration warned America about just this type of extremist scourge in the first months of the Obama presidency.

President Obama's Department of Homeland Security produced a draft document in April of 2009 - shortly after the inauguration of the new president - about the threat America faced from right wing extremists, including white supremacists, gun nuts, and anti-trade anti-immigrant zealots. The draft further warned that the Great Recession and the election of the first black president were being used to scare people and as recruiting tools for the growing right wing radicalism. We were, in fact, warned.

Why do I keep saying 'a draft'? Unfortunately, that is all it was. At the time, Republicans everywhere burst into outrage at the draft, claiming it offended their delicate sensibilities, and the DHS was forced to abandon the report. That was a mistake.

Because that document is turning out to be a prophecy for today's America.

One of the key findings from the document addressed the radicalization of what the modern media has marvelously termed "white working class", as if working people don't count unless they are white. The Obama DHS draft put it much more bluntly (and truthfully), but they caught on before things got violent

Threats from white supremacist and violent antigovernment groups during 2009 have been largely rhetorical and have not indicated plans to carry out violent acts. Nevertheless, the consequences of a prolonged economic downturn—including real estate foreclosures, unemployment, and an inability to obtain credit—could create a fertile recruiting environment for rightwing extremists and even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities similar to those in the past.

And so it did. The Great Recession was prolonged longer than it needed to be thanks to Republican obstructionism, and the rightwing extremists capitalized on the fears of white voters who were afraid of a new economy and a new world.  Donald Trump, for one, effectively stoked and exploited this fear on the campaign trail by promising that with him as president, America would "win" again.

But as we all know, their fears were stoked much more on the race front than on the actual economy, which would start to improve thanks to the efforts of President Obama and a contemporary Democratic Congress. From birtherism and other openly racist challenges to Obama's legitimacy to softer, more veiled attempts to make people afraid of Americans of color and multiculturalism all culminated into Donald Trump's campaign - and now administration - of hate and bigotry. The DHS draft predicted that, too.

Rightwing extremists have capitalized on the election of the first African American president, and are focusing their efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda, but they have not yet turned to attack planning. 

Throughout the Obama years, as America saw an increase in white nationalist militia movements, Republicans (who would soon be in position to control the legislative agenda) either sat on their hands or appealed for the votes of these terrorists. We are now seven years and a quarter into the future, and as they gained power, gun-toting rightwing extremists have become violent.

And on immigration, it is as if the Obama administration in 2009 had gone forward in time and read the talking points of the far Right, the Republican Party, and Donald Trump.

Over the past five years, various rightwing extremists, including militias and white supremacists, have adopted the immigration issue as a call to action, rallying point, and recruiting tool.  Debates over appropriate immigration levels and enforcement policy generally fall within the realm of protected political speech under the First Amendment, but in some cases, anti-immigration or strident pro-enforcement fervor has been directed against specific groups and has the potential to turn violent.

DHS/I&A assesses that rightwing extremist groups’ frustration over a perceived lack of government action on illegal immigration has the potential to incite individuals or small groups toward violence.

The Republican party's insistence on ignoring the Obama administration's success in securing the border and refusal to pass comprehensive immigration reform under Obama (or even to codify DREAMers) - reforms many of them had agreed to under the previous Republican administration - are stark examples of the GOP's approval for the violent white supremacist extremism, both tacit and explicit. It is no surprise that the same extremists who has had the GOP's ear since the inauguration of Barack Obama now back Donald Trump's demands for a wall on the southern border, mass deportations, as well as reductions in legal immigration. It is no surprise that they march openly in support of a white nation and proudly display the insignia of Hitler. It is no surprise that they see as their hero a racist held in criminal contempt of court for violating the rights of the people he was once elected to serve.

This radicalization was foreseeable, and it was foreseen. When those with privilege are constantly told that what they take for granted is being challenged - by the rise of other countries and by trade (as the draft further noted), by immigrants, by competition in the workforce from people of color, and by a black president - it is not a surprise that they are often radicalized. When they are told that Asians are taking "their" jobs from abroad and Mexicans here at home, when they are taught that the fight for black lives is an affront to white ones, and when they are told that facts and reason that offend their sensibilities are simply "fake", radicalization is natural.

At the time, Republicans were only interested in suppressing this report, not in avoiding its ominous warnings. Not a lot of the loudest voices on the Left - interestingly also often represented by white ideologues - stood up in its defense. And now, those early warnings are reality. We can say what we want about the recent spread of violence, racism, sexism, bigotry. We can say what we want about the horrific nature of a presidential podium being used to enable white supremacists.

What we cannot say is that we weren't warned.

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