The far right took heart from the president’s winks and nods, retweets and outright displays of support. “Donald Trump, ever since his campaign, throughout his four years in office, has done nothing but pander to these people,” Daryl Johnson, a former senior intelligence analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, told me.
Now a private security consultant, Johnson was caught in a political tempest during the Obama administration, when, at D.H.S., he wrote a report warning of a “resurgence in right-wing extremist recruitment and radicalization activity,” including efforts to recruit veterans. Republicans were apoplectic, seeing the report as an effort to brand conservatives as potential terrorists. Johnson’s unit was disbanded and he left government.
Under Trump, political pressure on federal law enforcement to ignore the far right would only grow. After a white supremacist killed 23 people in a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, Dave Gomez, a former F.B.I. supervisor overseeing terrorism cases, told The Washington Post that the agency was “hamstrung” in trying to investigate white nationalists. “There’s some reluctance among agents to bring forth an investigation that targets what the president perceives as his base,” said Gomez.
The violent far right appears to have been emboldened by the experience of being treated as valued constituents. “The problem existed before him, but it’s really flourished even more under his administration,” Johnson said of Trump.
This is a departure from previous patterns, Johnson said: Right-wing extremist activity usually abates during Republican administrations, when conservatives feel less existentially threatened. But Trump kept the far right’s paranoia and sense of grievance at a constant boil, and gave them permission to act. The people at the Capitol who said they were there because the president wanted them to be weren’t necessarily delusional.
But there’s no reason to believe that the threat will recede when Trump is gone. Johnson believes it’s going to get worse, and he’s not alone. A recent federal intelligence bulletin warns, “Amplified perceptions of fraud surrounding the outcome of the General Election and the change in control of the Presidency and Senate,” along with fear of what the new administration has in store, will “very likely will lead to an increase in DVE violence.” DVE stands for “domestic violent extremists.”
Already, Washington looks like a war zone. Joe Biden’s inauguration next week will be closed to the public. Representative Peter Meijer, one of the 10 Republicans to vote for impeachment, said on MSNBC that he and some of his colleagues are buying body armor: “Our expectation is that someone may try to kill us.”