Which is true, and the proper thing for the attorney general to stress. That leaves it to opinion columnists to point out not just that the current threat comes primarily from the right, but that the political choices made by key Republican figures have made that threat far greater than it might otherwise have been.
It’s not that the administration is denying where the problem is; Garland noted that today the primary elevated threat comes from people who “espouse the superiority of the white race” and anti-government militias. And he said: “To diffuse the underlying causes of domestic terrorist attacks, we must promote a society that is tolerant of our differences.”
But let’s not beat around the bush. The heightened domestic terrorism threat has its roots in the rise of Donald Trump, the election of President Biden and the reaction of the Republican Party to the idea that it might lose elections in the future.
The election of a Democratic president always produces a right-wing backlash with a violent fringe. But this time is particularly dangerous, and we have long known that if Trump lost, the result could be a real increase in far-right violence.
This was predictable because Trump attacked the American system of democracy itself. Running through his rhetoric was the implication that democracy was not something to which anyone owed loyalty; the only question was whether your side won. If it didn’t, the system was irredeemably corrupted.
If you believed him — and then watched him lose — it would not be a stretch to decide, if you were already vulnerable to that kind of thinking, that violence is a reasonable response to what had occurred. That’s not even to mention the way the Trump era saw the president himself, and so many of his prominent supporters, celebrating violence against political opponents.
What we couldn’t have predicted was how aggressively the Republican Party would execute its own attack on the democratic political system. It has spent months validating and encouraging conspiracy theories about the election; some of its elected officials even make excuses for the attack on the Capitol. Meanwhile, they have mounted their own assault on democracy through an unprecedented wave of state-level voter suppression laws.
What can a new domestic terrorism strategy do about what has now been unleashed?
The administration’s strategy has four main elements. The first is improving information-sharing on domestic terrorism between federal, state and local law enforcement. The second is promoting “resilience” to the sources of terrorism by helping localities, communities and government agencies such as the Defense Department identify and ameliorate the conditions that give rise to extremism.
The third is beefing up the government’s focus on domestic terrorism, with increased funding for this task given to the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and others. The fourth is a somewhat vaguely defined effort to “address the long-term issues that contribute to domestic terrorism,” as Garland said, including economic inequality and the proliferation of guns.
In other words, it sounds a lot like We’ll do what we’ve been doing, but more so. Which isn’t a bad thing; solving problems often involves not dramatic new ideas but making existing systems work the way they’re supposed to.
But the administration’s efforts will have to battle against forces exerting influence through Congress, state capitols and the media.
It’s not that Republicans are trying to push anyone over the edge to violent extremism. But they share the belief that democracy is not worth defending if at any point it allows liberals to win elections or policy debates, and that should that eventuality come to pass, the proper course of action is to dismantle the system.
The only difference is whether you think that should be done through the system itself, by passing laws that make it harder to vote and allow your party to seize control of the apparatus of election administration, or through violent insurrection. In theory, a potential terrorist could look at the GOP’s recent actions and conclude that they’re doing a pretty good job of things, so violence is unnecessary.
But that’s probably too optimistic, given how far the party is spreading the idea that democracy is always conditional and deserves your support as a system only if it never produces an outcome you dislike.
Extremism is always born of desperation, and when a party builds its support on rage and resentment, it will focus on “problems” without easy policy solutions (or any at all). Driving that desperation is the fact that while Trump may have given tax cuts to the wealthy and deregulation to corporations, he couldn’t give his most ardent supporters what they sought.
Immigrants are still here, and more continue to come. Gay couples are still on TV. Mores about sexuality and identity continue to grow more progressive. Consumer brands pander to young people whose fashion and music and ideas some people find confusing and alienating. Trump couldn’t “Make America Great Again,” not in the way they wanted. The past five years have only magnified everything his supporters hated about this country.
There’s no way to tell where this all leads, or how successful the Biden administration’s anti-terrorism efforts will be. But this threat is going to be with us for some time to come.