The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats’ probe of white violent extremism likely to stop under GOP

“The main lesson people need to draw is that violent white supremacy is the deadliest domestic terror threat facing the American people. Nothing else comes close,” says Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), shown here on Sept. 15. (Sarah Silbiger/For The Washington Post)
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When Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) opened a May 2019 congressional hearing to examine “the rise … of domestic terrorism, violent white supremacy,” he didn’t know what he was starting.

Raskin, chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee on civil rights, knew there would be more than one session, but said they “multiplied because there were so many different dimensions to the problem. … We wanted to try to get to the bottom of it as comprehensively as we could. You know, there are lots of parts of the country where fear of violent white supremacists is a part of daily life.”

The seventh and last hearing concluded last week, 43 months after the first, and just before Republicans, who have other priorities, take control of the House. Taken together, the sessions are a searing examination into a defining issue for the United States. They strengthen Raskin’s reputation for his dogged, methodical style of inquiry, which is more broadly recognized for his management of President Donald Trump’s second impeachment.

“The main lesson people need to draw is that violent white supremacy is the deadliest domestic terror threat facing the American people. Nothing else comes close,” Raskin said during a Tuesday interview. “We ignore its virulence at our own peril.”

Raskin credits the hearings with pushing “substantial progress in the federal government’s willingness to identify and confront domestic violent extremism.”

That change was demonstrated by President Biden. Just two days into his presidency he ordered federal officials to study the domestic violent extremism threat. That led to the June 2021 release of a “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.” In a veiled swipe at his predecessor, Biden’s preface to the strategy said, “We cannot ignore this threat or wish it away.”

Trump was president during the first four hearings. Raskin’s subcommittee characterized that period, in a statement before the June 2019 second hearing, as one of “significantly reduced resources and infrastructure” against “the increasing threat of white supremacist extremism.” During the fourth hearing, in September 2020, Raskin said Trump’s team “decided to mislead the public by downplaying the problem,” despite Anti-Defamation League data indicating 75 percent of all extremist-related murders in the past 10 years were by right-wing extremists.

Trump’s team did not respond to a request for comment.

An FBI statement said “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism,” as the agency calls it, was elevated to a “top threat” priority in 2019, meaning “more resources have been allocated to address the threat.” Most cases in this category, the FBI added, “involve those who advocate for the superiority of the white race.” A Department of Homeland Security prediction emailed to The Washington Post said “those who are racially or ethnically motivated, including white supremacists, likely will remain the most lethal threats.”

Nonetheless, Republican members of the panel and the witnesses they selected downplayed the problem with comparisons to other violence that compares little to that perpetrated by white extremists.

Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, complained, by email, that Raskin “did nothing to hold accountable those on the left who committed political violence.” Gonzalez testified at the fifth hearing, in May 2021.

It’s a weak comparison. Those on the left, while culprits in some cases, did far less damage than those on the right.

“White supremacists killed more people in 2021 than any other type of extremist,” the Anti-Defamation League reported. Of the 29 people killed in 2021 by U.S. domestic extremists, 26 of the slayings — 90 percent — “were committed by right-wing extremists,” though not all right-wingers are white supremacists, according to the ADL. Black nationalists were responsible for two, and one was by “an Islamist extremist — the latter being the first such killing since 2018.”

The hearings examined a range of topics beginning with the “consequences of inaction.” Other hearings, in chronological order, focused on the federal government’s response, the “transnational terrorist threat,” white supremacists’ “infiltration” of local police departments, the “rise of militia extremism,” Biden’s counterterrorism strategy and the “ongoing threat to democracy.”

While the sessions exposed critical issues, they can’t stop the violence.

At the last hearing, on Dec. 13, Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) warned that “hate is on the rise. That is why it is critical that Congress continue to shed light on this growing cancer and come up with substantive solutions to address hate and violence. We may disagree on politics, but there is no room in this country for discrimination, violence, and unbridled hate.”

But Republicans apparently disagree on the need to shed more light on white violent extremism. Neither Rep. James Comer (Ky.) nor Rep. Nancy Mace (S.C.), the Republican leaders on the committee and subcommittee, respectively, responded to questions about examining domestic terrorism under a GOP-controlled House. Comer takes over as chair of the full committee next month.

Republican attempts to minimize the impact of white violent extremism were apparent from comments at last week’s hearing that grossly misrepresented the admitted killer of 10 Black people at a Buffalo Tops grocery store in May. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) claimed the suspected shooter, Payton Gendron, who pleaded guilty, was “an admitted socialist.” That comment earned “four Pinocchios,” indicating a “whopper” of a lie, from my Post colleague and fact-checker Glenn Kessler. He found Gendron, far from being a socialist, favored the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Gendron, in effect, was a neo-Nazi.”

Biggs’s claims also surprised hearing witness Oren Segal, vice president of the ADL’s Center on Extremism. Gendron was “so clearly motivated by the ideology, the narratives of white supremacy,” said Segal, who is “very familiar” with Gendron’s manifesto and online presence. “I was shocked a little bit, that it was even … a point of debate,” he added by phone.

Lecia Brooks, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s chief of staff and culture, said by email that the hearings on “white supremacy and extremism were the most significant examination of domestic extremism, threats to national security, and threats to our democracy in decades.”

The threat isn’t over, but, apparently, the examination is.