The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sen. Tuberville rises to the defense of racists in the armed forces

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) on Capitol Hill in December 2021. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
5 min

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) offered an unusual criticism of the Biden administration in a radio interview this week.

“We, our military and [Defense Secretary Lloyd] Austin put out an order to stand down and all military across the country, saying we’re going to run out the White nationalists, people that don’t believe how we believe,” he told NPR affiliate WBHM. “And that’s not how we do it in this country.”

He was asked if White nationalists should be allowed to serve in the military.

“They call them that,” he replied. “I call them Americans.”

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Tuberville was elected to the Senate with President Donald Trump’s support in the 2020 election that Trump lost. Even before taking office, Tuberville pledged to oppose the electors cast by states Trump lost in an effort to slow or block Joe Biden’s ascension to the presidency.

In this interview, he appears to have embraced a different aspect of Trump-adjacent rhetoric: that Biden and his administration are trying to villainize the right as being riddled with racists and domestic terrorists. It’s just that he got it backward. Instead of suggesting that decent, hard-working Americans were being cast as racists, he’s suggesting that racists are simply decent, hard-working Americans.

The idea that Biden (and Austin by extension) are using accusations of White nationalism as a cudgel was a central part of Tucker Carlson’s rhetoric back in his Fox News days. Immediately after Biden’s inauguration, Carlson highlighted a portion of the new president’s speech in which he — obviously alluding to the riot at the Capitol two weeks before — swore to uproot extremism.

Biden promised to “confront and … defeat” the “rise of political extremism, white supremacy, [and] domestic terrorism” that the country was seeing.

“The question is,” Carlson said in response, “what does it mean to wage war on white supremacists? Can somebody tell us in very clear language what a white supremacist is?”

“Joe Biden is the president of the United States, not a high school debate coach,” Carlson continued. “He controls the largest military and law enforcement agencies in the world. He has now declared war, and we have a right to know, specifically and precisely, who exactly he has declared war on. Innocent people could be hurt in this war. They usually are. There could be collateral damage in this war, and the casualties will be Americans.”

This became a centerpiece of Carlson’s rhetoric and the right’s more broadly. Participants in the Capitol riot were depicted as victims of political targeting, with Carlson going to great lengths to suggest that they were set up to facilitate a war-on-terror-style crackdown against the right. A memo from the Justice Department pledging to address threats against school officials was recast as the government seeking to treat all parental complaints as criminal behavior.

In his comments to WBHM, Tuberville drew the same connection with Jan. 6, saying that the left has said that “all these people that came into the Capitol were extremists, they were against the country.”

More broadly, though, Tuberville’s comments tap into the even older idea that the left uses racism allegations as a cudgel. Particularly since the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, many on the right have portrayed race-centered criticism as a rhetorical cheat, an attempt to prevail in a debate by slapping the label “racist” on an opponent. This sense contributes to and feeds off the well-established sense of White insecurity that is at the heart of much of the support for Trump.

But, again, that’s not what Tuberville said. He said that White nationalists — definitionally people who believe in building a White-centric state — deserve to be heard, that suppressing their views and their involvement in the military is somehow contrary to core American principles. This, it’s safe to assume, is itself a minority position.

In a statement provided to Alabama-based, Tuberville’s office sought to “clarify” his comments.

“Sen. Tuberville’s quote that is cited shows that he was being skeptical of the notion that there are white nationalists in the military,” the statement read, “not that he believes they should be in the military. He believes the men and women in uniform are patriots. Secretary Austin seems to think otherwise, subjecting them to extremism training as his very first act in office.”

This, you’ll notice, is the preferred direction of the rhetorical arrow: Austin and the Biden administration are accusing average Americans of being sympathetic to racism.

This defense is made trickier, however, by Tuberville’s history. At an event for Trump in Nevada last year, he equated the beneficiaries of potential reparations for slavery — that is, Black people — with criminals.

“They want crime,” he said of Democrats, “because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”

When Tuberville was elected in 2020, Black Alabamians voted heavily for his opponent, incumbent Sen. Doug Jones (D).

In his interview with WBHM, Tuberville claimed that the military was having trouble hitting recruitment targets because “the Democrats are attacking our military, saying we need to get out the White extremists, the White nationalists, people that don’t believe in our agenda.”

A recent Pentagon report warned that White nationalists and other extremists sought to recruit members of the military and that, while the numbers were low, the presence of such extremists was a potent threat to national security.

That report was completed in October 2020, during Trump’s administration.