Predictable as ever, conservatives are gearing up to defend their increasingly extremist voter base in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection by trotting out their timeworn “bloody shirt” trope—you know, the one that “makes a victim out of the bully and a bully out of the victim”—even as government officials try to grapple with the fallout from the manifest reality of a far-right-wing insurgency on our doorsteps. As always, the problem isn’t far-right seditionist violence, the problem is the people calling it out and trying to reel it in.
Right-wing pundits are currently attempting to repeat the travesty of 2009, when conservative media claimed a Department of Homeland Security memo warning of an increase in far-right organizing and recruitment, particularly directed at military veterans, was proof of plans to persecute conservatives. This time, they’re directing the same sort of self-owning complaints at the military’s announced efforts to root out far-right extremists—the kind who would participate in an armed insurrection—from their ranks.
In the aftermath of Jan. 6—and the realization that one in five of the riotous insurgents arrested for their roles in it were military veterans—the Biden administration, led by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, announced that it would tackle the long-running issue of radicalization within the ranks of the U.S. military, first by ordering a 60-day stand-down in all six branches of the service to attempt to assess how far-reaching the problem really is. Exactly how those orders will play out remains up in the air, but leaders at every military base are currently figuring that out.
However, some conservative pundits are already jumping to sound the alarms over the early iterations of the anti-extremist training being provided to the troops:
- At PJ Media, J. Christian Adams hysterically claimed that the Pentagon’s “shocking” new training materials are “targeting conservatives.”
- The Family Research Center’s Tony Perkins chimed in with the claim that the program is intended to “drive conservative and Christian members of the military either underground or out of the service altogether.”
- The right-wing Washington Examiner asked Pentagon officials if conservatives were being targeted, and obtained a denial—which was then denounced in the same piece by QAnon-loving Colorado Congressman Lauren Boebert as a “political litmus test.”
As researcher Jared Holt observed, Adams’ article “says more about the author than anything else.” Notably, its thesis deliberately erases any line between far-right extremists and mainstream conservatives, saying the military’s materials contained “warped characterizations of fellow citizens who believe in constitutional principles.” It also directly identifies attempts to root out extremist members as “part of a radicalized political agenda.”
At one point, he describes it as a “racialist agenda”:
And if there was any doubt, the presentation makes it clear the armed forces are to be integrated into the Biden administration’s racialist agenda. “If we don’t eliminate extremist behaviors from our Navy, then racism, injustice, indignity and disrespect will grow and keep us from reaching our potential.” The materials do not cite a single instance of racism, injustice, indignity, or disrespect. Those are left to the imagination.
Actually, there is no need to leave anything to the imagination here. Not only was the problem of far-right infiltration into the ranks of the U.S. military a serious and mounting issue well before January 2021—with multiple documented examples of servicemen turning their military training into organizing neo-Nazi terrorism cells, for instance—but several of the arrests made in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection itself provide clear illustrations of its manifestation:
- One U.S. Army reservist charged in the Capitol siege, Timothy Hale-Cusanelli, was widely known among his colleagues at a New Jersey-based naval facility as a white supremacist, one who openly discussed his hatred of Jews in the workplace, according to federal prosecutors.
- Jacob Fracker, 29, was an infantry rifleman in the Marine Corps, according to the Pentagon, who deployed to Afghanistan twice, and served in the Virginia National Guard. He also was a police officer in Rocky Mount, Virginia—until he was fired for his participation in the insurrection.
- Air Force veteran Larry Rendall Brock Jr., was wearing a military-style helmet and tactical vest carrying flex cuffs aimed to “take hostages,” prosecutors claim. He posted on Facebook that he was preparing for a "Second Civil War," and in the weeks after Joe Biden's victory, Brock posted that "we are now under occupation by a hostile governing force."
- Another insurrectionist arrested for invading the Capitol is a 35-year-old Marine veteran who once was crew chief of the presidential helicopter squadron at the White House named John Daniel Andries.
Overall, one in every five persons arrested for their roles in the Jan. 6 insurrection served in the U.S. military.
Adams also misleads his readers by claiming that the military’s warning in the anti-extremist briefing material—namely: “Speech that incites violence or criminal activity that threatens to undermine our government and Constitution is not protected by the First Amendment”—is “flatly wrong.”
Adams claims that “speech that ‘threatens to undermine our government’ is completely protected by the First Amendment. The Pentagon’s grotesque characterization of the law is borrowed from the criminal codes of dictatorships,” adding that the “whole concept of ‘undermining’ is the flimsy legal standard that sent millions to the Gulags and guillotine.”
He may be correct about this when it comes to ordinary citizens, but the Pentagon materials are directed entirely at serving members of the military, for whom in fact “freedom of speech” is entirely circumscribed, and has been so for most of its existence—with the full support of U.S. courts. Both the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and Defense Department Directives can and do place strict limits on soldiers’ speech. The UCMJ, passed by Congress in 1950, includes such “Punitive Articles” as “Contempt Toward Officials” and “Failure to Obey Order or Regulation,” as well as “Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and a Gentleman.”
Near the end of the piece, Adams lets his transphobic flag fly, complaining that a ban on “liking any material that promotes discrimination based on … gender identity” means that “if you believe in biological sex, you might be involuntarily separated or court-martialed.” He also claims that references to constitutional equal protection for transgender members are “full of legal errors. Again, the Fourteenth Amendment says nothing about biological males who consider themselves to be women, yet the training says otherwise.”
Adams wraps up his screed by assuring military members that “the materials are imaginary bunk. It is a part of a radicalized political agenda to undermine the basic principles of the nation—equality before law regardless of race, and treating people impartially in tribunals or day-to-day affairs.”
Some may recall Adams’ initial foray into national media as a conservative darling in 2010, when as a Bush holdover in the Obama Justice Department, he began claiming that prosecution of a voter-intimidation case against the New Black Panthers Peoples Party was derailed because of anti-white racial discrimination, and resigned in protest. That would-be right-wing scandal fell apart when Adams' claim that the Voting Section didn’t intervene on behalf of white voters was proved conclusively false.
Since then, he’s gone to work for the right-wing Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), and was appointed to Donald Trump’s ill-fated “election integrity commission,” where he was known to talk about an “alien invasion” at the polls. He created an uproar in 2017 when PILF released a two-part report titled "Alien Invasion" that identified 5,556 voters as non-citizens, on the basis of having their voter registrations cancelled at one point over citizenship concerns—even though fully half the voters who had been called out were currently active voters who had fixed their registrations. More recently, Adams testified before Congress that mail-in voting invited fraud, and that voting-rights restoration represented a power grab by the federal government.
Tony Perkins’ attack on the military is similar in nature, casting the Pentagon’s anti-extremist training as “an excuse to silence speech.” He says “it's only logical to assume their definition [of a hate group] is even broader—including every Bible-believing Christian and conservative.”
Perkins also asserts that the Pentagon’s motives are clear: “to drive conservative and Christian members of the military either underground or out of the service altogether.” He concludes: “The tentacles of religious hostility run deep in this administration. Anyone who doesn't embrace the Left's ‘new morality’ will be a target, including the men and women fighting for the freedom they want to deny us.”
And the Examiner cited Boebert—who not only is a QAnon conspiracy-cult follower, but has been targeted for investigation by her congressional colleagues for her behavior around the insurrection, though the story mentions none of that—as a critic of the Pentagon’s training plans.
“This is nothing but a political litmus test of our brave men & women. It is obscene & dangerous to use soldiers who risk their lives for America as political pawns,” tweeted Boebert, described by the Examiner as “a gun rights advocate.” “We can hardly be surprised by these political litmus tests given Biden’s political vetting of the 26,000 National Guard troops in DC for his inauguration.”
The Capitol arrests provide startling examples of a disturbing trend within the ranks of both enlisted military members as well as veterans—namely, the increasing presence of far-right extremism and ideologies frequently connected to domestic terrorism (and most recently, a mass insurrection). Perhaps its most disturbing aspect is how easily it has grown within those ranks because of a high level of tolerance—if not outright sympathy—for it, both within the broader military culture as well as among the higher-ranking officers responsible for overseeing it.
This extremism runs in a spectrum, from the overtly threatening white supremacists and neo-Nazis who both infiltrate military ranks and are sometimes recruited and radicalized from within them, to the seemingly more temperate “Patriots,” militiamen, and “constitutionalists” whose ideology and rhetoric embrace a surface kind of patriotic jingoism that at its core is violently antidemocratic and seditionist. As we saw on Jan. 6, it can be no less dangerous in terms of the kind of terroristic threat it poses, not just to the public but to the nation’s democratic institutions. All of them pose a potential but real national-security threat.
The role of vigilante groups such as the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and Proud Boys in the insurrection also points to a significant gap in the military’s current policy regarding far-right extremists. The wording of the prohibition on such activities in the military focuses primarily on participation in hate groups that discriminate against minorities—such as white-nationalist, neo-Nazi, or skinhead organizations—but does not come close to including the far-right conspiracists of the “Patriot” movement and their antidemocratic activities.
Cassie Miller, an analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, noted to Daily Kos that “currently, the military does not ban troops from participating in antigovernment groups and militias.”
“There are regulations that ban members of the military actively participating in groups that discriminate based on ‘race, creed, color, sex, religion, ethnicity or national origin,’ but they are clearly poorly enforced,” Miller said. “Not only are new screening procedures and regulations sorely needed, the military also needs to enforce the regulations it already has.”
Terrorism expert Zakir Gul explained the particular nature of the threat posed by “Patriot”-style extremists for Homeland Security Today:
The number of radicalized individuals within the ranks of the U.S. military may not be known even by Pentagon officials unless the individuals showed some signs of their violent extremist ideology. The number of such individuals, however, is a minor issue for two reasons. First, the ideology is so toxic that a small number of individuals can spread and influence others and quickly turn those small numbers into big numbers. Second, these individuals are highly trained, well-equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to plot violent acts, and have easier access to military vehicles and weaponry than other terrorists. Even a small number of such individuals, therefore, are capable of committing mass killings and causing significant destruction of buildings and infrastructure. In one sense, an individual with these characteristics is like a one-person army.
A good example is Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran and the recipient of several military-service awards—and the person responsible for bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 that left 168 people dead and numerous others wounded and became the deadliest homegrown terrorist attack in U.S. history. For a fictional example, imagine this: An F-35 fighter aircraft pilot who adheres to a violent extremist ideology and is filled hatred of the United States terrorizes, attacks, and kills a massive number of people with that single aircraft. Such a catastrophe would be no different than the tragic 9/11 attacks and their consequences. These highly trained individuals are not and should never be put into the same category of threat assigned to ordinary terrorists.
Left unchecked, such one-person armies could damage the reputation of the most trusted institution in the United States—the U.S. military—for generations and be difficult to rebuild. Some might even find it appropriate to attach fascist label to the U.S. military, hindering its ability to effectively defend one of the world’s leading democracies. It is essential, therefore, that the U.S. military and the federal government work to prevent the actions and consequences of violent extremists and to respond swiftly should any of these groups breach the military’s carefully crafted preventive measures.
As former Marine Corps Commandant James L. Jones wrote in The Atlantic:
States armed services and their counterparts in allied countries must close off all means by which white supremacists, anarchists, or fascists enter our national institutions and social mainstreams. The members of the U.S. armed forces have an obligation to defend our nation from all enemies, “foreign and domestic”—including those who would divide us from within.
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Jeff McCausland, in a piece for NBC News, noted that the lack of attentiveness to the problem has originated at the top and filtered down. In 2018, for example, the Defense Department found only 18 members of the 1.8 million Americans serving had been disciplined or discharged in the previous five years for engaging in extremist activities—and then used those low figures to justify deprioritizing it.
But there is no internal law enforcement task force monitoring extremist networks or generating comprehensive data within the military at all, and sharing of intelligence on such groups across federal agencies is extremely limited. A former Defense investigator described the U.S. government’s lack of a concerted effort to gather intelligence on extremist groups as a black hole. Another observed: “Every year they get a report based on what they were never looking for.”
Daryl Johnson, a former DHS analyst who authored the 2009 bulletin, told USA Today that conservative attacks back then created a missed opportunity to raise awareness about radical white supremacist groups looking to recruit within the military culture.
“For one of the few times in recent American history, we had accurately predicted a threat, given ample warning and people just ended up bickering and fighting about it and the message got lost,” Johnson said. “We’ve suffered the consequences of that.”