For many, the most disquieting takeaway from the Trump-inspired assault on the nation’s Capitol and democracy, and the ensuing effort to exonerate the defeated president of sedition, is the inevitable conclusion that terrorism and its inspirations are now deeply embedded in our culture. Right-wing terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, Richard Wayne Snell and Dylann Roof dreamed that they were setting up the day when patriots just like them would lay siege to the national government and return America to its conservative white destiny.
Most of them probably had not even heard of Donald J. Trump, the local dandy promoting himself in the New York tabloids as the city’s eminent masher and coxcomb but who would one day incite their insurrection against the elected representatives of the American people.
Arkansans, including our current governor, got some of the earliest warnings about domestic terrorism’s threat to democratic norms three decades ago, which perhaps explains why Governor Hutchinson, virtually alone among Republicans in this part of the country, was unwilling to give the president a pass for his role in the attack on the seat of government.
If we had been paying attention, we might have seen the 1990s confrontations between law enforcement and white nationalist organizations, such as The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord here in Arkansas and the subsequent Branch Davidian event in Waco, Texas, as ominous signs that might point, eventually, to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and, finally, to the Capitol riot of Jan. 6.
We Arkansans ignored these signs, as did everyone, until Trump’s entirely predictable claim in November that a landslide election victory had been stolen from him by socialist Democrats, sex perverts and cowardly Republican politicians in Georgia, Arizona and Michigan, a theft that had to be reversed by a great demonstration of “courage” and “combat” at the Capitol by the armed patriots who were, more or less, Trump’s personal militia.
I say “predictable” because we all remember Trump’s declaration, seven months before the election, that the only way he could possibly lose was if Democrats succeeded in committing enough fraud to steal the election. It actually was far and away the most lopsided defeat of a sitting president since 1932, and the second worst in history. But by feeding them a steady diet of incredible lies, Trump led millions of people to believe that he actually had won, and that the real patriots were the Trump cultists who killed, maimed and ransacked through the Capitol on Jan. 6 to force Congress and the vice president to throw out the election and install him as president again, perhaps for life.
Arkansans had a ringside seat for the origins of the worst spectacle of modern American political history, most memorably through the prism of Hillary Rodham Clinton. The once-admired champion for Arkansas children was over time so demonized that even her old paper, now the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, editorialized on the eve of the 2016 election that the corrupt woman did not deserve the vote of even one Arkansan. Trump had energized his crowds by claiming that the FBI was investigating “Crooked Hillary’’ and that if she were elected, Americans would be treated to the spectacle of their president being led out of the White House in shackles. “Lock her up!” his fans chanted.
On Jan. 6, 2021, before sending the mob down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, Trump again energized his soldiers by taunting Hillary. He claimed, falsely, that Clinton had denounced Democrats for not stealing enough votes for her in 2016 as they had for Joe Biden in 2020. His militia, including a Conway militiaman and a Gravette yokel, surged to the Capitol and beat up policemen to try to get to Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi. Dozens of other Arkansans, including two off-duty state troopers, were in the mob.
Though mute back in her suburban New York home, Hillary was a magnet of the whole wild campaign and its bloody and treasonous aftermath. A conspiracy group had recently circulated the story on social media that Hillary and former aide Huma Abedin had recorded a video of themselves conducting a satanic ritual in which they killed a little girl and drank her blood, and also that the two women and other Democrats were trafficking in child sex slaves. Republican candidates, including Trump’s campaign and Marjorie Taylor Greene, the coming congresswoman from Georgia, picked up the crazy yarn and ran with it. In February, Greene, hoping to avoid losing her committee assignments, sort of apologized to the House and implied that she didn’t actually believe some of the stuff. It was Pizzagate all over again. Who believed the 2016 tale spread by Trump and his cronies about a Hillary-headed child-sex ring operating out of the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C.?
Edgar Welch, 28, of Salisbury, N.C., did. Despite pleas from his family, Welch grabbed his assault rifle and other weapons on Dec. 4, 2016, got in his truck and sped to D.C. to rescue the kids from Hillary. He ran into the crowded restaurant, pushing through children who were playing table tennis, firing his rifle and terrorizing patrons and staff. Finding no entrance to the basement tunnel where Hillary was supposed to be sodomizing children, Welch pumped bullets into a locked door. It was a broom closet. Welch went back out, put down his weapons, surrendered to police and said he was misled. He got out of prison recently and went home to his family.
A national poll after the 2016 election showed that Welch wasn’t alone, that 46 percent of Republican voters across the country believed the yarns about Clinton’s satanic worship and pedophilia. But the Hillary hoaxes go back even further. On July 20, 1993, six months after the Clintons moved into the White House, a deeply depressed Vince Foster, Hillary’s law partner and Bill’s close friend and deputy counsel at the White House, had killed himself with his father’s old pistol in Fort Marcy Park after searing attacks on his honesty by editorial writers at The Wall Street Journal. The right-wing talk-radio star Rush Limbaugh, whose raging venom inspired Donald Trump and who died Feb. 17, told his national audience that day that Hillary had her friend murdered because he probably knew some dirty little secret about the Clintons’ failed investment in 1977 in 230 wooded acres near the White River in Searcy County. Limbaugh’s charge made international news.
Despite her Victorian moralism, obsession with privacy, and disdain for answering slurs because it only gives them wider currency, Clinton was pretty popular both in Arkansas and nationally owing to her lifelong crusade for children when the couple launched their national campaign. She had been a founder of the national Children’s Defense Fund and the game-changing Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, authored the Arkansas educational reforms of 1983 and beyond, and after the failure of the Clinton universal health insurance act in 1994 she pushed Republican and Democratic leaders to enact the federal law that extended health insurance to nearly all the nation’s children.
Her demonization actually began before Limbaugh with an investigative reporter for The New York Times named Jeff Gerth, who came to Little Rock in January 1992 to help Sheffield Nelson, a gifted but failed Republican politician, settle scores with his mortal enemies — the energy and banking moguls, Jack and Witt Stephens — and the man who had beaten him for governor in 1990, Bill Clinton. Gerth wrote a big article for the Times introducing the newest candidate for president and implying that the Clintons were in the hip pocket of the Stephenses, long the Clintons’ political foes. Gerth’s subsequent stories in the Times about Hillary’s ancient trading in the futures market and the Ozarks land deal made it appear that the couple were not liberal reformers, but profiteers who used Bill’s public office to cater to billionaires like the Stephenses and Tyson Foods magnate Don Tyson, who actually had helped defeat Clinton in 1980. No one called the Times pieces “fake news,” as Trump would later claim whenever the Times or another newspaper printed something that made him look bad.
As the Clintons were heading to Washington, the seeds of grievance from civil rights, religious tolerance, social reformation, women’s rights and other harvests of modernity that would eventually produce Trump’s Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol were already bearing fruit in the mountain glens of Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and other remote venues of America. They took the form of white nationalist, survivalist and radical Christian-identity cults, resurgent anti-Semitic bands and others radicalized by the newly transformed National Rifle Association’s claims in the 1980s that a vast plot was underway to confiscate Americans’ guns.
One of the earliest in these parts was The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (CSA), a Christian cult formed on a 230-acre farm near Bull Shoals in Marion County by Rev. James Ellison. He turned the farm into a training camp for guerillas who would take on the U.S. government, which Ellison believed was controlled by Jews and nonwhite socialists. One of Ellison’s disciples on a gun-and-money-raising mission murdered a pawnshop owner and Louis Bryant, an Arkansas state trooper who had stopped him at De Queen. That focused the attention of the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on Ellison’s hideout. A raid on the farm produced a mountain of weapons, explosives, gold and potassium cyanide, which was to be used to poison the water supply of large cities. The raid produced evidence of a plot to overthrow the government, and another siege began when Ellison and others refused to surrender.
A young federal prosecutor named Asa Hutchinson, backed up by scores of federal agents, strapped on a bulletproof vest, marched up to the locked-down farmhouse and talked Ellison and others into surrendering. He convicted them in federal court at Fort Smith of racketeering and weapons charges, but Ellison negotiated a reduced sentence by testifying against leaders of the neo-Nazi guerrilla compound the Aryan Nations in Idaho.
One month after the Clintons moved into the White House, the Justice Department’s ATF directed a siege of the Mount Carmel Center near Waco, Texas, the home of a cult of Christian survivalists that, by then, was run by David Koresh, nee Vernon Wayne Howell, who renamed himself after the ancient Persian messiah Koresh and King David, which he thought commissioned him as the future occupier of the throne of God’s kingdom on Earth. There had been a lot of messy sex involving the leaders of the Branch Davidians and often children. Former members told the FBI that there was methodical child abuse. Koresh refused to admit the agents to investigate the charges. President Clinton was reluctant to permit a forced entry into the compound and the standoff lasted 51 days. On April 19, a reluctant Attorney General Janet Reno authorized the forced removal of the residents and a combat vehicle breached the building and fired CS gas into it to drive people out. The place caught fire, there was gunfire inside, and Koresh and 78 other Branch Davidians, including 21 children, perished.
To survivalists, Christian Nationalists, Aryan idolaters and other grievants, Koresh and the Davidians were martyrs. And some of those in the Jan. 6, 2021, mob thought they were exacting some revenge for the government’s assault on the Christians.
But the first revenge was the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City exactly two years later, on April 19, 1995, which killed 168 people and injured 591, the biggest domestic terrorist act in American history. Timothy McVeigh, a decorated soldier in the first Iraq war, had been booted from Special Forces training as temperamentally unsuited. He hated the Black soldiers in his unit, who endured his racial slurs. McVeigh concluded that the national government, including its law-enforcement arms, was run by socialist liberals who were going to confiscate everyone’s guns and end freedom. He had visited Waco during the Davidian siege and swore vengeance for Koresh and his followers. The “last straw” was Clinton’s signing the act barring the sale of assault weapons for 10 years.
McVeigh recruited at least three confederates, two of whom went to prison when McVeigh was executed. They needed an event so huge and confounding that it would spur patriots everywhere to rise up and overthrow the government. Like any patriot would, McVeigh chose April 19, the day of the Waco catastrophe, for another reason — it also was the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, which began the American Revolution. McVeigh, like his descendants on Jan. 6, 2021, thought he was starting the second American Revolution.
His first target was the home of the Clintons, Little Rock, which would represent the British column at Concord’s North Bridge and “the shot heard round the world.” McVeigh and his cohort Terry Nichols scoped out sites around the federal complex on West Capitol Avenue and picked the TCBY skyscraper (now the Simmons Bank Tower) at Broadway and Capitol, which housed scores of lawyers and several federal agencies, including the Arkansas offices of the Waco culprits, the ATF. But on the first floor he visited a floral shop attended by a friendly woman who would have perished in the bombing, and he changed plans. She saved the bank building and its tenants.
McVeigh and Nichols drove to Oklahoma City and picked the Murrah building instead. But they needed money for mammoth explosives and for the war that would follow. In his travels around the country to gun shows and conventions, McVeigh had developed a friendship with a kindred soul named Roger Moore or “Bob Miller,” who lived in the woods around the Royal community west of Hot Springs with his big arsenal of weapons. Moore would be dismayed to learn later that the masked man, Terry Nichols, who tied him up and robbed him of $50,000 and weapons, had been sent by his old buddy Tim.
McVeigh died of a lethal injection unrepentant, still expecting the insurrection he thought his heroism had engineered. Many others would follow him in the next two decades, including young Dylann Roof, the South Carolinian who expected his murder of nine Blacks during a worship service in 2015 to trigger the bloody race war that would install Aryan control of America for good, and Trump partisan Patrick Crusius, who shot 46 Latinos, half of them fatally, at an El Paso Walmart in 2019. Crusius had written a manifesto against race-mixing and the invasion of Mexicans and Guatemalans into White America, which the president was trying to stop.
What was missing for all the fanatics was The Word from a charismatic leader. They got it and flooded into Washington on Jan. 6.
By providence, luck — or sheer incompetent leadership, my theory — it did not work, thanks partly to a suddenly intrepid vice president, Mike Pence. The worry is that democracy, even in America, is proving to be vulnerable everywhere. That ought to be a preoccupation of all three branches of government and the citizenry — including our own Republican Party.