Report: When Obama Became President, Right-Wing Violence Fell

Revisiting the Brown Scare of 2009-10.


You may have encountered some of the outraged responses to "Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America's Violent Far-Right," a recent study from the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point. Having seen some of those perturbed conservative reactions before I read the actual paper, I approached it expecting a Brown Scare document along the lines of Daryl Johnson's infamous Homeland Security report on "rightwing extremism."

That isn't what I found. I certainly don't agree with everything in the new paper, but unlike Johnson's sloppy effort it actually includes some substantial data. Here's the key chart, labeled "Attacks Initiated by Far-Right Groups/Individuals per Year":

Combatting Terrorism Center

Before we go further, a caveat from the author, Arie Perliger: "the quality of, and accessibility to, data on hate crimes and far right violence has improved during the last two decades: we need to take this into consideration when interpreting findings relating to fluctuations in levels of violence." It's not clear to what extent the apparent growth from 1990 to 2011 reveals a real increase in the number of violent incidents and to what extent it just means the measurements are more accurate.

So perhaps it's unwise to use this chart to compare the present to 20 years ago. But if you narrow your focus to the last few years, you see something pretty interesting. In 2009 and 2010—the period when the "rising right-wing violence" narrative was ubiquitous in the media—the number of incidents was actually declining. Let me repeat that: When the Tea Party protests were taking off and Frank Rich et al were warning about the great beast stirring in the fever swamps, the number of attacks was going down.

Instead, the bulk of the increase took place under Bush, not Obama, with a peak during the 2007-08 election season. Perliger argues that this is part of a broader pattern in which "presidential election years and the preceding year are characterized by an increase of far-right violence," and he suggests that the increase in 2011 might represent the same cycle repeating itself. 1996 was an exception, he hypothesizes, because it featured "the least-competitive elections of the last 22 years"; he raises the possibility that "far-right groups and individuals are more inclined to engage in violence in a contentious political climate." Maybe.

Hey, at least it came out the right year.

What happens if you take out the white supremacists, the anti-abortion killers, and so on, and just stick to the people the paper calls the "anti-federalist movement"—militias, sovereign citizens, and others opposed to the concentration of power in Washington, D.C.? Then the Perliger paper does show a brief spike in 2010. Usually, he reports, there are about one to four violent incidents involving "anti-federalists" each year. In 2010, the number jumped to 13. The next year, it dropped back down to two. Perliger contrasts these data with the Southern Poverty Law Center's warnings that the number of anti-federal "Patriot" groups has been growing steadily since 2008. I've argued in the past that the SPLC's count is not a very good proxy for the threat of political violence, and this certainly seems to confirm that.

As I said, I have my disagreements with the paper. (I think the author uses the word "militia" too loosely, for example.) And I'd like to take a look at the raw data, as I've got a number of unanswered questions about Perliger's figures. How many of those 13 "anti-federal" incidents in 2010 involved militias, for instance? Was the spike related to the debate over health care reform? What kind of violence was involved?

But it's unfair to classify this paper with the DHS report. Better to marvel at the contrast between the picture offered here and the picture offered in the press at the time, when the assassination of an abortion doctor and an attack on a Holocaust museum were seen as a sign that a new wave of right-wing violence was taking off in 2009.