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Politics & Government

Far Right Extremism's History In America

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Authorities across the country are on guard in advance of Joe Biden's inauguration as president and after the assault on the U.S. Capitol. President Trump was impeached for inciting that attack, but he was not alone in leading us to that moment. Many Republican politicians were right there with him, peddling what's known as the big lie about voter fraud. And it started right after the election.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: And President Trump won this election. So everyone who's listening, do not be quiet. Do not be silent about this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Kevin McCarthy, House minority leader, on November 5 before the presidential race had even been called. The overheated and, as we now know, dangerous commentary continued hot and heavy.

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MATT GAETZ: Now we know that the swamp isn't truly drained until we've nailed the hides of the alligators to the wall.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Republican Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida on December 19 and Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert on January 1.

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LOUIE GOHMERT: That you got to go to the streets and be as violent as antifa and BLM 'cause...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Conservative media, meanwhile, fed the flames.

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MARK LEVIN: On January 6, we learn whether our Constitution will hold.

JEANINE PIRRO: January 6 will tell us whether there are any in Congress willing to battle for the America that those soldiers...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mark Levin and Jeanine Pirro, January 3. Here's Alex Jones on the ground in D.C. the night before the attack on the Capitol.

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ALEX JONES: They have tried to steal this election in front of everyone. I don't know how all this is going to end, but if they want a fight, they better believe they got one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And here's what he had to say to his audience after the assault.

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JONES: The White House told me three days before, we'll lead you to a point, take you out of the front row and lead you to the place where they want you to start the march. And Trump will tell people, go and I'm going to meet you at the Capitol.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Inside the Capitol during the proceedings on January 6, the first lawmaker to rise and formally challenge the results of the election was Republican Paul Gosar. And in that moment, NPR's Kirk Siegler saw a thread running through recent American history. Kirk joins us now from our bureau in Boise.

Hi, Kirk.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We know there's a long history of violent rhetoric in American political history and, in fact, a long history of violence. But what was it that jumped out to you when that congressman from Arizona stood up?

SIEGLER: Well, it's that some of the roots of the Capitol insurrection you can trace right through the Western U.S. In the West, tapping anti-government sentiment resonates in some places, part just because the federal government is just a huge presence here. It owns so much land, unlike back East.

So, you know, Lulu, you can go way back - well before Election Day, of course - and the kind of commentary that followed it that we just heard. In the '90s, some elected officials refused to condemn and sometimes supported far-right militia groups here in the West. And today, some of the loudest calls for overturning the free and fair election come from Western lawmakers like Gosar.

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PAUL GOSAR: You know what? Imagine this - that you can just sit and go back home once we conquer the Hill. Donald Trump is returned to being president.

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GOSAR: And amazing things will happen with four more years.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Gosar in a rally in Phoenix, December 19.

SIEGLER: That's right. He later, after the insurrection, condemned the violence. But more importantly, some Republican senators who had planned to vote against certifying the Electoral College reversed course. And one of them is Steve Daines from Montana. His campaign, as you may recall, even solicited donations for his staff to travel to Arizona to monitor ballot counting following President Trump's bogus fraud claims. But Daines explained his decision to reverse course in an interview with Yellowstone Public Radio. Let's listen to that.

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STEVE DAINES: I wanted to make sure we had a moment of unity, particularly coming off of the horrible events of Wednesday 'cause when it came time to actually vote on that objection, I voted no.

SIEGLER: And then there's the outgoing president himself. After urging on the mob, Trump issued a statement saying there must be no lawbreaking and no vandalism of any kind. Now, experts in extremism see a clear historical pattern here - politicians courting the far-right right up to a certain point.

RICHARD WHITE: They go up to them with - to the Capitol steps. They let them go in by themselves.

SIEGLER: Professor Richard White is a Western historian at Stanford.

WHITE: They egg them on. They egg them on. They support them in principle. And when they do something crazy and stupid and violent, they say, no, we were never talking about that.

SIEGLER: White says this is a pattern that's been going on since the 1990s. Some politicians, especially in the West, sympathized with militia groups that gained traction. Remember the standoffs at Waco, Texas; Ruby Ridge, Idaho; and the Freemen in Mont., the self-described Christian patriots who tried to secede. White says back then, lawmakers like the late Idaho Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth and Steve Stockman of Texas curried votes by capitalizing on anti-government sentiment.

By the way, Stockman had been in jail on fraud and other felony charges until President Trump commuted his sentence in December. Extremism experts say this behavior from elected leaders of either tacit or overt support for lawbreaking and extremism could lead to more violence.

Eric Ward runs the Western States Center in Oregon.

ERIC WARD: It is time to understand that there is an armed insurrectionist movement in the United States that seeks to overthrow American democracy.

SIEGLER: After the attack on the U.S. Capitol, 147 lawmakers still voted to challenge the counting of electoral votes. One of them was the new far-right congresswoman from rural Colorado, Lauren Boebert. She's under criticism for tweeting during the insurrection that the House speaker had left the chamber. Here's Boebert talking about her defense of the Second Amendment in a recent interview with Breitbart.

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LAUREN BOEBERT: This is our check on government. The Second Amendment has nothing to do with hunting, unless you're talking about hunting tyrants, maybe (laughter).

SIEGLER: Plenty of Second Amendment supporters in this region, including Montana's Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester, don't see it that way. Tester had some of the harshest words in Congress for his colleagues who supported overturning a democratic election.

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JON TESTER: I have damn little respect for people who wrap themselves in the flag and then try to burn this country down.

SIEGLER: So Lulu, Tester went on to call the Trump loyalists who stormed the U.S. Capitol domestic terrorists.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler with that really important context.

Thank you very much.

SIEGLER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.