A Far-Right Crackdown? Merrick Garland Will Have to Avoid These Pitfalls to Win

If there's one thing Merrick Garland knows about, it's tackling domestic terrorism.

During his time at the Department of Justice, Joe Biden's attorney general nominee helped prosecute the men behind the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, the worst domestic attack to occur in the U.S.

Garland also supervised over other high-profile cases including the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber.

So when he vowed at Monday's confirmation to make "do everything in the power of the Justice Department" to stop domestic terrorism as attorney general and described the country as facing "a more dangerous period" than it did after Oklahoma because of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, it is worth taking note.

However, experts have suggested that while this was a much needed statement of intent following four years of a Donald Trump presidency—where he was frequently accused of emboldening his far-right support and impeached over allegations he incited the insurrection at the Capitol—this does not necessarily mean extremist groups will be cowering over the expected new attorney general.

"What choice did he have, but to say we're going to clamp down on these groups," Adele M. Stan, editor of Right Wing Watch, told Newsweek.

Stan noted that this is not the first time that the U.S. government has turned their attentions on extremist groups and faced calls for the laws to change with regards domestic terrorism—which is not a designated crime in the U.S.

As well as the scrutiny in the 1990s following the Oklahoma attack, the Department of Homeland Security also warned about the rising threat of the far-right in 2009 before the report was controversially withdrawn by then Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano.

"They wound up withdrawing that report, because it was then rhetorically cast as an attempt to smear the right. And the right being read largely by American as Republicans. So it becomes politicized very, very quickly," Stan said.

"What tends to happen is the powers of the United States government are brought to bear down on these right wing movements, and then there is a ferocious backlash, and the government backs down."

Indeed there was almost immediate backlash to Garland's statement saying he will focus on the prosecution of the white supremacists involved in the January 6 attack during the hearing.

Sen. Josh Hawley, who has received intense criticism in the wake of the Capitol riot, questioned whether he would also prosecute those involved with attacking courthouses during Black Lives Matter protests last year in Portland, Oregon, as domestic terrorists.

Garland replied attacking an empty building at night is not comparable to the "attack on our democratic institutions" like what was seen at the Capitol.

Hampton Stall, senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), described how when the FBI or DHS have previously attempted a crackdown on certain ideologies like what Garland has suggested, there often is a correlation that targets other groups.

"I'm a little bit skeptical of when these policy agendas are being set, because often in order to seem fair they'll 'up things' on other targets that they see are comparable," Stall told Newsweek.

"And historically, in the United States, that means that the heavier hand falls on left operations or Muslim and black operations."

As far as the future of far-right groups such as Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, Stan believes the threat of future domestic terrorism designations will not damage those involved in the long run.

"The far-right behaves like a virus and injects itself into a host body. It'll go dormant for a while, and then it comes back in an increasingly virulent strain," Stan said.

"In the wake of the far-right melee in Charlottesville in 2017, there was a lot of fallout following and several groups just imploded.

"And then what happened less than four years later," Stan adds.

"They're not prepared for losing the game. Some people disappear from the scene, and others stick around and come back in another form."

The Proud Boys in particular have become more fractured in the past few months after being invigorated by Trump's time in the White House.

The far-right group recently have had to deal with leading members being charged in connection to the Capitol attack and chapters turning on their leader Enrique Tarrio after it emerged he used to work as an FBI informant. The group have also rebranded themselves on some social media apps from Proud Boys to "The Western Chauvinist" as associations with the name becomes more toxic.

"The Proud Boys are fairly toast," Hall suggested. "They're going to evolve into something different.

"There are several lessons that Proud Boys can take away from this. One that is most worrying is the stance that 'oh it didn't really work to do PR' and they just take a hard right turn."

The Proud Boys do not seem to be too concerned in the wake of Garland's hearing and suggest they will survive their current turbulent times.

Posting on The Western Chauvinist Telegram channel, the group wrote: "The crackdown on Patriotic Americans is inevitable under a Joe Biden administration. It's already being done to Capitol Hill protesters from January 6th.

"They will persecute us for simply loving our people and nation. At first it may seem like they have the upper hand but inevitably the pendulum will swing back in our direction and millions will flock to our cause."

proud boys
A man wears a Proud Boy vest as several hundred members of the Proud Boys and other similar groups gathered at Delta Park in Portland, Oregon on September 26, 2020. Maranie R. STAAB / AFP/Getty