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The Republican flip-flop on white domestic terrorists should have political consequences

The GOP's selective outrage did not go unnoticed, even among some Trump supporters.

A mother who had fled persecution after the Iranian Revolution. A beloved daughter who had left Vietnam when she was just 8 years old. A father who had emigrated from Eritrea to escape violence in his war-torn country.

They were all among the 14 people killed and 22 injured on Dec. 2, 2015, in San Bernardino, California, when a man and his wife opened fire on attendees at a holiday party. The man, Syed Rizwan Farook, was an American citizen, born in the U.S. His wife, Tashfeen Malik, was a native of Pakistan in the country on a nonimmigrant visa issued to fiancés of U.S. citizens.

That 2015 terrorist attack shocked the nation and changed American politics in ways that are still obvious today.

Fast-forward to last week, when an 18-year-old radicalized white man is alleged to have gunned down 10 people at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo.

For just the third time in his presidency, Barack Obama delivered an Oval Office address in which he condemned the killings but pleaded for tolerance:

"But just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination."

In sharp contrast, Donald Trump, then running for president, used the attack to supercharge his campaign. “You don’t want to hear how I’d handle it,” Trump boasted at a campaign rally. Days after the San Bernardino massacre, he called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."

In announcing his sweeping ban, Trump focused on what he called Islam’s ideology of hate.

While some establishment Republicans, like House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, pushed back against Trump, the radical proposal boosted the orange mogul’s campaign, and the GOP as a whole eventually came around. In 2017, top administration officials were still citing the shootings in San Bernardino as a justification for banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations. As critics noted, neither of the attackers in the shooting would have been covered by the ban. But relevance wasn’t the point — this was all about toughness.

Fast-forward to May 14, when 10 people were gunned down at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York, allegedly by an 18-year-old radicalized white man. Before the attack, authorities say the suspect posted a lengthy screed online that embraced the "great replacement theory," the same theory that has been used in racist and antisemitic killings around the world over the past decade.

During that same decade, as the threat posed by this strain of domestic terrorism became clearer, the GOP position on terrorism became muddier. Influential figures on the right — including elected Republicans — had begun to say things that sounded more and more like these manifestos, including the idea that white “legacy Americans” were being replaced by immigrants and minorities.

Last week, despite the growing evidence of white supremacist violence, all but one House Republican (Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, of course) voted against a bill aimed at addressing domestic terrorism. (The bill still passed.)

It’s not an especially robust piece of legislation. If passed by the Senate, it wouldn’t create any new criminal offenses or abridge any civil liberties. The legislation would establish domestic terrorism offices within the Justice and Homeland Security departments, as well as the FBI. It would also require new reports, with a focus on extremists who might infiltrate the military and law enforcement agencies.

Republican leaders went so far as to conflate the Buffalo murders with other episodes of the culture wars.

But the response from the GOP is a reflection of just how rapidly the political ground has shifted. A previous version of the same bill was passed by the House in an unanimous voice vote in September 2020. This time, though, House GOP leaders shrugged off the urgency of the threat and told members to vote "no.”

Republican leaders went so far as to conflate the Buffalo killings with other episodes of the culture wars. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., complained that the Justice Department had “targeted and labeled rightfully concerned parents as domestic terrorists for speaking out at school board meetings.” (The Washington Post’s Fact Checker has awarded that claim Four Pinocchios.)

After years of insisting that Obama and Democrats had to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” few if any GOP leaders now even acknowledge the problem of “white supremacist terrorism” or “antisemitic extremism.”

The party of law and order has gone noticeably soft on terrorism — or at least this kind of terrorism.

This selective outrage did not go unnoticed, even among some Trump supporters. The Ohio pastor Darrell Scott, who was one of Trump’s earliest evangelical Christian supporters in 2016, was appalled enough by the GOP’s muted sympathy for the victims of the Buffalo shooting to tweet about it. The leaders of the right “expressed more sympathy for Kyle Rittenhouse,” he argued.

In the Senate, Republicans are pledging to kill even the modest anti-terror measure. The party that once lined up behind a targeted ban on millions now takes umbrage at the notion of even monitoring the activities of American extremists and writing reports about them. “It sounds terrible,” said Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, likening the bill to “the Patriot Act for American citizens.” (Republicans had, of course, also overwhelmingly supported the original Patriot Act, which was passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.)

But the real tell was the defensive reaction from Republicans like Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. “The Democrats can’t even wait an hour before they blame the Republicans for the Buffalo shooting. I think it’s despicable,” Johnson complained.

Johnson protests too much.

His reaction suggests a guilty conscience. Taking an aggressive position on white nationalist violence might ensnare some of Johnson’s allies — or maybe even hold the right accountable for its own extremist rhetoric.

This flip-flop should have political consequences.

The Trumpified GOP may brush off allegations of racism, but its new squishiness on terrorism undermines a key pillar of its electoral strength, and — unless the Democrats are idiots — its about-face should be a potent wedge issue this year.