Power  /  Book Review

American Carnage

A new book about Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing traces the path from Ronald Reagan’s antigovernment ideology to today’s radicalized right.

A major turning point in the Republican Party’s rightward radicalization and its fitful convergence with the evolving conspiratorial and white supremacist netherworld—populated today by groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and QAnon—came during the fall and winter of 1994, culminating in the spring of 1995. Much to the shock of Republicans who assumed that Reagan had created a national coalition that would last for decades, a Democrat, Bill Clinton, won the presidency in 1992. Republican strategists shifted their attention to Congress, and in November 1994, led by the firebrand Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the party captured the majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. Rewarded with the speakership, Gingrich dominated the news cycle with slash-and-burn denunciations of “sick,” “corrupt,” “anti-flag” Democrats. Advised by the political consultant Frank Luntz, he adopted his poll-tested vocabulary of demonization, published in a private memo entitled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control”: “anti-child,” “decay,” “welfare,” “traitors.”

Limbaugh, Liddy, and smaller-fry right-wing radio shock jocks added their own blend of conspiracy mongering and personal abuse. The prolonged and fatal siege in 1993 involving an armed religious sect, the Branch Davidians, and federal law enforcement in Waco, Texas, became a cause célèbre on both sides of the increasingly blurry border between the GOP hard right and the paramilitary extremists. “Go for a head shot,” the ex–Watergate plotter Liddy shouted into his radio microphone, instructing listeners on how to kill federal firearms officials. “The second violent American revolution,” Limbaugh declared around the same time, “is just about—I got my fingers about a quarter of an inch apart—is just about that far away.”

Out of this toxic mix of cultism and grifting came Timothy McVeigh, a young, decorated army veteran, subscriber to The Spotlight, gun show enthusiast, and avid fan of Limbaugh’s. He had developed a burning hatred of Bill and Hillary Clinton and studied The Turner Diaries like a field manual. In April 1995, on the second anniversary of the end of the Waco siege, McVeigh parked a Ryder rental truck crammed with barrels of fertilizer explosive, flicked his Bic lighter to fire a five-minute fuse, and blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, 19 of them children.

Nearly everything went according to plan that day for McVeigh and his accomplice, Terry Nichols, except the most important thing of all: their audacious attack failed to touch off a revolutionary uprising. Yet the fallout from what McVeigh and Nichols conceived as an act of war against the US government did nothing to pause the radicalization of American right-wing politics inside and outside the Republican Party, which continues to this day. As Jeffrey Toobin writes in Homegrown, the story of the Oklahoma City atrocity is “not just a glimpse of the past but also a warning about the future.”