Tracing the Angry Path From Timothy McVeigh to Trumpism
HOMEGROWN: Timothy McVeigh and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism, by Jeffrey Toobin
It was the dog whistle heard ’round the world. When Donald J. Trump decided to kick off his latest presidential campaign on March 25 with a rally at Waco, Texas, he was issuing a call to the far-right fringe that was earsplitting, even by his own standards. It wasn’t simply the location but also the timing: a month shy of the 30th anniversary of April 19, 1993 — a date that marked the fiery, deadly end of the 51-day standoff between the F.B.I. and David Koresh at his Branch Davidian compound near Waco.
Along with the standoff at Ruby Ridge, in 1992, Waco became a galvanizing moment for the radical right. Exactly two years later, on the morning of April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh drove a Ryder truck loaded with a 7,000-pound fertilizer bomb to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. He lit the fuse, parked the truck and walked to his getaway car in a nearby alley. The blast sheared off the front third of the building, killing 167 people, 19 of them children. (Another victim, a rescue worker, was killed by falling debris.) Among the dead were 15 preschoolers who had just started their morning at the day care center on the second floor.
After white nationalists helped put Trump in the White House, McVeigh’s attack was featured in books by Kathleen Belew and Spencer Ackerman, who have convincingly depicted Oklahoma City as both a culmination and a turning point. McVeigh was a decorated veteran of Operation Desert Storm who drew his bombing plans directly from “The Turner Diaries,” a 1978 novel by a neo-Nazi that narrated a lurid fantasy of race war. He referred to his attack as a “military action” and attended militia meetings. Contrary to media portrayals of him at the time, McVeigh wasn’t just some lone-wolf drifter or survivalist oddball. He was steeped in an ideology; he was motivated by a political movement.
Jeffrey Toobin’s “Homegrown” adds to this chorus, but where those other books contain a chapter on Oklahoma City, the entirety of Toobin’s book is given over to McVeigh and the ensuing trials. Toobin covered the legal proceedings for The New Yorker, and he admits that like other journalists he got caught up in “the trail of evidence presented in the courtroom,” instead of stepping back to grasp McVeigh’s “place in the broader slipstream of American history.”
Part of the reason, he suggests, lies with how the government decided to prosecute the case — or, more specifically, how Merrick Garland, the official sent by the Justice Department to supervise the case, decided to prosecute it. Garland was so intent on pruning away anything resembling “clutter” that “the idea took hold that the bombing was just about Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols,” McVeigh’s co-conspirator.
The first half of the book recounts the events leading up to the bombing in Toobin’s unfussy prose. We read about McVeigh’s “troubled, but hardly extraordinary upbringing” near Buffalo — divorced parents (“his rage at his mother was intense”), a father whose job at a radiator plant became increasingly precarious. Toobin describes an arrogant, lonely kid who constantly deflected responsibility, loath to own up to his failures. By the time he met Nichols during basic training in 1988, McVeigh had already found the two things that would provoke in him a fanatical devotion: “The Turner Diaries” and guns.
McVeigh would go on to become a regular at gun shows, eventually cajoling Nichols into robbing a dealer so that they could fund their bombing plot. Oklahoma City would be their response to Ruby Ridge, to Waco, to the assault weapons ban of 1994. (McVeigh compared the ban to “the Cohen Act,” the gun control law in “The Turner Diaries.”) In other words, the federal government made them do it: McVeigh, who wanted to take credit for the attack while also wanting to be acquitted, at one point urged his legal team to pursue a “necessity defense” by arguing that the bombing was done to prevent greater harm.
“The argument was worse than nonsensical,” Toobin writes. “It was offensive.” McVeigh’s lawyers recognized as much. But all kinds of absurd ideas were entertained by the members of his legal team because they had an essentially unlimited budget, at government expense; the procedure-obsessed Garland wanted to pre-empt any criticism that McVeigh’s right to a robust defense had been compromised.
“Homegrown” repeatedly draws a “direct line” (as promised on the jacket copy) between the Oklahoma City bombing and the insurrection on Jan. 6; at multiple points Toobin interrupts his brisk narrative with some galumphing sentences reminding the reader of parallels that are glaringly obvious. The more intriguing parts of the book come from his descriptions of all the legal wrangling, much of it informed by 635 boxes of case files donated by Stephen Jones, McVeigh’s showboating attorney, to the University of Texas in 1999. Toobin describes how the lawyer and his client grew to dislike and mistrust each other. After McVeigh criticized Jones in “American Terrorist,” a book by two Buffalo News reporters, Jones claimed “a right to defend himself by disclosing his client’s confidences.”
Still, the lawyer who interests Toobin most is Garland — another point in the “direct line” between Oklahoma City and Jan. 6. Back then, Garland was a top official in the Justice Department; now, of course, he is the attorney general of the United States. Toobin, who interviewed Garland for the book, calls him “a reticent, cautious person” who was haunted by the “undignified spectacle” of the O.J. Simpson trial (which Toobin wrote a best-selling book about).
Vowing that the Oklahoma City trials would never devolve into silly theatrics, Garland wanted the case to hew as closely to McVeigh and Nichols as possible. So the prosecution “actively discouraged the idea that McVeigh and Nichols represented something broader — and more enduring — than just their own malevolent behavior,” Toobin writes. “This was a dangerously misleading impression.” It’s almost as if Toobin were addressing his book to Garland, as a cautionary tale, even if Garland’s legal strategy in Oklahoma ultimately proved successful: McVeigh was convicted on all counts and executed in June 2001; Nichols was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Besides, if Merrick Garland had sounded an alarm, would that really have had a transformative effect on the American public? Even Toobin has to concede that the 1990s felt like a very different time: “America was thriving, so how could McVeigh be anything except a regrettable oddity in this moment of national repose?” The fringe was still the fringe — it was too extreme, too weird, too atomized to coalesce into anything that could get its hands on actual power. Social media didn’t exist; Trump was still known primarily for his florid love life and gaudy casinos. Chilling what-ifs have since become routine facts in our warped reality: “McVeigh would talk about his belief that an ‘Army’ of fellow believers was somewhere out there, but he admitted that he never figured out how to reach them.”
HOMEGROWN: Timothy McVeigh and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism | By Jeffrey Toobin | Illustrated | 418 pp. | Simon & Schuster | $29.99