There’s a straight line from the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995 that killed 168 people to the steps of the United States Capitol in early 2021.
That’s the chilling premise of author Jeffrey Toobin’s latest book Homegrown: Timothy McVeigh and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism, which went on sale today.
Toobin takes readers into the world of convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh, an aimless young man with ties to Michigan who was obsessed with gun rights, disenfranchised by his lack of upward mobility and radicalized by voices on the right like Rush Limbaugh.
Toobin makes the case that McVeigh’s transformation was shaped by the some of the same forces that brought America’s democracy to the brink of disaster on January 6, 2021. He explains more in this email interview with Howard Polskin, editor of TheRighting, a free newsletter that tracks right wing media for mainstream audiences.
We are republishing the interview in full with permission from Polskin.
Polskin: You make a compelling case connecting the dots from the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing to the January 6 insurrection. At what point after the siege of the Capitol did it dawn on you that there was a direct connection?
Toobin: I saw that several were affiliated with the Michigan Militia. I had covered the McVeigh and Nichols trials in 1997, so I was familiar with the Militia and knew that Terry and James Nichols had connections to it. That piqued my interest, and when January 6 happened – and the issues looked to me so similar to those advocated for my McVeigh and Nichols, I decided to plunge in with a book.
Imagine it’s January 6, 2021. Tim McVeigh is on the steps of the Capitol Building teeming with an angry crowd of demonstrators and insurrectionists. Based on what you know about him, how do you think he would have behaved in that crowd?
I expect he would have been in the middle of the pack heading into the Capitol. He was not a leader of men; he could never rally anyone (except Terry Nichols) to join him in the bombing conspiracy. But he had the same extreme views as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers did in 2021, especially about gun rights, so I think he would have joined them in their attack.
If Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in 2023 resulting in the same casualties, how would right wing media have cast him? Misguided villain? Murderous sociopath? Patriot who took things too far? Hero?
The first thing the right-wing media would do is claim that the bombing was really set off by antifa, or some other left-wing group, as agent provocateurs, to create a backlash against the right. Alternatively, the right would claim (as many have, as I describe in the book) that foreign Islamic terrorists were somehow working with McVeigh. Anything but the truth – which is that McVeigh was a Limbaugh-loving right-wing extremist.
Your book notes the many hours that McVeigh spent crisscrossing the country in his car listening to Rush Limbaugh. Does the late right-wing radio giant have at least some blood on his hands for indirectly influencing an aimless young man into committing an act of mass murder?
I think arguments about causation are very difficult to prove. I don’t know how to establish with even journalistic certainty what exactly “caused” McVeigh to bomb the Murrah building. In the book, I try to set out all the influences in McVeigh’s life, including his unhappy family life and his limited economic prospects. But the fact that he was a loyal Limbaugh dittohead – something that had never been known before I revealed it in my book – is certainly part of the story as well.
The 1978 novel The Turner Diaries, which depicts a violent overthrow of the U.S. government, played a big role in shaping McVeigh’s distorted world view. Did you read it as part of your research? If so, what is your reaction?
For my sins, I read “The Turner Diaries” several times and referred to it often. It’s a horrible, vicious book, but it’s central to understanding McVeigh. He urged all his friends and family to read it. It’s full of grotesque stories of torture and murder of Blacks, Jews and their allies. Even though it’s harder to find these days – Amazon and other sites have stopped selling it – it’s still widely read in right-wing circles. The enduring popularity of “The Turner Diaries” makes it extremely important to understand.
In your interview for this book with Attorney General Merrick Garland, who was the federal prosecutor for McVeigh’s initial hearings, were you disappointed that he failed to draw a line between McVeigh and the January 6 insurrectionists? At the very least, it would have given you an amazing pull quote for the cover of the book.
I can’t say I was surprised or disappointed about my interview with Garland. I was grateful that he took the time, especially since he doesn’t do many interviews. But I do think his extreme caution in expressing himself publicly is a missed opportunity. McVeigh’s heirs are engaged in a continuing assault on American democracy, and the Attorney General has a crucial platform in fighting back against them. He should use it.
McVeigh was arrested by an Oklahoma State Trooper because he was carrying a gun without a permit. But that law changed in 2016. Do you think he would have gotten away with his hideous crime if Oklahoma gun laws weren’t as restrictive in 1995?
It’s a great “what if” question. If the current law was in effect in 1995, Trooper Charlie Hanger – a great hero in the book – would have had no legal basis to arrest McVeigh after he stopped him for lacking a license plate. Hanger could only have given him a ticket. What would have happened then? McVeigh was headed back to Herington, Kansas, where Nichols lived, where he was going to take off on the road . . . somewhere.
Even McVeigh himself didn’t really know what he was going to do. By late on the day of the bombing, the F.B.I. knew with almost total certainty that McVeigh had rented the truck used in the bombing. So there would have been a massive manhunt for him, and I suspect that he would eventually have been caught. But who knows?
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