Controversy over a Republican senator’s comments appearing to support white nationalists in the military are again exposing Republican lawmakers’ lingering anger over the Defense Department’s efforts to root out extremist ideology in the ranks.
Conservatives have blasted Pentagon’s efforts so far, which started in earnest after the January 2021 insurrection at the Capitol, decrying the training on how to spot hateful ideology as an effort to politicize the military and tarnish the public image of the armed forces. But Democratic lawmakers — and senior military officials — say teaching troops to identify and eschew extremism is necessary to prevent the few troops with radical views from poisoning the wider force with their hateful ideology.
“White nationalism has no place in our armed forces and no place in any corner of American society,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the chamber’s floor Thursday. He urged Senate Republicans to make a similar public pledge, in response to controversial comments by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., earlier this week.
Tuberville was asked if he thought white nationalists should be allowed to enlist and serve in the military.
“Well, they call them that,” Tuberville told NPR local station WBHM in Birmingham. “I call them Americans.”
Schumer said any support for such extremist views in the ranks is “utterly revolting,” but Tuberville’s office said the quotes have been taken out of context, insisting in a statement that the Republican senator “was being skeptical of the notion that there are white nationalists in the military, not that he believes they should be in the military.”
Tuberville, and many GOP colleagues, have criticized the Defense Department’s 2021 extremism “stand-down,” a military-wide training on the potential signs and dangers of extremist ideology. Critics said the training – part of diversity, equity and inclusion education embraced by the Biden administration – wasted troops’ valuable time, while military leaders said it amounted to only a few hours of extra work for each individual.
As Schumer delivered his Senate speech on Thursday, House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., introduced legislation which “prohibits the use of appropriated funds to investigate extremism in the military” and would require an audit of all diversity programs currently active across the services.
The measure is sure to be a key point of contention in the committee’s upcoming debate over the annual defense authorization bill, expected to be drafted next month.
Supporters of the Defense Department training and the broader anti-extremism efforts point to recurring issues of violent ideology among individuals linked to the military.
For example, in the eight months following the mandated stand-down, defense officials reported 100 cases of servicemembers engaging in prohibited acts of extremism, according to committee documents.
And last month, National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, 21, was arrested for leaking online classified documents related to U.S. support to Ukraine and other foreign allies. The Associated Press reported that the airman frequently posted racist and violent comments in online chat rooms.
And only days ago, a Texas man who years ago was booted after only three months of Army basic training, gunned down eight people in an attack investigators believe may have been spurred by his racist and pro-Nazi views.
In the wake of the Texas attack, members of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism are meeting with lawmakers, urging them to adopt the group’s recommendations to address extremism in the military, co-founder Wendy Via told the Military Times.
The group proposed about a dozen measures it wants the Pentagon to implement, including bolstering its tattoo database to keep watch for hateful insignia, investigating the social media activity of prospective recruits, and creating an intervention program for service members after they’ve been forcibly removed from the military and are vulnerable targets for extremist groups. So far, the group has experienced pushback in Congress, Via said.
“There should be more opportunity for members of the military to have this kind of extremist training, just like they have sexual assault training,” Via said. “Just because they have sexual assault training doesn’t mean that every member of the military is prone to commit sexual violence.
“Nor is training about extremism meant to say that every member of the military is racist.” But Via said that’s what lawmakers are saying of the training, “in order to justify their refusal to address any kind of white supremacy.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She's reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.
Allison Erickson is a journalist and U.S. Army Veteran. She covered military and veterans' affairs as the 2022 Military Veterans in Journalism fellow with The Texas Tribune and continues to cover the military community. She has written and reported on topics such as migration, politics, and health.