Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) criticism this past week of efforts to rid America’s military of white nationalists has roiled the ongoing debate over how much the Pentagon should monitor racial attitudes within its ranks.
President Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin defended their efforts to counter extremism during commencement addresses over the weekend, though they didn’t mention Tuberville by name.
With talks beginning on the annual defense authorization bill next month, political clashes are sure to heat up over Defense Department (DOD) programs to weed out those with extreme views while promoting diversity and inclusion.
While the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has typically been a venue for culture war battles during the drafting process, some fear this year could see extraordinary hostility.
“I do think it’s going to be more contentious,” Wendy Via, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said of this year’s debate around the bill. “I sincerely hope that members on both sides of the aisle will recognize that this is not a political issue. This is a safety and national security issue.”
Tuberville found himself at the center of a storm of criticism last week over his interview with a local NPR station in Alabama, during which he was asked whether he thought white nationalists should be allowed to enlist and serve in the military.
“Well, they call them that. I call them Americans,” he replied in an interview with WBHM in Birmingham.
The comments drew swift condemnation from the left, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) last Thursday saying white nationalism “has no place in our armed forces and no place in any corner of American society.”
Tuberville, whose office quickly said the quotes were taken out of context, on Tuesday sought to further downplay the remarks.
“I’m totally against racism in the military. He’s trying to call me a racist. I’m not. Obviously, I’m not,” he told reporters in response to Schumer’s comments.
But in clarifying his comments, the senator’s office also suggested he did not believe the military had white nationalists in its ranks. Asked to comment for this article, Tuberville’s office pointed to his previous remarks to other publications.
“Sen. Tuberville’s quote that is cited shows that he was being skeptical of the notion that there are white nationalists in the military, not that he believes they should be in the military,” his office told AL.com.
A spokesman for Tuberville told The Washington Post that the senator “resents the implication that the people in our military are anything but patriots and heroes.”
His words also betray broader indignation among some Republican lawmakers over Pentagon efforts to find and remove extremist ideology within the military since the start of the Biden administration.
The GOP has lambasted DOD programs and training to recognize hateful rhetoric and ideology among military personnel or potential recruits. Republican lawmakers say the efforts only serve to politicize the military and keep potential recruits away when the military is struggling to hit recruiting goals.
However, Democratic lawmakers and top military officials say the programs are necessary to keep out those who would taint the ranks with extreme views and keep cohesion strong in a diverse organization.
Biden and Austin said as much in their commencement speeches at two historically Black universities on Saturday.
In his speech at Howard University, Biden urged unity “against the poison of white supremacy,” declaring it “the most dangerous terrorist threat to our homeland.”
And Austin, speaking to the graduating class at Fayetteville State University, recounted his time growing up in the Jim Crow South.
“Our local public high school had long been all-white. And one of my sisters and I were among the first Black students to integrate it,” Austin said. “Those were pretty ugly days. And the first year was especially tough.”
He also told graduates that military service “deepens our democracy,” adding that forward progress has never been easy.
“I know that the road forward may seem steep. And I know that many of you see the distance between where America is and where America should be. And what America can be,” Austin said. “But America’s real promise is our democracy. And our democracy needs you.”
Extremism and white supremacist ideology within the military have been well documented. That reality was front and center following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, with 1 in 5 defendants charged for their part in the riot having served in the military.
Following the Capitol attack, the DOD in spring 2021 held a militarywide extremism “stand-down,” meant to train service members on the dangers of extremist views and how to spot them.
The Pentagon also released a report in 2021 warning of the national security threat posed by extremist ideology in the military, noting that service members were “highly prized” recruits for white supremacist groups given their “proven ability to execute high-impact events.”
It’s also true that military services are struggling to meet recruiting goals in the face of a strong U.S. job market and young people who increasingly don’t view the military as a viable career path.
But military leaders have said that’s more of a reason to focus on inclusion as a major selling point to attract a more diverse crowd.
Tuberville last week told reporters that administration officials are “politicizing the military so much, they’re ruining our military,” pointing to the Army missing its 2022 recruiting goal by 25 percent.
“We can’t start distinguishing different types of people,” he said.
And he hasn’t been alone in that view. Conservative think tank Heritage Foundation called the efforts part of a “pernicious ideology” that damages the country’s ability to fight wars.
Rep. Cory Mills (R-Fla.), an Army veteran, in a Tuesday statement called Biden’s claim that white supremacy is the most dangerous terrorist threat to America “further fueling dangerous divisiveness” in the country.
“The President’s comments are disrespectful to armed services members who put their lives on the line for this country protecting us from real threats,” Mills said.
Last week, Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) introduced legislation that would prohibit using appropriated funds to investigate extremism in the military and audit diversity programs services use.
“Under the Biden Administration, the Pentagon has diverted its focus from lethality and have instead pushed initiatives that have politicized our warfighting ranks and harmed our military readiness,” Waltz said in introducing the bill.
“Our military faces the worst recruiting crisis since the Vietnam War because young Americans don’t want to join what was once a trusted institution that has become overly politicized and hyperfocused on [diversity, equality and inclusion] initiatives.”
But Via of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism said Republicans are pointing to dwindling recruitment numbers as “an excuse to not take these necessary steps to root out far-right extremism in our armed forces.”
“There are so many reasons why the military would not hit their recruitment numbers the same way that so many corporations or small businesses are unable to hire people,” Via said. “It’s a part of the job market. It is not because there’s been attention drawn to far-right extremists coming out of the military.”
Via’s group has been reaching out to lawmakers to have them adopt language in the NDAA to address extremism in the military, such as requiring social media screening for potential recruits, interventions for people who are found to be involved in far-right extremist groups, and training for commanders to handle the issue.
She said some of the offices have been very receptive to the need for such measures but are concerned about how to navigate it in the current political environment.
“It’s so extreme, the positions that some of the members of Congress are taking,” Via said, referring to Tuberville.
Whether anti-extremism language makes it into the final bill is up in the air, given the limited success in the past.
The Senate Armed Services Committee, for example, in a report accompanying its version of the NDAA last year, called for an “immediate” end to Pentagon counter-extremism programs. The committee said the threat of extremism in the military didn’t justify the time and dollars needed for training to prevent it or remove it.
And lawmakers who wrote last year’s final NDAA deleted or stripped down all eight House-passed provisions related to extremism in the military or America at large — most of which only sought information about threats posed by groups with extreme ideology.