Anatomy of a smear campaign: How right-wing media neutralized a Pentagon effort to address white supremacy in the military

Right-wing media smeared the Pentagon official mitigating white supremacy in the military. Now his unit has been abandoned.

Right-wing media outlets and personalities leveled repeated attacks against a modest Pentagon initiative created in 2021 to address high levels of white supremacy in the military, ultimately neutralizing the effort and leading to the unit’s abandonment. The conservative campaign was directed at military veteran Bishop Garrison, who led the Countering Extremism Working Group, which has now “vanished virtually without a trace,” according to a recent report from CNN. 

Garrison was tasked with identifying and addressing the type of extremist views that would be later espoused by Jack Teixeira, who recently stole and leaked a trove of classified information to impress his private online community. Teixeira, currently in custody and potentially facing a 25-year sentence, reportedly believed that the United States was heading toward a “race war” that would pit white people against racial and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ people.

CNN reports:

As the Pentagon grapples with the aftermath of the leak, the working group’s stated objectives look eerily prescient, and, in some cases, tailor-made to zero-in on the sort of anti-government, White supremacist behavior and views espoused by Teixeira.

CNN interviews with multiple sources familiar with the working group reveal that the Pentagon largely abandoned the effort to combat extremism in its ranks, as senior officials folded under political pressure from Republicans who lashed out at the initiative as an example of so-called wokeism in the military.

The U.S. military has a long history of white supremacism in the ranks, including among veterans who have started or joined far-right terrorist groups after their service. More than 80 people charged with participating in the January 6 insurrection had ties to the military, primarily as former service members, according to CBS News.

The apparently successful right-wing effort to sideline Bishop’s group follows the standard conservative playbook of smearing Democratic government officials who are Black, LGBTQ, Muslim, or from other marginalized groups as internal enemies, and it will also likely serve as a template for future, similar campaigns. Right-wing media outlets have spent months convincing their consumers that the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the IRS are persecuting conservatives, with the clear aim of operationalizing these federal agencies against these media figures’ opponents — exactly what they wrongly accuse the Biden administration of doing. This programming dovetails exactly with Rep. Jim Jordan’s (R-OH) subcommittee on the weaponization of the federal government, which claims to be exposing a governmentwide conspiracy to throttle conservative activists and ideas. The committee has so far failed on its own terms, but Jordan remains undeterred.

Anatomy of a smear campaign

On February 16, 2021, Garrison was appointed to a newly created role to advise Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on how to reduce and mitigate the threat of white supremacy in the U.S. military. The announcement went largely unremarked upon in both mainstream and conservative media for several weeks.

Then on May 5, conservative website Revolver published a story headlined “Meet Bishop Garrison: The Pentagon’s Hatchet Man in Charge of Purging MAGA Patriots and Installing Race Theory in The Military.” The site's founder, Darren Beattie, tweeted the piece out, highlighting the quote “​​The Biden administration has just put the equivalent of Ibram X. Kendi in charge of vetting the entire U.S. military." (Beattie was fired from the Trump administration in 2018 after CNN discovered that he had attended a white nationalist conference two years prior.)

The following day, Fox News Primetime’s host Pete Hegseth devoted a segment to Garrison’s appointment, describing Garrison’s effort as “a purge, a purge of the Defense Department led by a new, and now powerful, radical leftist, a 1619 Project activist, a hardcore social justice Democrat, a man who believes all Trump supporters are racist and extremists."

Video file

Citation From the May 6, 2021, edition of Fox News' Fox News Primetime

Hegseth then referred to Garrison as “the Pentagon's newly minted MAGA purge man” and cribbed Revolver’s line nearly verbatim but without attribution.

“How do I put this?” Hegseth asked. “The White House just put the equivalent of Ibram X. Kendi, the author of How to Be an Antiracist, in charge of vetting the entire U.S. military, past, present, and future." 

A day later, Beattie appeared on Hegseth’s program to discuss Revolver’s piece, which largely consisted of Garrison’s tweets and other writings and social media posts.

Video file

Citation From the May 7, 2021, edition of Fox News' Fox News Primetime

Beattie framed the issue by calling Garrison’s working group an example of “the most disturbing trend in American politics,” which is “that increasing swathes of our own national security apparatus have been repurposed and redeployed domestically against American citizens.”

Days later, conservative media website Just the News published a story that highlighted Hegseth’s comments from his initial segment.

On May 13, Revolver published another piece on Garrison with the factually incorrect headline “‘Free Speech Is A Digital Black Plague’: Bishop Garrison is Key Mercenary in Biden’s Dark War Against The First Amendment.”

Despite the quotation marks in the headline, the piece doesn’t include any evidence that Garrison wrote or spoke that exact phrase. Instead, the piece links to an op-ed Garrison published about the dangers of ideological polarization in news consumption leading to the spread of bad information, a fitting if ironic topic given Revolver’s mischaracterization of his stance. It’s true he described what he characterized as partisan echo chambers as a “digital black plague” that poses a danger to social cohesion, a relatively pedestrian observation common among mainstream commentators.   

The next day, Beattie appeared on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast to discuss Garrison’s purview more broadly.

Video file

Citation From the May 14, 2021, edition of Real America's Voice's War Room

Underscoring the siloed, self-perpetuating conservative media echo chamber, Bannon introduced the topic by claiming, “I’m seeing it everywhere — Just the News has got it, the great Pete Hegseth had it, then he had a second night with you on it,” before asking Beattie for an update.

Beattie then recycled his website’s misleading framing with a rhetorical sleight-of-hand, substituting Garrison’s actual point about information silos with the false claim that he opposed free speech protections more broadly.

Beattie described Garrison’s purported role “in the Biden administration’s dark war on the First Amendment. We’ve uncovered a article of his calling, basically, the free speech digital environment that would include War Room, that would include Revolver, but also in his words includes the Sinclair Network and Fox, as a ‘digital black plague’ — those are his words to describe the digital free speech environment that enables the American people to see narratives that oppose the official narratives on COVID, on the election, and now on [the insurrection of] 1/6.”

One day later, Fox News’ Jesse Watters picked up the story, interviewing Hegseth about Beattie’s reporting, adding another link in the human-centipede-esque food chain of bad information.

Video file

Citation From the May 15, 2021, edition of Fox News' Watters' World

Watters introduced Garrison as being “in charge of bringing critical race theory into our Armed Forces,” adding, “They’re calling him the Pentagon's hatchet man because his job is to purge patriots from the ranks.” 

“This is about, Jesse, as scary as it gets,” Hegseth responded. “I mean, really this is, this truly is a purge of patriots. They're using January 6 as the ultimate justification.”

Two days later, former Fox News marquee star Tucker Carlson discussed Garrison on his prime-time show. 

Video file

Citation From the May 17, 2021, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight

Carlson referenced Revolver’s posts before characterizing Garrison as “an activist type” and “a lunatic.” 

“Now — and this is the point — he is one of the most powerful officials in the U.S. military,” Carlson added. “Democrats in Congress are thrilled as they watch this. Their party now has all the tanks and drones.”

The campaign against Garrison continued at that pace for weeks, misleading framing and bad information congealing into an impenetrable narrative of conservative persecution. Beattie returned to War Room, right-wing Epoch TV covered the story, Carlson aired another segment on it, and Hegseth continued to beat the drum on Fox News. 

As late as October 2022, Beattie referenced Garrison on War Room as an antecedent to a supposedly even more “outrageous” Pentagon commission on recommending changes to military bases named after members of the Confederacy. 

Taken as a whole, this process clearly demonstrates how right-wing media will vigorously oppose efforts to mitigate widespread white supremacy and later defend the subsequent, predictable outcomes that ideology and set of power relations produces. As but one example, former Fox News host Tucker Carlson defended Teixeira’s actions by misleadingly casting him as a whistleblower when in fact there is no reporting to suggest he ever meant for the information he stole to be made publicly available. The fact that Teixeira’s bigoted beliefs went unnoticed and undisciplined by the military is a feature, not a bug, of this dynamic.   

There are fair criticisms to be made about the larger White House initiative, such as asking what it would mean to root out white supremacy from an institution that has been at the forefront of U.S. empire expansion, directed primarily at nonwhite populations, since at least the Mexican-American War. Needless to say, conservatives were making the exact opposite critique, arguing that attempts to decrease the spread of white supremacist beliefs among service members are inherently illegitimate.

That the boilerplate backlash was successful despite being led by such mediocrities as Pete Hegseth and Darren Beattie — whom Bannon recently derided as a man-child — does not speak particularly well of the Biden administration. It also suggests that these demonization campaigns can potentially succeed absent any shimmering talent leading the charge, instead relying on mid-level functionaries in the larger conservative ecosystem repeatedly hammering the point home.