The spectre of right-wing extremism is no stranger to most Americans. From Dylann Roof’s massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to the Oklahoma City bombing, right-wing extremism has a long history of violence. However, the concept of right-wing extremism itself is a rather controversial topic in the US, one that is often overshadowed and downplayed. It was Republicans who decried a 2009 Department of Homeland Security report on right-wing extremism as an unfair characterisation of veterans and the political right. Any discussion on the matter is immediately classified as a political attack against conservatism, derailing any meaningful insight into the potential threat and prevalence of this extremist thought.
Right-wing extremism itself is a wide label, consisting of a loose tapestry of ideology, politics, and identity. According to a 2016 report by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, US right-wing extremism includes “various Ku Klux Klans, neo-Nazis, Christian Identity, racist neo-Pagan believers, white power skinheads, Posse Comitatus, and segments of the anti-government Militia, Patriot, and Sovereign Citizen Movements.” Anti-government and white supremacist thought generally tends to be the most widely accepted tenets in these American extremist groups.
Throughout the past decade, the media has been peppered with reports of plots and violent attacks committed by right-wing extremism, painting a clear picture of resurgence. The Southern Poverty Law Center has particularly this rise. Within the past two years, membership to hate groups have seen a marked increase for the second year in a row after a historic high in 2011, with 917 hate groups operating within the country. Criminal instances have risen as well, with the NYPD statement on the doubling of hate crimes committed against Jewish people in 2017. Internal government reporting have also highlighted the dangers posed by right-wing extremism. A 2012 directive by the Department of Defense banned soldiers from racist websites and instructed commanders to remain alert for racism, in part due to the massacre at a Sikh Temple perpetrated by a US Army veteran. Within the first two months of 2017, over 140 bomb threats were called in to Jewish Community Centres, in addition to several vandalism incidents that involved Jewish cemeteries and Nazi imagery.
Recent reports suggest that white supremacists have infiltrated some levels of local law enforcement around the country. The Intercept, allegedly obtaining a classified 2015 FBI Counter-Terrorism Policy Guide, reported that “domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers,” paralleling a similar 2006 FBI report on white supremacists’ “historical interest” in infiltrating law enforcement. Anti-government extremism poses an additional and specific threat to law enforcement, evident from the numerous causalities resulting from attacks on their officers, as these extremist lash out at armed authority. In 2015, the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security released a survey of law enforcement, identifying anti-government extremism as the most severe threat their agencies face.
This resurgence has gone beyond simple extremism. Mirroring the rise of ISIS-related social media, white nationalist groups have overshadowed jihadist groups in every sense. One study found that follower of white nationalist groups on Twitter grew by 600% between 2012 and 2016, outperforming ISIS in tweets per day. Other websites, such as Reddit and 4chan, have found themselves as a safe haven for these rising tides. Stormfront, a popular white supremacist website, has seen growth as well, to the point that the founder is upgrading its servers. With a historical tendency towards symbolism, white supremacists have embraced and proliferated “memes” depicting Nazi imagery mixed with pop culture throughout social media. The line between “troll” humour and white supremacy, however, is blurred.
The most significant aspect of this resurgence are the effects it has had on mainstream politics. In 2010, Richard Spencer, the current President of the white supremacist National Policy Institute, infamously coined the term “alternative right” or “alt-right” which would soon come to be used to describe a new political identity that rejects mainstream conservatism. Although the term has come to stand as an umbrella for a host of beliefs, such as anti-immigration and anti-globalism, the core theme centres on an embracement and advancement of white identity, at the expense of minority ethnic groups. With its entirely unconventional nature, the election upheaval in 2016 became a platform for the new ideology. Whether or not President Donald Trump has mutual feelings, he has become something of a messiah for white nationalist and right-wing extremist groups, who use him as a platform to introduce racial politics, such as the term, “white genocide,” to the public. Spencer and others claim Trump as one of their own, to the point that Trump was the second most referenced topic on white nationalist twitter accounts. While white nationalist beliefs may not be held by Trump or those on the political scene, the “alt-right” has made inroads towards the normalisation and acceptance of their ideology in mainstream culture, co-opting narratives and inserting subtle references of white identity policies in popular politics.
The resurgence of right-wing extremism in the US has evolved rather uniquely. Not only has the threat and number of extremist violence grown, but its popularity has surged as a social media presence and as an attempt in political legitimisation and normalisation. Notably, the topic has become impossibly controversial, muddying the line between extremism and far-right political ideology.
Factors leading to Resurgence
The question, however, remains on the why. The 2009 joint FBI and DHS report made a number of suggestions that help explain the growth. The 2007-2008 financial crisis has been offered as an explanation for the anti-government extremists, as “the consequences of a prolonged economic downturn—including real estate foreclosures, unemployment, and an inability to obtain credit—create a fertile recruiting environment for right-wing extremists and even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities similar to those in the past.” Racial elements, following the white supremacist trend in right-wing extremism, were also indicators. The election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president and the heated political debate on immigration have also been used to mobilise supporters and to recruit and radicalise new ones. Notably, the report suggests a parallel to the 1990’s, with similar economic conditions and the perception of government overreach in social issues and gun control.
Although that report is well over eight years old, much of it still rings true today, perhaps not in reality, but in rhetoric. Many of the factors outlined by the 2009 report (dissatisfaction with economy, immigration, gun control, anti-government and globalism) are core tenets of Donald Trump’s ideological pull, and as such, are key elements to the political platform of many conservative politicians. These alone do not reinforce a resurgence of right-wing extremism. Trump and his team has repeatedly distanced himself from white nationalists and the “alt-right, and in fact, Trump used to be frequently referred to as a “secret Jew” on many white supremacist websites. Instead, Trump’s newfound appeal to the right-wing extremists, particularly the white supremacist/nationalist elements, originate with his extreme and hard-line stance on immigration, especially in turns of proportionality with his political opponents. Professor Eric Kaufmann argues that rapid demographic change has largely led to this rise of right-wing extremism, tapping into cultural anxieties, as “anxiety over white identity and anti-immigrant populist politicians can have a symbiotic relationship, each strengthening the other…When populist politicians gain mainstream success, that can make white nationalist ideas more socially acceptable.”
Trump’s hard-line stance may not be rooted inherently in racist intentions, but right-wing extremists will certainly use it to mobilise and recruit supporters, especially while Trump presents mixed opinions. While Trump decried the 2017 bomb threats against Jewish Community Centres, he also suggested they could be false flag attempts, a claim also held made by many white supremacists. To these extremists, Trump may not be the ideal candidate, but he’s a step in the right direction. When the SITE Intelligence Group reported on Trump’s first State of the Union, they noted a mixed reaction from the white supremacist online community. Some in the community were angered at his support for Israel, but they also acknowledged that he isn’t a white nationalist, only a “stepping stone.” As Sociologist Pete Simi sums it up, “This election, for white supremacists, was a signal that ‘We’re on the right track’ … I have never seen anything like it among white supremacists, where they express this feeling of triumph and jubilee. They are just elated about the idea that they feel like they have somebody in the White House who gets it.”
Assessing the Threat
Given its resurgence, the severity of the threat posed by right-wing extremism must now be called into question. Both impact and probability are key elements in any risk assessment. Notably, right-wing extremist violence has a high frequency and probability of occurrence in the US, especially in comparison to violence from Islamist extremists. However, in comparisons with Islamist extremist violence, incidents from right-wing extremists have a lower impact, particularly in measurements of fatalities. Right-wing extremists also tend to lean towards reactive violence far more, although the results widely depend on the standards used in any particular report. In a comparison of two studies, right-wing extremist violence remains at low levels when measuring for premeditated attacks, averaging three attacks and deaths per year, yet that average swells to 337 attacks and 25 deaths per year when the premeditation requirement is left out. This is consistent with other reports, such as a 2015 DHS intelligence assessment of sovereign citizen extremism, where the acts of violence were identified as sporadic, “consisting primarily of unplanned, reactive violence targeting law enforcement officers during active enforcement efforts.” The relative low impact of right-wing extremist violence due to the lack of premeditated plots should not be underestimated. Between 9/12/2001 and 2016, 156 deaths over 81 events were credited to right-wing extremism, compared to 119 deaths over 31 events credited to Islamist extremism. This high probability and low impact of violence perpetuated by right-wing extremists served to overshadow the low probability but high impact of Islamist extremist violence.
Other factors can help assess the threat of right-wing extremism in the US as well. A 2016 START report on Recruitment and Radicalisation among US Far-Right Terrorists, discovered a greater preference towards interpersonal violence amongst US right-wing extremists, alongside several barriers, such as factionalisation, that forced the members away from committing mass casualty violence. Other factors are more subjective. With the emergence of the “alt-right”, will right-wing extremist reduce their violent activity due to an increased access to political capital that can potentially address their concerns? Or will political disappointment radicalise more towards a path where the only change they can imagine lies through violence?
The latter seems far more reasonable. In February 2017, the Conservative Political Action Conference removed Richard Spencer, the purported leader of the “alt-right” from the popular conservative conference, citing his views as “vile.” Trump’s inauguration also saw Spencer get assaulted by an anti-fascist protester, resulting in the “alt-right” creating a bounty to discover the identity of the attacker. This may not suggest that the entirety of the “alt-right” and other right-wing extremist groups will move towards a more violent activity, but it does increase the potential of further radicalisation and violence as they retaliate to public humiliation.
The resurgence of a right-wing extremist ideology and the steady numbers of violent attacks do not alone contribute to the greatest risk potential. Instead, it is the absence of government action and scrutiny towards these extremists are the greatest multipliers of threat. The 2009 joint DHS and FBI report on right-wing extremist resurgence saw a massive backlash amongst the conservative political scene, eventually culminating in the disavowal of the report and the dismantling of the DHS investigative unit. The backlash highlights the pure political controversy surrounding right-wing extremism, given its linkages to veterans and conservatism, which has allowed the issue to go publicly unaddressed. In 2011, in an attempt to rectify the issue, the Obama administration introduced a counter-radicalisation initiative known as Countering Violent Extremism or CVE for short. The ascension of Trump to the presidency signalled an even more extreme version of CVE, which would be restyled “Countering Islamic Extremism,” removing all focus on right-wing extremist groups in the US. If the Trump administration continues to enforce regressive policies that ignore one of the largest domestic threats to the US public, the potential for violence will remain concurrent with the resurgence of right-wing extremism.
This is the first in a series from Gregory Wilson that will examine the resurgence of right-wing extremism.
Gregory is a partner and director at PGW.
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