The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.
In recent months, American far-right extremists have been capturing the attention of publics worldwide. Adherents of the QAnon movement implicated in acts of political violence, the Michigan-based Wolverine Watchmen who plotted to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer and possibly also Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, and vehicle-ramming attacks on police brutality protesters, are but the tip of an iceberg. This is a troubling uptick in violent far-right activism erupting in much intensified social media incitements against minorities, immigrants and the government.
Though the recent events have catapulted far-right violence to a national concern, an off the radar creep in far-right extremism has been occurring for a large portion of the last decade. The data speak for themselves: Far-right terrorist attacks increased by 320 percent (!) between 2014 and 2019 according to the 2019 Global Terrorism Index, an analytical product based on the Global Terrorism Database. In 2018 alone, far-right terrorist attacks made up 17.2 percent of all terrorist incidents in the West, compared to Islamic groups which made up 6.28 percent of all attacks. Research we and our colleagues have been conducting with thousands of terrorists and extremists in various parts of the globe offers important insights into these troubling phenomena.
Our work has uncovered the three factors whose conjunction produces radicalization, the three pillars of violent extremism. The first pillar is the need, people’s universal quest for recognition, dignity and significance. We all have this need, yet very few of us become violent extremists. Why is it so? The answer lies in the remaining two ingredients of radicalization, the narrative and the network. The narrative addresses the ‘How’ of significance; what one needs to do to gain respect and recognition. The network, people’s ingroup, leaders and respected peers, validates the narrative. Moreover, it dispenses admiration and respect to those who implement its dictates.
In recent years, these three factors, the 3Ns of radicalization, came dangerously together creating a combustible mixture, a perfect storm for far-right extremism. Two factors have been particularly major drivers in reducing the sense of significance among many Americans; the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice protests that proliferated in the summer of 2020. The profound uncertainty introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic makes people feel vulnerable and fragile. Threats of succumbing to the virus, as well as losing one’s job and economic security are deeply humiliating and create a sense that one is losing control over one’s life. Lockdowns, mask mandates, and other government measures add to the stress. The racial justice protests and the violence that has accompanied them have compounded a sense of significance loss for some white Americans. They feel threatened by claims of systemic racism and believe that the protest movement imperils their place in society.
The far-right narrative offers a way to restoring these people’s threatened sense of self. It identifies the alleged culprits responsible for their misery, the minorities, the Jews, the Chinese, the immigrants, the government. And it issues a call to violent action against these ‘enemies’, a method to address their grievance.
These days the most vociferous far-right conspiracy theory in the United States is QAnon, whose narrative claims the existence of a cabal of Satanists, pedophiles, Democrats, and global elites (dominated by Jews) bent on destroying America. The “Q drops,” paint the alleged threat in stark terms meant to arouse anxiety and fear in all who listen. In QAnon drop 563 from January 19, 2018, the mysterious Q, who claims to be part of the US government and privy to its utmost secrets, says this of the ostensive menace: “They want you divided. They want race wars. They want class wars. They want religious wars. They want political wars. They want you divided! Learn! For God and country-learn!” And on the topic of COVID-19, a message posted on July 10, 2020 states: “The Deep State is that (all encompassing) controlling influence that would destroy our children through vaccination, destroy humanity through all other means, and usher in a one world government and police state for total Luciferian domination of every Child of God”
A QAnon drop 533, from January 14, 2018, Q revs up the engines of the touted resistance: “We, the people, are taking our country (&the world) back from the evil losers who would do us harm (all for a buck.)” These exhortations promise the utmost respect and significance to those who fight. A Q drop 521 from January 13, 2018, Q states: “You were chosen for a reason. You are being provided the highest level of intel to ever be dropped publicly in the history of the world. Use it-protect and comfort those around you.” A Q drop 533 from January 14, 2018, Q pours additional fuel on the flame with the call: “Stand up patriots. Stand up and defend what you know is right.” A message from January 19, 2018, continues the barrage of incitement, enjoining the readers to “Stay strong. Stay together. Fight, fight, fight. This is more important than anything you can imagine.”
These aren’t empty threats. Words have consequences. In a May 2019 an FBI intelligence bulletin assessed that “in some cases these conspiracy theories very likely encourage the targeting of specific people, places, and organizations, thereby increasing the likelihood of violence against these targets.” This same bulletin mentions several cases of violence or attempted violence by actors motivated by QAnon and other far-right narratives.
The gnawing uncertainty that has the nation in its grips, and the loss of significance and dignity it entails for millions of Americans, promote vulnerability to far-right conspiracy theories and calls to violent action that promise glory. With the dwindling trust in societal institutions charged to promote order and stability, their inciteful messaging is receiving increasing attention. The great challenge these days is to arrest their pernicious influence that threatens to tear America apart.
Arie W. Kruglanski is Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland.
Karl Kaltenthaler is Professor of Political Science and Director of Security Studies at the University of Akron