With a long history of domestic terrorism, the United States has entered a perilous phase in which widening political polarization is likely to fuel further violence. While religious terrorism by foreign and domestic Islamist jihadists has subsided in recent years, political terrorism is on the rise. Although the major culprits are white supremacists, ultra-right terrorism will also inspire ultra-left terrorism particularly if the government is seen as weak in dealing with right-wing militants.
In recent decades the U.S. has experienced terrorism from across the political spectrum. Left-wing terrorism was prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, with radical groups such as the Weather Underground periodically planting bombs to protest against “US imperialism” and American involvement in the war in Indochina and to demonstrate their defiance of the political establishment.
During the 1980s and 1990s, rightist anti-establishment terrorism became more prevalent. The “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski terrorized the nation with several package bombs following the release of an anti-government diatribe. The most destructive single terrorist act before 9/11 was the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995. Two U.S. militia movement sympathizers and sworn enemies of the establishment blew up a government building with a truck bomb and killed 168 people and injured more than 680.
Most bomb attacks or mass shootings are ideologically driven, even if they are not tied to any specific political group and are conducted by single operators. Militant anti-abortion activists have bombed health centers, committed acts of arson and murdered abortion providers outside their homes and in churches. Sympathizers of radical racist groups such as the KKK have attacked Jewish synagogues and African-American churches and in some instances slaughtered members of the congregation.
In the current deeply divided political climate, the terrorist threat has entered a new phase, with racism and xenophobia on the rise and a militant leftist reaction looking increasingly likely. Indeed, the Dayton gunman who murdered nine civilians was a self-professed radical leftist evidently rebelling against the centrist establishment or “Biden generation” on his social network. Just as racist supremacists believe in the coming white utopia, the ultra-left is convinced of a future socialist utopia.
For the first time in modern American history, violent extremists and terrorists are now claiming to be active on behalf of the White House agenda and not against the government. Several militant networks have emerged asserting the virtues of white nationalism and ethnic exclusivity. They are willing to engage in violent attacks on leftist and anti-fascist protestors, as witnessed in Charlottesville two years ago. This is a radical rightwing equivalent of the anti-capitalist and anti-globalist groups that have spearheaded violent assaults on institutions such as the World Bank.
The recent terrorist attacks in El Paso and Dayton may be the tip of a melting iceberg as polarization in American politics is heating up with election season approaching. The climate of fear and hate is exacerbated through speeches, commentaries and tweets that belittle and dehumanize political opponents, depict parts of the media as sworn enemies and give red meat to the more militant activists.
Trump has generated both devotion and hostility like no other president in modern U.S. history. Some of his backers propound the notion that the “deep state” establishment seeks to stifle and overthrow him, as evident in the Russian collusion probe. Conversely, the president’s more militant opponents are angry at the establishment for allowing Trump to remain in office. Paradoxically, the ultra-right and ultra-left are in agreement, as both see themselves at war against moderate centrism and democratic pluralism.
Among the ultra-left, Trump is caricatured as a sadistic ignoramus and his supporters as rabid racists. Such simplification and dehumanization can contribute to justifying acts of terrorism against the president’s supporters at public events in cities and districts that predominantly voted for him. This would likely provoke violent retaliation from the extreme right. Throughout modern history fascists and communists have maintained a symbiotic relationship with each other and a parasitic relationship with society.
Political polarization is fueled by conspiracy theories and outright disinformation, which Moscow’s intelligence agencies will help promote throughout the election campaign to deepen America’s social divisions. For instance, the claim that white nationalism is a hoax perpetrated by Democrats to discredit Republicans will serve to camouflage and legitimize radicalism while increasingly hollowing out the political center.
The U.S. is embarking on a dangerous national trajectory and confronts a stark choice on either side of the deepening political divide. Mainstream Republicans and Democrats can either monitor, expose and neutralize the violent extremists in their ranks and along their flanks, or they can allow radical ideologies to consume American society.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks.”