Right-wing extremism: History repeats itself — and the worst may be yet to come
Supporters of former President Trump have begun organizing a Sept. 18 protest outside the U.S. Capitol to denounced the treatment of those arrested on Jan. 6 as “political prisoners” and demand “Justice for J6.” Planning for the protest occurs as a House committee moves forward with its investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection, and coincides with a recent Department of Homeland Security warning that racially motivated violence and anti-government ideologies constitute a national security priority for the United States.
But extremist ideologies are not new — and America has unfortunately faced deadly right-wing violence in the past. The series of events that have played out over the past year are eerily reminiscent of the violent wave of right-wing extremism that gripped the country beginning in the late 1970s.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, many extremists vehemently opposed providing Vietnamese refugees asylum in the United States. False conspiracy theories circulated that newly arriving Vietnamese people were carrying diseases into the United States and stealing jobs from American citizens. Tensions between white supremacists and the Vietnamese community culminated in violence in Seadrift, Texas in 1979.
Other groups in the late 1970s promulgated anti-Semitic and white supremacist beliefs. White supremacist leader, William Pierce, authored the “Turner Diaries” — a fictional story that advocated ethnic genocide in the United States. The book would later be referred to as the “bible” for racial extremists including Timothy McVeigh.
In the early 1990s, gun control legislation began to serve as a focal point of contention for right-wing extremists. The Brady Bill and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban aggravated ardent defenders of the Second Amendment who viewed such legislation as the precursor to a broader false conspiracy to disarm and enslave American citizens.
Indeed, conspiracy theories — with no bearing in reality — have long served to galvanize right-wing extremist groups, particularly after the end of the Cold War. Many feared that gun control was an intentional plot to render American citizens defenseless and subject to enslavement. Others harbored the paranoid belief that the United Nations was seeking to overthrow the United States government under the auspices of creating a New World Order.
Unfortunately, many of these right-wing extremist beliefs continue today and still pose a serious threat to U.S. national security.
Anti-immigrant sentiment remains high with militia groups, including the Minutemen Project and the American Border Patrol, who regard immigrants as a “cultural cancer” on the United States and conduct extrajudicial patrols of the southern border. Meanwhile, with the recent collapse of the Afghanistan government, many right-wing extremists have already denounced the prospect of providing asylum to Afghan refugees, which they characterize as an “invasion.”
White supremacy has continued to grow in the United States and has now become more prolific than ever. The number of hate groups in the United States has risen to its highest level in 20 years, and both white supremacist propaganda and hate crimes have now reached record levels. The rapid spread of right-wing extremist beliefs has led officials to declare white supremacy to be the most dangerous terrorist threat to the United States.
The vehement defense of gun ownership has also persisted into the present day. Extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers have called for a complete repeal of all gun laws and promised violent retaliation if they perceive any infringement upon their rights. Meanwhile, the Boogaloo Boys are preparing for a “second civil war” in the United States. Some individuals have already attempted to undertake violent action. Jerry Drake Varnell, a member of the Three Percent militia movement, attempted to detonate a bomb in Oklahoma in an effort to foment a revolution. Meanwhile, members affiliated with the Wolverine Watchmen planned to kidnap Michigan’s governor and instigate civil war by targeting other government officials and police officers.
False conspiracy theories continue to galvanize right-wing extremists and often popularized by QAnon — an informal network of believers who allege that satanic pedophiles are secretly plotting to control the government. Meanwhile, unsubstantiated claims surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallacious belief that the 2020 election was “rigged” has energized right-wing extremists. This has led the FBI to warn that such conspiracy theories will likely motivate ardent believers to violent activity.
Although clear parallels exist to historical events, the current atmosphere is far more volatile than ever in American history. The advent of social media has dramatically facilitated the spread of right-wing extremism and disinformation to reach a wider audience. Consequently, extremist ideologies have permeated American culture and no longer reside at the margins of society. This has led to a normalization of extremist beliefs such that elected officials are now openly suggesting the possibility of “bloodshed,” while a recent survey indicated that nearly 39 percent of Republicans believe that violence is justifiable to achieve political goals.
Counterterrorism officials, therefore, need to prepare for additional waves of right-wing violence. The Oklahoma City bombing was the culmination of white supremacist beliefs, fanatical defense of gun rights, and wild conspiracy theories. The same volatile concoction exists today. Disparate groups ranging from anti-government activists, Second Amendment extremists, white supremacists and QAnon conspiracy theorists have all found a degree of commonality with one another.
As the global pandemic subsides, public spaces including schools, concerts and other public events all constitute soft targets that are vulnerable to attack by right-wing extremists. Indeed, the director of National Intelligence recently issued a warning that additional violent attacks are likely. The worst, it seems, may be yet to come.
Jeffrey Treistman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of national security at the University of New Haven. Treistman previously worked for the U.S. Department of State as a policy advisory in Baghdad, Iraq and was a Research Assistant at the Institute of National Security and Counterterrorism.