Right-Wing Terrorism Could Get Even Worse After Trump

A 2020 defeat will only convince extremists that they were right all along.

Sayoc wearing a MAGA hat and pro-Trump shirt and yelling in a crowd of other Trump supporters.
Cesar Sayoc at a Trump campaign rally at Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Florida on Feb. 18, 2017. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Right-wing terrorism has grabbed public attention in the Trump era, thanks to a series of bloody attacks on synagogues, black churches, and mosques. The violence itself is shocking enough, but President Donald Trump’s reaction to it—a mix of denial and equivocation—proved even more galling to many Americans. For white supremacists themselves, the Trump era is a golden one, reversing the steady marginalization the cause had suffered since the civil rights era. But for those hoping that right-wing terrorism will decline should Trump leave office after 2020, the reverse is more likely. The movement behind the attacks is far stronger than it was when Trump took office, and his defeat at the polls is likely to ignite conspiracy theories and convince many radicals that their government is once again in the hands of enemies. Trump himself may encourage such sentiments from out of office. The only good news is that the right-wing groups themselves are divided and vulnerable to a crackdown should the government decide it is necessary.

Violence associated with right-wing causes has long been part of modern America’s landscape. Anti-government militant Timothy McVeigh conducted the second-bloodiest terrorist attack in U.S. history in 1995 when he blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. However, after 9/11, the U.S. government shifted its emphasis to fighting jihadi-linked terrorism at home and abroad. These efforts have borne fruit, but they also led to a neglect of right-wing violence. Over 70 percent of extremist attacks that resulted in fatalities from 2008–17 were committed by right-wing groups. In 2018, jihadis killed only one person on U.S. soil, while right-wing violence led to 16 deaths.

Many of these attacks are well-known. Robert Bowers murdered 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018, citing Jewish support for migrants entering the United States. Dylann Roof slaughtered nine black congregants at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. America is also plagued by less-high-profile assaults against black people, vandalism of mosques, unregulated groups of armed men “policing” the border, and other acts of violence that rarely grab headlines but nevertheless make life difficult or miserable for the affected communities.

Even some within the Trump administration are recognizing this danger. The administration’s 2018 U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism warns of an array of right-wing dangers as well as traditional concerns about groups like the Islamic State. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen also sounded the alarm.

But what is even more troubling than the right-wing violence itself is Trump’s reaction to it. After Bowers’ synagogue shooting, the president condemned a “wicked act of murder” but quickly veered toward his own domestic political agenda against gun control, telling reporters, “If they had some kind of a protection inside the temple, maybe it could have been a very much different situation, but they didn’t. And he was able to do things that unfortunately he shouldn’t have been able to do.” After a white nationalist and neo-Nazi “Unite the Right” rally and subsequent killing of a counterprotester in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, the president argued there were “very fine people” on both sides.

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Right-wing extremists have embraced Trump. According to extremism scholar J.M. Berger, among right-wing Twitter activists, #MAGA slogans and Trump imagery are rampant. “Support for Trump outstripped all other themes by a wide margin,” he writes. Cesar Sayoc, who sent 13 pipe bombs to prominent Trump critics, covered his van in pictures of Trump and combative Trump-related messages such as “CNN sucks.”

In contrast to jihadi groups, right-wing terrorists draw on a significant number of Americans who share at least some of their views. There is no “Americans for Sharia” organization, peaceful or not. In contrast, issues we consider to be right-wing, such as skepticism of the federal government, gun rights, and so on, are often championed by legitimate, peaceful organizations. Almost half of Republicans see immigrants as a burden on America, and half of Americans see Muslims as outside the mainstream of American society. A 2017 poll found that 14 percent of Americans hold anti-Semitic (though not necessarily violent) views, up from 10 percent in 2015. Far more Americans are accepting of Jews, but with these numbers, anti-Semitism can’t be considered a fringe belief. Many Americans hold even more extreme racist views. A poll found 4 percent of Americans agree with the white supremacy movement, almost 15 million people.

Many of these themes are the focus of the president’s rhetoric and campaign. He has called for a Muslim ban, blasted immigrants from “shithole” countries, and emphasized immigrant-linked crimes. He has a history of racist statements and associations with white supremacist social media voices and has recently invited Ben Garrison, a pro-Trump artist also known for his anti-Semitism, to the White House. (He was later disinvited.) Alt-right leader Richard Spencer notes that “the alt-right found something in Trump” and exulted that, after Charlottesville, Trump “made this kind of public presence of the alt-right possible.”

Although those of us disgusted with the president would be happy to say good riddance, Trump’s probable response to a loss at the polls should give us pause when it comes to the impact on right-wing terrorism. After his party’s drubbing in the 2018 midterm elections—when the president himself was not directly on the ballot—he gave a combative press conference, absurdly claimed he had high support among black people, and criticized “very hostile media coverage, to put it mildly.” He regularly claims that millions of people vote illegally, all against him. It is easy to imagine that he would make similar and perhaps far more elaborate claims, should the 2020 election lead to his defeat and repudiation.

The president himself has also, in the past, embraced conspiracy theories beyond voter fraud, ranging from the possible murder of Justice Antonin Scalia to vaccines causing autism. To discredit the Mueller investigation, Trump has attacked the Department of Justice and the FBI, legitimating conspiracy theories that a “deep state” is targeting conservatives. After an election defeat, one could imagine him claiming that “people say” voting machines were fixed or Democrats suppressed Republican ballots, or making other absurd statements as a way to justify his defeat even if he does eventually surrender power without incident.

Trump is also likely to try to discredit any successor. Any Democrat who ran against him would be viewed as a personal enemy: Hillary Clinton went from Trump companion to bitter foe, and today’s crop of Democrats is far more critical. Mainstream media may dismiss this as yet another instance of sour grapes, but his supporters may see the new administration as illegitimate from the start. Add such discrediting to conspiracy theories about a stolen election and you have a powerful cocktail of righteous anger and potential violence from Trump’s far-right supporters.

Despite these risks, the longer term is more hopeful. To say the obvious, America would no longer have a bigoted president who cheers on haters and rationalizes right-wing extremism. A new administration would also be more likely to crack down, though it would have some catching up to do, as the Trump administration has limited the resources devoted to right-wing terrorism. A new president might also encourage Congress to pass new laws to go after right-wing violence recruiting and use of social media, treating it more like jihadi terrorism.

In contrast to jihadi groups, who are accustomed to being hunted and operating in a clandestine environment, the right-wing community is far more vulnerable to a shift in government policy. The movement is divided, and its links to more mainstream political causes is also a potential weakness. Mainstream groups usually know the radicals who have passed through their ranks, offer a peaceful alternative for those seeking political change, are effective messengers against extreme voices, and can otherwise play important roles in fighting violence. Wider success, however, depends in part on nonviolent conservatives. We should ask mainstream conservative organizations and political leaders to adhere to the standard we ask of mainstream Muslim organizations after jihadi attacks: They should condemn the violence, work with law enforcement, and try to isolate the most radical within their community.

Perhaps the biggest burden will fall on Republican officeholders and media voices. To reduce the threat of violence, they need to push back against attempts by the president to claim fraud, promote conspiracy theories, or otherwise delegitimize his successor. If they are silent or, even worse, echo Trump’s bitter excuses, the risk of terrorism would become even greater.