Politics

“This Keeps Me Up at Night”

Radicalization experts fear what Trump’s fringes will do now—and they aren’t certain how to stop it.

A man in a fur headdress with horns holds up a sign that says, "Q sent me," as he talks into a microphone.
Protesters outside the Maricopa County Election Department, where vote counting was taking place, in Phoenix on Nov. 5. Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump and his surrogates’ attempts to overturn the results of U.S. election have prompted waves of panic, ridicule, and disbelief. The effort has proved an embarrassment, with a disastrous track record in court and increasing resistance from Republican officials. But for closer watchers of the far-right fringes that the president has helped grow and nurture during his administration, the outcome of the charade has never been the concern. Experts on radicalization and deradicalization are less worried about what will happen with Trump—and more worried about what his diehard supporters will do in a post-Trump America.

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“This keeps me up at night,” John Horgan told me over the phone. He’s a Georgia State professor and the director of the Violent Extremism Research Group, which examines what pushes people to political violence. Joe Biden won the election, but groups like the Proud Boys and the Boogaloo movement aren’t fading away. “I think for many of these movements, their moment has come,” Horgan said. “I think we’re truly in free fall, and don’t have any sense of how to grasp this.”

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Horgan has long put himself in the minds of extremists to understand what fuels them. He’s aware that by warning others of their potential for violence, he could be playing into their hands. But he’s not willing to play down the threat he sees. “If you need to terrify yourself, that’s often what these groups want us to do. But the warning signs are all around us,” he said. “I want to be wrong about this, but I see short- and medium-term violence in our future. It’s all around us.”

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Political violence in the United States is already trending upward. Armed insurgency groups are recruiting with higher success rates. And in some states, they are activated. In the months leading up to election, a teenager persuaded by militiamen-style propaganda allegedly shot and killed anti-police protesters, an antifa sympathizer allegedly shot and killed an opponent, and more generally, Americans’ opinion on whether political violence is justifiable has shifted. Many experts in countering violent extremist—known as CVE in insider speak—fear it may already be too late to steer clear of what comes next.

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“Doomsday cults—when the world doesn’t get destroyed on their magic day, what do they do? They’re the object of ridicule. And that will be what will push people over the edge,” said Mubin Shaikh, a counterextremist consultant in Canada. The conspiracy Q has especially struggled since Election Day, when Trump was supposed to have dominated the returns. In his book Undercover Jihadi, Shaikh recalled how he felt alienated in his Canadian hometown as a young Muslim, and on a trip to his parent’s hometown in Pakistan in the 1990s, he started developing sympathies for—and eventually joined—the Taliban. Today, he works with law enforcement to stage interventions with religious radicals before they get too far gone. He’s been watching the political situation in America deteriorate, and he’s worried about the months ahead.

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Shaikh told me he doesn’t see his former self in a typical Trump supporter, but he does recognize the milestones for a descent into radicalism at the edges of the president’s base. “If there is a wave of rejection, mocking, making fun, it’s people like that I worry about,” he said. “And then add to the mix the whole idea of armed militant groups, white supremacist gangs—what are they going to do?” He said he saw no prospect for sweeping depolarization after the election: “You can’t save everybody.”

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To help put the threat into perspective, some experts like Shaikh and pundits have used foreign examples. Many are squeamish to draw parallels between a violent apocalyptic group like ISIS with seemingly impotent online conspiracy groups like QAnon, but others fluent in deradicalization told me the psychological underpinnings between these groups overlap too much to deny.

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Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a global security research group, told me, “The reason a kid like Kyle Rittenhouse would go grab a gun and join a local militia is the same reason why somebody would be lured to a Jihadi group.” He’s closely familiar with right-wing and anti-government extremism groups like the Boogaloo Bois. “It’s identity. It’s grievances they have that are being exploited and magnified,” he said. “And there’s this constant call to get off the couch and get off your ass and go do something. Like, ‘You be the guy that goes and defends whatever.’ Groups are different, the ideologies are different, but a lot of the messaging and the narrative are the same.”

Shaikh said he sees the valorization of Rittenhouse on right-wing media as a key ingredient in violent political upheaval. “What we have seen in the last four years is a hardening of attitudes. This is ideological indoctrination. This is how experts look at it,” he said. “Any group or ideologue or cult that is putting out a message of fierce loyalty, vicious rejection of anyone who opposes, and a made-up mind that victory was promised and was stolen—that idea of grievance, secret loss, those are the kinds of things that get people off the computer screen and out into the streets to kill people. And that’s exactly the narrative we’re seeing now.”

Not all experts accept that the United States is headed for disaster. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, the director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University in Washington, has testified before Congress on the global trends of white supremacy. And while she generally agrees the threat of white nationalist terror is real, she doesn’t believe we’re on quite the cliff others see. “I don’t think we’re on the brink of civil war,” she told me over the phone, “but I think the fact that we’re even hearing someone say that is a reflection of the kind of level of uncertainty that people are feeling and the fact that there’s no doubt democracy is being challenged right now in new and different ways.”

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Miller-Idriss emphasized that the rise in extremism and polarization is global, and was well underway before Trump was elected. “The astronomical rise in hate groups actually started right after Obama was elected,” she told me. “Globally, we’ve seen a 320 percent increase in right-wing terror over the last five years. So these are trends that were happening outside the U.S., that were happening before this administration.”

Still, she too is concerned about what she’s seen the past few months. “What we have seen with the spontaneous increase in mobilization of people coming into the streets, like 22,000 people showing up in Richmond to protest potential Second Amendment restrictions, and then the protests after the shelter-in-place orders, and then mobilizing around the Black Lives Matter protests, and now the election—I think it’s forced a series of focal points where the risk of spontaneous violence is high because of the heavily armed situation,” she said. “It’s like a tinderbox effect. Having all of those elements in place for the potential for something to go wrong.”

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The question of what happens next—and how to bring people back from the brink—is tricky. Clarke, the Soufan Center fellow, said counterextremists are likely to receive an influx of funding to try to solve the problem. “The CVE community is going to rightly get funding to do work on violent white supremacy, anti-government extremism, and I think it’s probably more urgent than ever because of COVID-19,” he said. “We’ve been in our homes for months, kids have been consuming more screen time than ever. They do a lot of their recruitment on gaming platforms, like Grand Theft Auto V. Parents don’t really know what their kids are doing.”

But Horgan of Georgia State told me that it’s also clear to him what not to do: approach this like the problem of Islamic extremism in the post-9/11 years. “The thing that we got wrong with radicalization, it was always a deeply flawed concept,” he said. “The assumption was that if you held radical views, that somehow put you on a pathway for acting on those views. And that’s largely unfounded. And it led to the demonization of Muslims after 9/11, and what were deeply uninformed CVE practices. The key here is not radicalization, but mobilization,” he said. In other words, it’s one thing to believe the election was stolen and indulge in overheated rhetoric about it online. It’s another to join an extremist gang and maraud around Washington. Many Trump loyalists may see his failure to deliver the election as a betrayal and distance themselves from his claims. But even for the more extreme cases—those who believe Biden’s team has stolen its victory in a historic conspiracy—the best outcome may be to avoid those beliefs translating into violent action.

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Horgan said the problem runs deeper than his field. “I don’t think CVE is going to give us the answers for how we build burned bridges nationally,” he said. “This is about generational damage. [After Biden’s win], we’re not going back to rainbows and flowers the next day. That’s not happening. We’re a divided country, and it’s going to take years to undo this damage. I’m concerned about the next generation, kids seeing their parents getting radicalized.”

Miller-Idriss told me Trump’s base may never abandon their opposition to the election, but she took a step back. “I’m worried about the problem of polarization,” she said. “Polarization can lead to radicalization, so in terms of interrupting radicalization, I’m interested in interrupting polarization. I just don’t see a healthy way forward if we continue to be so polarized.” Her lab is currently working on ways to disrupt the efforts of political groups that target teenagers on social media and video game platforms.

“When you’re looking at the violent fringes, that’s where I think about radicalization,” Miller-Idriss said. “But I think for polarization, which is more the mainstream, we need absolutely a kind of healing process to learn how to have some sense of shared civic identity. I think as we move forward past this election, I just don’t see a healthy way forward if we continue to be so polarized.”

Horgan said the work ahead will be difficult, if not impossible. “After this election, we have to figure out what it means to be human beings again,” he said. “The challenge here is about convincing people that they are being fed a lie, but that challenge must not be seen as a threat to them. Psychologists call this ‘motivated reasoning.’ It’s about trying to find common ground, trying to find what is important to that person, then beginning to have a conversation that is not perceived as threatening their way of life, or their sense of purpose. This is already very, very hard to do, but I think it is impossible to do in the age of social media.

“It’s about learning that others don’t pose the fundamental threat to your way of life, that your existence can’t happen unless theirs comes to an end,” Horgan said. “The underlying principle here is finding what you have in common.”

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