It’s been relatively quiet for the Trump-loyal right-wing fringe since Jan. 6. Groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front used to make headlines more regularly with large marches through city centers and violent brawls with counterprotesters that they often instigated. Many of them who attended the Capitol riot may have fantasized that that was the start of their revolution. But now, the FBI is using it as license to finally crack down on serious offenders. For now, many of these groups have retreated back underground, using aliases on messaging platforms like Telegram and Discord to communicate and stay connected to their cause.
That’s where counterextremist experts like Colin P. Clarke can monitor them. Clarke is the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, a security consultancy, and like many other extremism experts, he’s not convinced this quiet will last. We talked about what he’s been seeing from these groups since the Capitol riot, how the Biden administration has succeeded and fallen short on dealing with them, and what he expects will happen if Trump runs for president again in 2024.
Aymann Ismail: The last time we spoke, you told me that if Trump didn’t get impeached and removed from office, we were doomed to see the Capitol riot repeated. Do you still believe that?
Colin Clarke: I don’t know if I’d say now that we could repeat that same exact incident, but I certainly think that that president retains a hardcore group of supporters and loyalists, and they may become further emboldened if he runs in 2024. One of the major things that has changed my mind is the vigor with which federal law enforcement has pursued, identified, arrested, and prosecuted people involved in the Capitol insurrection. There’s a real sense of accountability finally. A lot of the people that took part in that event realized that the double standard seems to be wearing down. White people can’t just commit acts of terrorism and have it called mental illness. They’re being prosecuted now for crimes that they committed the same way that anyone else would be. That’s a rude awakening for a lot of these people.
Are you still monitoring extremist message boards? Can you share some of the chatter you’ve seen since the crackdown on rioters began?
I’m still on there probably more than I’d like to be. It’s still a lot of the same stuff. Stop the Steal. Not a whole lot has changed in that regard. It depends where you are—we tend to look at the more hardcore white supremacist channels and, yeah, they’re still super racist. Some of the QAnon channels that we used to monitor have migrated elsewhere. What we see is almost a grab bag of motivators, but now we’re seeing that blended with anti-vaccination stuff. A lot of it has turned into attacking Biden, spreading conspiracies that he’s a tool for Chinese communists.
Do you worry these threats will actually manifest?
I mean, it’s always alarming because it’s so difficult to separate a shitposter from a Dylann Roof. One day you’re a shitposter, the next day you’re springing into action. The way that these people egg each other on, they’re constantly browbeating each other to do more than talk. It’s almost like what you do with your buddies, you’re daring them. Don’t be a chicken—just do it. Or openly lamenting the fact that they are all armchair warriors, and celebrating the people that have committed attacks like Dylann Roof. I mean, his stupid-ass bowl cut has become a meme that’s become a symbol for encouraging people to do things in real life. These people are lauded. People like Patrick Crusius, Robert Bowers, Elliot Rodger, or Anders Breivik, especially the more hardcore ones.*
We talk all the time about lone wolves, or lone actors, and that tends to be a misnomer. Even to the extent where you do have individuals truly acting alone, they still come from this broader ecosystem. Which has only become more prominent with the constant stream of ideological messaging that these groups put out. During Trump, it had its heyday. All his rhetoric provided comfort for people to come out of the woodwork.
Do you have the sense any of these groups are organized and ready to pull off large-scale violence since Jan. 6?
I think that leaves the door open for this stuff to happen. It’s not going to happen on that scale again because I think we’re going to prepare for that. But local acts could happen again at the state Capitol. Every public policy issue is now weaved through this hyperpartisan lens. And in many cases, especially now with Democrats in power, it’s through an anti-government lens.
I’m not really hearing much about the Three Percenters or the Proud Boys beyond sporadic news of members getting arrested by the FBI for rioting at the Capitol. There was that recent video of Patriot Front getting run out of Philadelphia. Is there a reason for that? Is there a counterterrorism strategy behind the scenes that’s working? Are these groups on the retreat?
I think about this a lot. The smart ones are going underground and not necessarily advertising their groups or their thoughts at the moment. To be an Oath Keeper, you don’t need to show up to the Capitol. There’s nothing fundamentally illegal about owning a shitload of weapons and saying you hate the government. Those are both protected by the Second and First amendments. But at the same time, these people now realize how much scrutiny they’re under. Maybe we broadly talked about anti-government groups, but now we know the names of all these groups. People are in their business, and they don’t like that.
They’re highly concerned about infiltration from federal law enforcement, and they should be. That is something the FBI is really good at. We weren’t really that great at infiltrating groups like al-Qaida, or other transnational groups where, for the majority of Americans, there’s a cultural and language difference. But we have no shortage of white guys and black ops that can go and infiltrate these extremist groups.
Do you have any thoughts on the “sedition hunters” online who are outing Capital rioters?
Without having given it a thought, I’d say leave it to the professionals. Because if you end up in a situation where you I.D. the wrong person, you can ruin their life. Leave this to the people who are doing this for a living. They’ve got the tools and the resources they need. They’ll get the job done.
At the first hearing for the congressional Jan. 6 commission, Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn said he’s worried about what happens next, because the rioters still think they were in the right. Do you see it that way too?
It’s hard to generalize the feelings of a group. A lot of people probably feel regret after they realized what they did. And then I think many people would probably double down. What percentage of them? It’s hard to say. But I think enough people believe that they haven’t done anything wrong, and that they’re just determined to keep going. It is a problem.
A poll from Monmouth University found that 47 percent of Republicans saw the Capitol riot as a legitimate protest. What does that tell you?
The extreme has become mainstream. That’s clear evidence of it right there. Half these people think that what happened was a peaceful protest, and the other half think it was antifa. Which they know it’s not, because then they would want it investigated.
Trump is off Twitter, but still planning his comeback. What can we expect from right-wing extremists if he does run in 2024?
I expect to see a lot of the same circus, like rallies and atmospheres. People, especially if they’re confident that he can win, being really brazen with their racism again. Either way it’s bad. If he wins, it will embolden his base. If he loses, there’s no way these people are going to accept it. We’ve crossed the Rubicon in American politics. People are convinced that the election was stolen with literally no evidence. We had weird characters in Congress before, but the people that are on stage right now, it’s like a circus. It’s totally embarrassing.
A lot of what they’re saying is truly a problem of education. Three Percenters is based on a myth that 3 percent of the country fought in the American revolution. These people have learned history in memes, and that’s driving a lot of the ignorance that we see. In their minds, I think they truly believe they’re doing the right thing.
Do you have any thoughts about the Biden administration’s approach to extremist groups?
There was a lot that they got right. And I think there are some areas that are really, to no fault of the administration, just impossible to address. What can you do about a group of people that stockpiles weapons and ammo and says they hate the government, other than saying we’re going to keep an eye on them? You can’t do anything. If you read the intelligence communities unclassified reporting, you may think that quote-unquote “militia,” violent extremists pose among the most significant threat and they’re the most capable. And they’re right. And they’re also the groups that you can least deal with because they’re a part of the fabric of our societies. That’s the way that we’ve set up our country.
And then you read stuff like Mike Giglio’s piece where he embedded with a right-wing militia. One of the questions I always had was what’s the relationship between these militias and local law enforcement. And it seemed to be, from this piece, pretty chummy. These guys are out doing shooting drills and the cops drive by and wave. They look at them as a second line of defense, and you can see this when cops show up to protests. They’re not looked at as threats. They’re looked at like concerned citizens. But they’re people with no training, basically LARPing. Half these guys have no military or law enforcement experience. They go out there looking like GI Joe, and then if shit goes sideways.
What do you tell people to do when their family members start to flirt with one of these groups?
I can give advice. It’s not advice that I follow myself, because I don’t have the patience. Experts say to just be empathetic and not argue with these folks. Find another way to connect with and to do things that you would normally do. My theory is we just had a total erosion of local institutions. People don’t do stuff together anymore. They don’t feel like they’re part of a community or society. I think they’re lonely. And with conspiracy theories, they feel like they’re in control of something. There’s power in getting information that other people aren’t privy to. And it brings them into a close bond with other people, and I think that’s because of the erosion of our social fabric. It’s every man for themselves. That was exacerbated during the pandemic, where people retreated to their laptops and cellphones.
It’s a moving target. I’m thankful that we haven’t seen more violence, and I think that’s because law enforcement has been really proactive. Will that change when lockdowns start getting lifted and there is more opportunities for soft targets? Concerts, or street carnivals, or whatever, farmers markets? One of the unknowns is the intersection of extremism and mental health. We experienced such a degradation of mental health over the last two years. We may not be able to see or feel the consequences until two years from now. But we live in a country where people are armed, they’re anxious and they’re angry. And that’s not a good combination.
Correction, Aug. 6, 2021: This article originally misspelled Elliot Rodger’s last name.