November 05, 2018

Commentary: Right-Wing Extremism and Domestic Terrorism

By Stephen Tankel

Like many security analysts of my generation, the 9/11 attacks shaped my scholarly interests and career trajectory. I have spent years researching jihadist terrorism in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and the Balkans — regions where leaders have embraced hardline religious movements, concocted conspiracy theories, and instrumentalized ethno-national, tribal, and sectarian sentiments in pursuit of power. America is still much safer from political violence than the places I study, but the growing threat from right-wing extremism is narrowing the gap.

This trend began before Donald Trump became president, but has been worsening since then. A lot of ink has been spilled trying to explain whether or not President Trump is culpable for far-right terrorism. If I look at my own country through the lens I normally apply to foreign lands it seems clear that the president and his allies are indeed enabling the right-wing movements whose adherents are responsible for the recent paroxysm of violence.

I use the term “enabling” to mean pursuing positions and policies that contribute to an environment in which terrorist or extremist activities can flourish. The term is useful for two reasons. First, it avoids the trap of trying to show direct causality for specific attacks, which is difficult to assess, and instead pays attention to how an actor helps to fuel the movement from which terrorists emanate. It is possible to preside over an executive branch apparatus that actively opposes terrorists — arresting and prosecuting individuals involved in illegal activities, as U.S. law enforcement continues to do — while simultaneously enabling extremist movements. The term also accounts for the fact that even people who are not inspired by Trump still may be more prone to commit acts of extremist violence because of the environment he has helped create. Second, the term focuses on the impact of the positions and policies in question, not the motivation behind them. Leaders and governments may engage in enabling behavior because they sympathize with an extremist cause, to enhance their domestic legitimacy with key constituencies, to project power abroad, or for various other reasons. Trump may not be deliberately trying to enable far-right violence, but his rhetoric and actions are having that effect.

Read the full article in War on the Rocks.

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