Remarkably for a year that started off with an unprecedented display of political violence, 2021 saw zero major terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, nor did we experience anything resembling the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. One reason is that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has artificially suppressed terrorism plots and attacks that we might have seen otherwise. At the same time, lockdowns, isolation and stress have exacerbated many of the underlying factors that contribute to extremism, while also making mental health matters more acute. Meanwhile, 2020 and 2021 were record years for the sale of weapons and ammunition. Americans are anxious, angry and well-armed — a combustible combination.
Another reason for fewer incidents of domestic terrorism during 2021 is that far-right extremists, both individuals and formal organizations, have likely been cowed by an aggressive law enforcement response to Jan. 6. To date, more than 700 individuals have been charged with federal crimes for their role in the insurrection. The city of Washington, D.C., has sued the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, seeking severe financial penalties. Given how paranoid many far-right extremist groups are about being infiltrated by law enforcement, many have gone underground and attempted to drop off the grid to avoid further entanglement with the authorities.
However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the problem has faded away. Though we haven’t seen the most visible signs of growing extremism, a more extreme climate is permeating our society, culture and politics. Far-right talking points about election interference and comparisons of public health officials to Nazis are now part of mainstream political dialogue among Republicans. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci needs around-the-clock personal security for him and his family, who regularly receive death threats. In November, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) tweeted an anime video that depicted him murdering his Democratic colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and swinging swords at President Joe Biden. Slogans like “Let’s Go Brandon,” a euphemism for more vulgar language denigrating the president, are commonly seen on everything from bumper stickers to baseball caps. Whereas terrorism analysts are used to seeing violent language on niche platforms like Parler, it’s far more unusual for the discourse to spill into statements by elected officials and political candidates.
The expansion of the extremist ecosystem is being fueled from both the top down, with mainstream politicians adopting once-fringe talking points, and the bottom up, as individuals use the internet to pull anti-vaxxers and QAnon conspiracy theorists into their orbit. Even a cursory glance at well-known far-right social media channels reveals a noxious miasma of racist language, threats of violence against Democratic politicians and conspiracies about immigrants and foreigners. According to prominent terrorism scholar Robert Pape — whose research suggests that a primary grievance of the Jan. 6 rioters was fear of minorities and immigrants overtaking white Americans — the far-right extremist movement is “larger” and “more dangerous” than many initially believed.
Indeed, the language of domestic terrorism, far-right extremism and violent white supremacy is laced with references to “the Great Replacement,” a conspiracy that suggests a global cabal of elites is planning to drive the white race toward extinction. This conspiracy has been promoted by Tucker Carlson of Fox News, who helped make the concept more accessible to the millions of Americans for whom he is a household name.
Similarly, former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, which frequently evoked an “invasion” of immigrants, has in many ways mainstreamed the vocabulary of the far right beyond the purview of extremist organizations. Once Trump came along, anyone with a phone could access these talking points. Trump’s language was used in a hate-filled manifesto by Patrick Crusius, who murdered 22 shoppers at a Walmart in a cold-blooded terrorist attack in 2019. Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, also referenced “invaders” in social media postings prior to his 2018 attack.
Trump’s unique role in sending extremism mainstream helps explain the most salient domestic terrorism we face in 2022: political violence by those who are convinced the 2020 election was stolen. Many of the calls for violence I’ve observed denigrate Biden’s presidency as illegitimate and refer directly to the falsehood that his victory was “rigged.” A University of Massachusetts Amherst poll revealed that nearly 71 percent of Republican voters still contest the 2020 election results, falling victim to Trump’s “Big Lie.” When almost three-quarters of a political party believe an election was stolen, and that party’s leader continuously reinforces the belief, it lowers the bar for violence.
As the country continues to open up, this bigger, more nebulous universe of extremists may start to carry out the sorts of attacks we were lucky to avoid in 2021. In a Public Religion Research Institute poll from November, nearly one-third of Republicans agreed that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Another recent poll showed that an astonishing four in 10 Republicans and independents said that “violent action against the government is sometimes justified.”
The expanding far-right extremist ecosystem seems to have taken some of the influence away from organizations like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters. Over the past year, I’ve observed that these groups are referenced far less frequently on Telegram and other far-right extremist channels. Instead, extremists who don’t seem to belong to any particular group incite one another, attempting to push fellow radicals from online to offline action.
To date, the vast majority of those charged with crimes stemming from the Jan. 6 insurrection, approximately 87 percent, do not belong to formal organizations. In fact, although these groups were busy organizing in the weeks before Jan. 6, the makeup of the rioters on the actual day was far broader. This means there is a massive throng of “free agents,” the most radicalized of whom have the potential to become “lone wolves,” while others may seek to join existing groups or opt to form new ones.
Even though attacks by individuals have come to be more closely associated with jihadi terrorism, the idea actually has its roots in right-wing extremism. The concept of “leaderless resistance” was formulated by Louis Beam Jr., a notorious white supremacist who believed that lone actors and small cells of self-organized militants could be more effective at launching attacks and less susceptible to being apprehended because they were less conspicuous to law enforcement than organized groups.
Perhaps the most notorious lone wolf terrorist is Timothy McVeigh, who was responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. McVeigh was the product of the far-right ecosystem of the 1990s, which was far smaller and less radicalized than the equivalent today. It’s certainly plausible that the next McVeigh (or McVeighs) could emerge from the murky online extremist landscape that is increasingly blending with mainstream politics.
To even begin grappling with the tens of thousands or tens of millions (nobody truly knows) of Americans impacted by “mass radicalization,” the Biden administration will need to be more proactive and less reactive. To date, Biden has focused on the more visible, organized elements of extremism in the United States and less on the fuzzier but more widespread radicalization occurring within the broader extremist ecosystem. The legacy of the two-decade war on terror is that the United States government is far more effective combating organized groups of international terrorists. But the current situation poses the inverse challenge: countering domestic extremists, many of whom have become empowered to operate on their own.
The administration’s domestic terrorism strategy, unveiled in June 2021, does include pillars dedicated to prevention resources and services. But it remains unclear how these initiatives will reduce the growing horde of lone individuals who may see no option besides violence to assuage their grievances.
What is needed is a more deliberate and tailored approach, providing the necessary funds, resources and training to prevent extremism before it takes root. Key to this will be stemming the spread of disinformation and conspiracies, which means giving people the tools they need to identify and reject extremist propaganda and rhetoric. Since so much of this radicalization occurs online, it is essential for the government to continue to work with Silicon Valley to force tech companies to crack down on disinformation and extremist propaganda that fuels violent conspiracies. Another crucial component of this effort will be promoting digital literacy, helping individuals to distinguish disinformation from trusted sources of news.
The administration also needs to be realistic about what it can and cannot achieve. Best practices and lessons learned can only go so far against a problem that has become much bigger than many experts imagined it ever could in the United States. While the scholarship on deradicalization and violent extremism can provide some starting points, we would also be wise to acknowledge that there are only so many tools in the toolbox when dealing with a problem that the past year has shown to be pervasive and deep-seated.
Like Covid-19, the epidemic of far-right extremism will not simply disappear on its own. In fact, as the country gradually reopens, we may well see some of the deferred attacks that didn’t materialize in 2021. It will take a concerted effort on the part of the U.S. government, the private sector and civil society — as well as a longer-term shift back to a less extreme political culture — to attenuate this growing threat, which is proving corrosive to American democracy, tearing apart the social fabric that undergirds our increasingly fragile republic.