Riding the Tiger: How Trump Enables Right-Wing Extremism


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.

Cause or Carrier?

Right-wing extremist movements, which include white supremacists, neo-Nazis, sovereign citizens, anti-immigrant zealots, and neo-Confederates, are a product of longstanding fault lines in American society. Their level of activity has ebbed and flowed over the years. Law enforcement stepped up its investigations of right-wing extremist groups in the 1980s following a series of bombings, armed robberies, and murders. The FBI infiltrated various right-wing movements, arresting people involved in illegal activities, and provoking paranoia among others. Many violent members of the far-right were imprisoned or dead by the early 1990s, when federal government sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco triggered another wave of activism and violence. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who executed the deadliest terrorist attack ever to have taken place on U.S. soil at the time, aimed to avenge those killed by law enforcement at Ruby Ridge and Waco, as well as to spark an uprising against the U.S. government. Additional government resources and action followed. Right-wing domestic terrorism appeared to decline by the end of the decade, while the threats from international terrorism were growing.

As the security climate became more restrictive by the end of the 1990s, the political environment was becoming more conducive for pushing elements of the far-right agenda through non-violent means. Threats from al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups had already eclipsed those from right-wing extremists by 9/11, after which combating them largely defined the U.S. security paradigm. Domestic terrorist attacks still occurred, however, and with greater frequency than jihadist attacks. Analysts at the Department of Homeland Security became increasingly worried about rising right-wing extremist activities following Barack Obama’s election. After a 2009 Homeland Security report sounded the warning on this issue leaked, Republican lawmakers lashed out at the administration and conservative media outlets claimed the report was evidence of a plot to spy on Obama’s political opponents.

Trump’s campaign was a coming-out party for far-right groups, which by 2016 were coordinating more and pooling resources. The United States experienced a 70 percent increase in violent attacks perpetrated in the name of far-right ideology during his first year in office. The Anti-Defamation League reported a 57 percent growth in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States during his first year in office, the largest increase it has ever recorded over a one-year period. We also should not lose sight of Trump’s wider impact on right-wing recruitment and mobilization. For example, the Anti-Defamation League also observed 77 percent increase in incidents of white supremacist propaganda and recruitment efforts on college campuses from 2017 to 2018. Looking at scholarship on political violence and lessons learned from other countries can be helpful for understanding Trump’s responsibility for what is happening here at home.

Extremists of all stripes often make sense of their personal grievances (perceptions of the ways they have been wronged) by blaming them on political injustices. They believe others threaten them and their kind, and often consider the government as inept at best or complicit at worst. Fear is often a major motivator for violence, which extremists believe they are committing in defense of themselves and their kind. Trump’s rhetoric and action validate right-wing extremists’ fears about immigrants, Jews, and other minorities, and their beliefs that the system is rigged against them.

Trump’s rhetoric is the most easily recognizable way in which he contributes to an enabling environment for the far-right fringe. The magnitude of oratorical malfeasance — in numbers and content — is overwhelming. Trump’s rhetoric fuels right-wing recruitment and mobilization by validating their messaging and emboldening them to promote it in the political arena. His public pronouncements have also contributed to the climate in which terrorist attacks occur. Scholars have identified five indicators of “dangerous speech,” at least two of which must be present for rhetoric to qualify: a powerful speaker with a high degree of influence; a means of dissemination that is influential in itself; an audience that has grievances and fears the speaker can cultivate; a social or historical context that is propitious for violence; and a speech act that is clearly understood as a call to violence. At least the first four of these indicators are currently present. Trump is the president of the United States, and his rallies and Twitter feed provide a means of direct communication to right-wing extremists, who clearly have grievances he can cultivate and a history of violence. Republican allies in Congress and the conservative media amplify Trump’s messages, actively promoting conspiracy theories and “dog whistles” that resonate with the far-right. Trump has made calls for violence as well, although it is hard to know with certainty whether they influenced individuals involved in domestic terrorism or other incidents of extremist violence.

It is not just what Trump says. It’s also what he does. His administration made three attempts to implement an anti-Muslim travel ban ostensibly to combat terrorism, despite the fact the ban in no way reflected the real terrorist threats facing Americans. The Supreme Court upheld the third attempt, although not on the grounds that Trump’s reasoning or motivation was correct. Rather, in a 5-4 ruling, justices found that, as president, Trump had the statutory authority to make national security judgments regarding immigration despite his history of incendiary rhetoric against Muslims. Although his party controls the executive and legislative branches, Trump has threatened to shut down the government on multiple occasions over his demands to build a border wall to keep out, in practical effect, non-white immigrants. Just recently, Trump ordered the U.S. military to deploy somewhere between 5,000 and 14,000 troops to the southwest U.S. border to head off a caravan of refugees. He has been trying to turn this into a national emergency in advance of the midterm elections. As I was writing this article, the president announced his plans to use an executive order to end birthright citizenship, an objective that is a cornerstone of white nationalism.

By mobilizing the machinery of government in service of policies that are not only anti-immigration, but also anti-immigrant, Trump illustrates a commitment to action and to far-right objectives that goes beyond mere rhetoric. These policies, which are intended to cater to his base and mobilize voters through fear, also reinforce the right-wing threat perceptions that fuel extremist activism and violence. The use of American troops as political pawns is especially notable and galling because it sends the explicit message that force against immigrants is both necessary and legitimate. As if that were not clear enough, last Thursday Trump compared caravan of approximately 3,000 men, women and children to an “invasion,” and said U.S. forces should fire on them if they throw rocks, before trying to walk back the suggestion a day later.

Enabling can include actions that thwart efforts to combat extremism, as well as those that encourage it. Trump has been a direct impediment to combating right-wing extremism in several ways. First, he has largely demolished the federal government infrastructure created to prevent extremist violence by domestic actors. Soon after taking office, Trump cut money for a government program intended to counter different forms of violent extremism in the United States, and canceled funding for outside groups working to counter white supremacist ideology specifically. His administration recently indicated that it will end the program entirely. Second, the president has refused to single out right-wing extremists for culpability after domestic terrorist attacks or to disavow them in general. Scholars of political violence have pointed out that both of these actions may lead right-wing extremists to believe Trump supports their views and will be more tolerant of extremist violence or illegal acts than previous presidents. Third, although Trump has yet to interfere with an investigation or prosecution of domestic terrorism, he pardoned Joe Arpaio, who is a hero to many on the far-right because of his aggressive efforts against undocumented immigrants. The former Arizona sheriff received a criminal contempt conviction after refusing a federal district court’s demand that he cease routinely violating the rights of Latinos based solely on the suspicion that they were here illegally. Pardoning Arpaio was not only a clear blow to the rule of law; it also suggested that crimes against immigrants were not crimes and at all, and that the president viewed Arpaio’s treatment as heroic.

There are numerous instances of right-wing extremists citing Trump or his positions after committing various acts of violence. After Scott and Steve Leader were arrested for beating and urinating on a homeless man they wrong believed was an undocumented immigrant, the two brothers told police Trump was right that “all these illegals need to be deported.” Three men arrested for plotting a series of bomb attacks against a Somali-American community in Kansas asked a federal judge to boost the number of pro-Trump jurors at their trial. After the trio was found guilty, their attorneys asked the judge to take Trump’s influence into account when sentencing the three men. Cesar Sayoc, who was arrested in late October in south Florida for allegedly sending more than ten mail bombs to prominent Democrats and critics of the president, was reportedly a lost soul uninterested in politics before the 2016 election. He became a huge Trump booster, according to his lawyer, who said that “he felt that somebody was finally talking to him,” after hearing him on the campaign trail.

Not all right-wing extremists who commit an act of terrorism are Trump supporters, but that does not mean their violence is disconnected from the environment he has helped to create. Robert Bowers, who slaughtered 11 people in the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, bought into Trump’s concocted threats of a migrant caravan and cited it in an online post shortly before his attack. But he also believed the president was a poser, “a globalist, not a nationalist,” and therefore he had to take matters into his own hands. Anyone familiar with the study of political violence will recognize this dynamic: Figures of authority promote extremist ideas, but they do not take sufficient action to satisfy some of the rank-and-file, who then act on their own.

Physician, Heal Thyself

Domestic terrorism poses a singular threat that jihadist attacks launched or inspired from abroad do not: It can rend the national fabric because some of the causes that motivate right-wing extremists also appeal to many other Americans who eschew violence. As a result, terrorist attacks that should unite us instead further divide us, fueling political polarization. If left unchecked, violence could beget more violence and sow greater discord. So, what can be done?

Normally, I would attempt to offer policy recommendations the U.S. government should consider, and leave it at that. There are plenty to choose from when one considers the lessons we have learned since 9/11. Federal counterterrorism analysts and law enforcement officers are constantly on the lookout for would-be jihadists radicalizing and organizing, both online and in person. It’s logical to suggest we need a similar degree of commitment for potential domestic terrorists considering the threat level. And just as the U.S. government is attuned to cyber connections between Americans and foreign terrorist organizations, it is sensible to suggest they should be on the lookout for incidents of foreign influence on domestic extremist movements. There are plenty of other areas where lessons from U.S. counterterrorism efforts against jihadists abroad could applied at home. Considering that the Department of Homeland Security essentially ignores right-wing extremism, and the FBI devotes only a small fraction of its budget and manpower to the threat, it is also clear that more resources are needed to prevent and counter domestic terrorism.

Unfortunately, these are not normal times. When trying to explain what the United States can expect from difficult counter-terrorism partners in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, I emphasize that many leaders in these parts of the world prioritize their personal interests over the national interest. Like the authoritarian elites in these countries, Trump prioritizes his personal interests over the national interest. He cares more about keeping power than exercising it for the good of the people he governs. I also stress that a partner government’s counterterrorism efforts are often a function of whether it views the terrorist group in question as threatening or useful. It would be a stretch to suggest Trump considers right-wing domestic terrorism useful. But he clearly does not see it as enough of a threat to cancel out the usefulness of right-wing extremist voters or the wider electoral mobilizing potential of the issues that get them fired up.

As long as Trump and his allies continue to pursue policies and spout rhetoric that enable far-right extremism, it is naive to focus mainly on technocratic solutions. We can debate the finer points of the tactics and tools of counterterrorism, but we cannot remove politics from political violence. This makes it all the more important to focus on what elected officials who take this issue seriously can do to move the ball forward, and equally on how those of us outside federal government can contribute to this effort. In this spirit, I offer two recommendations.

Create a federal statute criminalizing domestic terrorism. Currently, the U.S. legal code defines domestic terrorism, but, unlike with international terrorism, there are no penalties associated with it. As a result, individuals responsible for domestic terrorism are not charged as terrorists because this charge carries no punitive measures. It is true that there are other criminal statutes that have been used to arrest, prosecute, convict, and punish people involved in acts that qualify as domestic terrorism. Nevertheless, as Mary McCord, the former acting assistant attorney general, wrote after the Charlottesville attack last year, it is past time to recognize that domestic terrorism is no less dangerous or malicious than international terrorism.

Criminalizing domestic terrorism would help to ensure that acts of domestic terrorism are labeled as such. When former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was asked about the decision not to label Dylann Roof a terrorist, he reportedly responded that, it was not his place to call Roof a terrorist because there is not a crime of “domestic terrorism” to charge someone with. This is about more than semantics. First, charging individuals involved in attacks that meet the definition of domestic terrorism accordingly could help to discredit them and their actions among potential supporters, and isolate them from the wider public. Second, the failure to call domestic terrorism what it is can embolden right-wing extremists, and can make it harder to curtail some of their activities, which would be restricted if carried out by homegrown jihadists. Third, because the government typically labels attacks by homegrown jihadists as terrorism, not applying the same label to actors on the far-right risks alienating Muslim communities who are important allies in the preventing jihadist violence. Fourth, states have responsibility for crimes unless these crimes cross state borders or involve the federal government in some other way. Labeling an attack as an act of terrorism gives the FBI the authority to conduct a wide-ranging “enterprise investigation,” to include probing which, if any, other individuals or organizations were involved. Fifth, creating a domestic terrorism statute would provide a forcing function for the federal government to clarify its concept of domestic terrorism, and allow for federal record keeping of violent incidents and other crimes involving domestic extremists.

Introducing legislation to create a domestic terrorism statute would also provide a forcing function for the federal government to deliberate about whether to include provisions for developing a list of designated domestic terrorist organizations, and outlawing material support to them. Currently, the secretary of state is authorized by law to designate groups involved in international terrorism as foreign terrorist organizations and to block any of their assets that were in the possession of or under the control of U.S. financial institutions. It is a felony for Americans knowingly to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. No designation of any kind is available domestically. If Congress created one then the bar for designation would need to be high, transparent, and focused on activities — threatening, supporting, or using terrorist violence — as opposed to ideology. Any material support clause would also need to be written more narrowly than the one that exists for international terrorism in terms of which activities would be criminalized.

Even with these restrictions, there are still real civil liberties concerns that simply don’t exist with foreign terrorist organizations. Designating domestic extremist groups as terrorist organizations and charging people who aid them with material support could also throw fuel on the fire by promoting the perception of the deep state at work. I’m not convinced that designating domestic groups and outlawing material support is a wise move, but I do believe there is merit in putting more time and attention into considering it.

The arguments I’ve just outlined have made the rounds among a relatively small community of counterterrorism experts for a while now. It is time to move the discourse into the mainstream. If the Democrats take the House (and perhaps even the Senate) tomorrow, they should consider introducing legislation to criminalize domestic terrorism. If they do not win one or both houses of Congress, pushing sensible domestic counterterrorism policies still provides a way to foster much-needed debate, pressure Trump and his allies, and create a foundation for a post-Trump strategy to counter domestic terrorism and right-wing extremism.

Make countering extremism and promoting pluralism major civil society initiatives, and support them accordingly. Civil society is a key player when it comes to countering radicalization and recruitment. In many countries around the world, civil society organizations and other non-governmental actors have had to fill the void created by leaders who are unwilling to launch the government programs and undertake the reforms needed to counter violent extremism. Members of civil society pursue a range of efforts intended to promote pluralism, provide at-risk individuals with alternatives to extremist violence, create counter-narratives, and encourage extremists to disengage from their movements and then work with at-risk populations. Similar efforts are underway here at home, but we need more of them and they need funding. Right now, it does not look like we can count on the federal government. State and local governments, which have often led the way on policy innovation, can help support current efforts and greenhouse new ones. Individual philanthropists, philanthropic organizations, and private sector enterprises looking for important initiatives to fund could also help fill the void.

It is clear we need more than narrowly targeted initiatives. The current state of political polarization is hardly the only cause behind the rising tide of domestic extremism. It makes countering extremists more difficult, however, not least because the polarization plays to the strengths of politicians who pursue power by preying on American’s growing fears of one another. I’ve spent too much time in places where government elites and extremist movements fed off one another to turn neighbor against neighbor not to be concerned about what I see here at home. I have also participated in post-conflict reconciliation and Track II initiatives overseas. I believe we need to create similar initiatives here at home to address the conditions in which extremism thrives. This means creating projects to foster mutual understanding and respect between polarized communities, and ones that bridge the gap between elites in power and populations feeling underserved by their government and ignored by the media. Once again, private donors will need to shoulder much of the financial burden. They can also help to incentivize these efforts by holding open competitions for projects, rather than waiting for members of civil society to come to them.

Ideally, liberal and conservative donors will come together to finance and shape these efforts.

Living Up to Our Ideals

America has a long and bloody history of political violence and terrorism: the Klu Klux Klan, beginning in the 1800s, anarchists in the early 1900s, and leftist revolutionaries who emerged in the 1960s, to name just a few of the movements active since our nation’s founding. The country also has a history of racism, nativism, and sectarianism. The brilliance and beauty of America is not that these stains never existed, but that by seeking to live up to our stated ideals we could cleanse them from our national fabric. The president of the United States and his allies in Congress have desecrated these ideals. Trump is hardly the first politician to ride the tiger of ethno-nationalism, racism, sectarianism, or other forms of extremism to gain and maintain power. He is just the first to do it so brazenly in the United States during the modern era, and win the presidency. It is up to us to limit the damage, and create the foundation for the rebuild that will be needed once he is out of office.


Stephen Tankel is an associate professor at American University, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New America Security, a senior editor and War on the Rocks, and the author of With Us and Against Us: How America’s Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror.

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