How Trumpism Shaped the Rise of the Radical Right & How to Counter Radicalization on Any Side
By: Frances Flannery
February 9, 2021
I wish to thank sincerely the Interfaith Scholars Colloquy (hosted in Detroit) and the Dept. of Philosophy and Religion at The University of Mississippi for the invited talks that formed the basis of this blog post. Their astute questions and interest sharpened my thinking and I am grateful.
I. Some Basic Facts about January 6, 2021
On January 6 the world became fully aware of what those who study violent extremism had long known: the US is facing an increasingly motivated, organized, and well-funded network of disaffected groups on the radical right. To be clear, there is such a thing as the radical left, but even the most organized face of this, Antifa, is actually quite loosely organized and has not been responsible for much violence, including at BLM rallies. A new database by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a centrist thinktank, surveyed 900 politically motivated attacks since 1994. It found just one was perpetrated by anti-fascists, who were responsible for 0 deaths, as opposed to 329 deaths by the right-wing attackers.
What I am calling "the radical right" is actually a wide assortment of various groups that are willing to commit violence in pursuit of their goals, including hundreds of right-wing militias (150-300), and an array of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, or Christian nationalist groups. While these differ in some aspects, there are definitely overlapping ideologies that persist from group to group, including a desire to resist or overturn the federal government, a tendency toward anti-Semitism and white supremacy, a belief that America is a God given country that needs to be rescued from dark forces so that white Christians can rule again, belief in a coming race war or civil war, and an attraction to conspiracy theories. While I will use the term "Christian nationalism" to explain a type of belief that associates itself with Christianity, especially through something called "Christian Identity" teaching, it is important to note that this set of beliefs has as little to do with Christianity as does radical Islamist extremism with Islam.
It's important to first establish the facts of January, since they are already being contested. Ahead of the protest, NBC news reported that the permit for the "Save America March" was for 10,000 persons but that three times as many responded that they would attend. Photos of the day show perhaps that many in attendance. Not everyone who went to protest at the Capitol belonged to the "radical right." Many of us may have had friends, family or neighbors attend, and so it is important to accurately relate the facts of what actually happened.
It is true that only a minority of those at the protest were violent, but the numbers and behavior of those who were violent is alarming. Around 800 people broke into and entered the Capitol building (and about 400 have been identified by law enforcement so far). Some chanted "Hang Mike Pence" and some had weapons. Some, according to their own testimony, searched for Congresspersons to kidnap, punish, or kill. One well organized group that had practiced ahead of time planned to seal Congress in the tunnels below the Capitol and gas them, (although I am not sure how); one of their leaders was just arraigned for "seditious conspiracy," or conspiring to overthrow the government. By the end of the insurrection at the Capitol, five people had died, including Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick who died from his injuries. One hundred and forty police officers were injured (some severely, including with spinal damange). Two other officers committed suicide following the Capitol riot. It could have been even worse: pipe bombs found outside the Democratic and Republican party headquarters were diffused without incident and a pickup truck with eleven more bombs and a weapons cache was discovered before causing damage.
The event was advertised for months on social media and attracted "lone wolves," a West Virginia lawmaker, a few former military, National Guard, and law enforcement personnel, and a mishmash of groups, including:
- neo-Nazi groups
- white supremacist groups, such as the Rise Above Movement (founded by Vincent James Foxx) and the Groyper Army (formed by podcaster Nick Fuentes)
- anti-government armed militias, like the Oath Keepers (Stewart Rhodes, founder, with 24,000 twitter followers) or the Three Percenters
- male empowerment, anti-federalist groups such as the Proud Boys or Boogaloo Bois
- conspiracy groups, such as QAnon
- Christian Identity or Identity related groups
Some of these persons or groups had already participated in the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville VA in 2017, which ended with the death of the counter-protestor Heather Heyer.
January 6 was a call to an even bigger mobilization of the disparate groups in the white nationalist movement around a common cause - in this case opposing what they saw as a fraudulent election that they believed Donald Trump had actually won. However, this is just the proximal cause. The ultimate goal for most of these groups is a Second Civil War or a Second American Revolution, which they believe would topple an unjust government, remove what they see as the corrupting influence of liberalism, people of color, Judaism, and a conspiratorial network of powerful persons. What is undeniable is that this stew of beliefs is steeped in a pseudo-Christian framework that understands America as a divinely given land that they must rescue.
II. Ziggurat of Zealotry and Schema of Radicalization
Susan Hasler and Cindy Storer, former CIA counterterrorism analysts, have coined a schema they call the "Ziggurat of Zealotry," which I have found to be a very helpful way of understanding how people in the radical right as well as other groups are radicalized (Hasler and Storer 2021). Their Ziggurat model applies both to domestic extremism and to transnational terrorism, such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, which had formally been the focus of the intelligence community.
Imagine a stepped pyramid of five rungs, in which everyone is radicalized, but to a different extent. Those at the top are the smallest group that is also the most radicalized and violent, and the goal of the movement as a whole is to move people up the rungs of radicalization without it backfiring in a way that causes a bunch of members to move back down. Members lower down the ziggurat may be genuinely unaware of what goes on at the top.
At the Bottom rung are members of the general public who support and legitimize those above.
On the next rung up are those who support the movement in more specific and personal ways, such as funding or providing supplies or housing or gathering spaces.
On the third rung up are the storytellers, which Hasler and Storer call the "Instigators and Grand Schemers." These may be radical media celebrities, or they may just speak to insiders, for instance by hosting a podcast or blog or youtube channel. On the radical right, the recent crackdown of these mainstream channels has driven these Instigators to smaller, isolated platforms, such as Telegram, Gab and Parler.
Second from the top are those who wish to overthrow the govt of the US or their own country, and at the very top are those who wish to change the global configuration of power due to apocalyptic concerns. In terms of Islamist extremism we might think of the second to the top spot being Afghanistan Taliban vs. the global ambitions of ISIS in the top spot. In terms of US domestic extremism, a group like the Three Percenters occupies the second to top tier vs. the upper tier of the global QAnon or neo-Nazi movements. Members float rather frequently from group to group, however, and a national cause can also become a global one, and vice versa.
It is important to remember that while those at the very top may be virtually immune to reason, dialogue, or deradicalization, those at the bottom who are members of the general public who are in support of the publicly proclaimed ideals of the movement are not only the most numerous, they also create the conditions for the top of the pyramid to receive funding, protection, and motivation. The members at the bottom are also susceptible to moving up in terms of radicalization and violence.
To Hasler and Storer's Ziggurat of Zealotry, I would add another bottom layer - a wider societal environment provides a platform on which the pyramid can exist. Without this larger societal support, the base will be less attracted to radicalized ideology in the first place. A Reuters poll estimates that 12% of Americans supported the attack on the Capitol (Kahn 2021). Another poll by ABC news in 2017 found 9% of Americans say it is acceptable to hold Neo-Nazi views, which answers the question "How did we ever get here?" In addition to such political and social support, the churches have too often turned a blind eye to some of the extremism brewing in conservative circles.
Clearly understanding the goals and beliefs of the violent groups at the top of the pyramid can help the masses at the bottom and around the base of the pyramid to understand the ways in which their actions feed extremism. This understanding will also allow us to discuss the steps needed to deradicalize those at the bottom, without whose support the top is less effective and smaller.
III. Radical Apocalyptic Beliefs of White Nationalism
In my book Understanding Apocalyptic Terrorism (Flannery 2016) I identify a worldview of violent extremism that I call Radical Apocalypticism. Apocalyptic beliefs in themselves are not usually violent, but here I lay out the indicators that an apocalyptic group will succumb to violent extremism.
Apocalyptic groups, both violent and non-violent, believe that the world is in the grips of cosmic evil, and the good are suffering for it. A sense of persecution or oppression against the righteous is key to the apocalyptic worldview. Apocalyptic believers hold out hope that an endtime is coming which will be a cataclysmic change in which a divine savior will rescue the good and punish the evil. The Kingdom of God will reign in bliss, and all will be righted according to God's plan.
Radical apocalyptic groups also believe these things, but they add four indicators that change the ordinary apocalyptic beliefs of, say, Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses, into the violent beliefs of groups such as Identity Europa or the KKK. While this post focuses on Christian nationalism and white nationalism in my examples, these four indicators of radicalization are found in extremists within Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, eco-activism, anarchism, and other ideological extremism on both the right and the left.
1. Active Eschatology: Triggering the End
All apocalyptic groups, both violent and non-violent, believe that the endtime is coming someday. Radical Apocalyptic groups not only believe that it is soon, they believe they can play a role in triggering it. On the radical right, they believe that America is a God given nation, a Christian nation, a City on a Hill that has come under the influence of Evil, which includes the federal government and persons of color, liberals, Jews, Muslims, and often various fictional conspirators, whether the Rothschilds, the Bildebergers, or even space aliens. They believe there is a coming civil war, a race war, in which true Christians and white persons will prevail. This is Armageddon and will return the country to the way God intended for it to be. Active eschatology goes beyond preparing for this or even desiring the end: it means the group seeks to play an active role in the unfolding, even bringing it about.
This idea has a long history on the racist right and is found in "The Turner Diaries," a fictional novel from 1978 that inspired Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber. McVeigh believed that by attacking the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995 and killing 168 people, including 19 children in a daycare, and injuring more than 680, he was initiating the second American revolution. The extremist Christian group the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord, had taught him this ten years earlier. They sought to initiate the race war through planning assassinations of political figures and judges and attacking water systems and electrical grids, and they significantly catalyzed the radical right by training 1500 or so persons in a militia style camp in their Endtime Overcomer Training School, in rural Bull Shoals, Arkansas.
Now think about what we saw from Jan 6. The image of the Confederate Flag in the Capitol (for the first time in our history) in this context isn't just about Southern pride, or even Southern white pride. It is about a plan to instigate a revolution or the second civil war. It is about what the Proud Boys call "The Storm." It's the "Boogaloo" of the Boogaloo Bois. It's the Second American Revolution of the Three Percenters, who falsely believe that 3% of Americans fought the British in the American Revolution and therefore if 3% of Americans now fight the liberal federal government they can overthrow it and gain independence again.
2. Concretized Evil: "Othering"
Apocalyptic groups tend to believe in the existence of cosmic evil forces, such as the devil. Radical apocalyptic groups direct their fight against groups of people whom they believe embody those dark forces. A theology called "Identity" teaching, which has been around since the 1920s but which really surged from the 1980s until today, is a racist perversion of Christianity. Identity teaches that Adam and Eve, created the white races or line of Seth, but Eve and Satan, created the line of Cain, which gave rise to Jews and persons of color. This "Seedline" teaching is supported through pulling biblical quotes out of context and by pseudo-science resembling the Nazi science about Jews. This teaching, which permeates radical right groups from the KKK to neo-Nazi groups, thus views its enemies not just as being on the wrong political side, but as the literal spawn of Satan. This makes people of color, Jews, and their allies irredeemable, whereas the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Germanic, and Nordic peoples are "Adamic" and pure.
QAnon shares much with this theology, although members at the bottom of the ziggurat may not realize it at first because it presents itself like a fun role-playing game. This internet conspiracy at first proliferated on sites like Reddit and Facebook, the latter of which saw 12.8 million interactions between January to September 2020 on 6500 pages or groups, 1500 of which were flagged for potential violence through ties to 300 militarized groups. It is a global conspiracy, with branches in Germany and the Netherlands. Q is supposedly a top government official in the Trump era who is leaving "breadcrumbs" of information all over the internet. Believers maintain that Q is exposing the existence of a "Deep State" run by the Jewish financier George Soros and Hilary Clinton. Believers in QAnon maintain that Soros, Clinton, and other Democrats operate a widespread, global child trafficking sex ring in which they and their co-conspirators, top Democrats, rape, mutilate, and kill children. Thus, the photos of a sign at the insurrection claiming that "Pelosi is Satan" is not just hyperbole, it is evidence of terrifying beliefs held in earnest by followers of QAnon that can lead to violence in defense of children. Another photo by Mark Petersen of Redux showed a female protestor with the shirt "WQKE" (Woke but to Q) and a sign that read "#GOD WINS / END HUMAN TRAFFICKING" followed by the Q slogan "#WWG1WGAWW" or "Where We Go One, We Go All" (worldwide?).
Note that believers in QAnon as well as the other factions on the radical right don't believe that they are on the wrong side of history. On the contrary, they believe that they are defending the innocent, such as the children in a Satanic pedophile ring. Once the false narrative is accepted, the motivation is understandable.
3. Theology of Violence: Radicalization Blueprint
Even when the motive is revenge for a wrong done or defense of the innocent, radical apocalypticists require a theology of violence as a kind of imaginal blueprint to cross over into real violence. At one level they may reluctantly accept that violence is necessary for carrying out God's will. At a higher level of radicalization, they may glorify violence as being redemptive in and of itself, since it is on behalf of a persecuted group of righteous or to defend a good cause. Even though most members of the parent religion with which they identify, such as Christianity or Islam, reject violence as a perversion of the religion, radical apocalypticists see it as the most zealous and faithful interpretation of the religion.
On the radical right in particular, violence is glorified by references to America's past revolutionary history and wrapped up in the Second Amendment, which is construed as a constitutional (and thus a God-Given) right to bear arms and constitute a militia in defense against a tyrannical government (such as the Obama or Biden administrations, in the radical right framework). Violence is celebrated because it is seen as a defense of the innocent (real Americans, children, the unborn) or to defend something good (which they would identify as Christianity, liberty, the purity of the white race). Notably, if violence on the Radical Right continues to grow and follows the pattern of other radical apocalyptic groups, they will eventually not only direct such violence at their enemies (liberal politicians, persons of color, Jews) but also at those who belong to their social groups but whom they deem to be traitors. That's what we saw on January 6 when the mob attacked police officers and when some wanted to kill all of Congress save for a few of their heroes.
4. Secret, Authoritarian Revelation: Conspiracies Galore
All radical apocalyptic groups subscribe to the idea that only they have the real truth and that all others are being duped. Thus, the more outlandish the claims, and the more that society at large rejects the claims, the more the groups believe the claims must be true, particularly if they are dispensed by an authority figure. Some of these revelations are small, but some are large and global, and involve a vast conspiracy. Since revelation comes only to the righteous few, in the eyes of the radical apocalyptic group, the more that unbelievers reject the revelation, the more true it must be.
In the case of the radical right there was widespread belief that President Trump was a revelatory, authoritarian dispenser of truth. QAnon speculates that he is Q. Many religious leaders on the far right thought he was divinely guided. More moderate religious leaders on the right maintained that even though Trump was a serial adulterer, liar, and general sinner, God was using him to enact a plan: to stack the Supreme Court with judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade and outlaw abortion in the US. Whatever their motives, their support of Trump as an instrument of God functioned to support the more radical members who made up the bottom of the ziggurat.
IV. Trump's Contribution to the Rise of the Radical Right