The Terrorist Movement That Attacked the Capitol Will Need to Be Confronted

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By David H. Schanzer

For those of us who study how terrorist movements develop, the mass uprising at the U.S. Capitol came as no surprise. Anti-democratic white supremacy has been growing dramatically in the United States for over a decade. The claim of a stolen election that would remove Donald Trump from power was the trigger that mobilized this movement to mass violence. And now the incoming Administration will need to use its powers to quell a large-scale domestic terrorist movement.

Think about any terrorist movement you want — the IRA, al Qaeda, the KKK — they all are based on a set of deep-seated grievances about the structure of society and distribution of political power. The grievance driving the violence we saw at the Capitol is that some segments of the historically dominant white majority feel as if it they are losing political and economic power and influence in America.

This power began eroding with the Emancipation Proclamation and Union victory in the Civil War. And then, after Reconstruction failed, reforms of the Civil Rights Era outlawed the violence white supremacists use to assert power, opened up access to the franchise, and diversified the racial and ethnic makeup of America through changes in our immigration laws.

In the wake of these reforms, organized white supremacist organizations became less prevalent and moved towards the fringes of society.

Yet, instead of dwindling in the face of societal rejection, a combination of factors deepened grievances and reinvigorated the movement. Globalization caused the flight of jobs and economic opportunity from large swaths of rural America. Cities with diverse populations revitalized and began dominating American cultural and economic life. The nation elected a Black president. Large scale immigration continued to fuel the move towards a majority-minority nation by the mid-point of the new century.

And while all this was happening, the internet and ultimately social media enabled the diffuse population of extremists to interact, share their grievances and fears of the future, and begin developing an organizational infrastructure.

Most terrorist movements require an inspirational leader — enter one Donald Trump. While Trump appealed to many audiences in his march to the presidency, his style of communication and elements of his message resonated powerfully with white supremacists.

He blamed immigrants and foreign nations for their economic anxieties, he attacked all forms of immigration — postponing the erosion of white political power; he made it socially acceptable to overtly degrade people of color and elites — the very people the white supremacists believe are at the root of their problems; and finally — he disparaged democracy — giving hope they could maintain white minority rule.

After Trump won the presidency, the movement asserted itself in Charlottesville. But the national revulsion to the violence and murder that occurred there kept the extremists in check, and, in any event, action wasn’t really necessary since Trump was in the White House, doing their bidding.

The events of the past two months, however, have unsurprisingly catalyzed violence. A coalition of people of color and urban educated elites mobilized to terminate Trump’s presidency. Trump spewed that the election had been stolen (principally by Black voters), inflaming the white supremacists’ deep-seated grievance that their grip on power was slipping. And the day after a Black and Jewish candidate won tipping point seats in the Senate, a frenzied mob, stirred up by Trump and his vitriolic accomplices, invaded the halls of our democracy to prevent the peaceful transition to power. This is what terrorists do.

So now, in addition to ending the pandemic, restoring our economy, and confronting racial injustice, the new Administration faces a fourth major challenge — taming a violent white supremacist insurgency.

We have the tools we need. Those who plan and plot to use violence against the government can be surveilled, criminally investigated and prosecuted. The FBI should be directed to do. Freedom of speech must of course be paramount, but incitement to violence must be punished. If criminal prosecutions cannot be brought, at the very least our media has a professional responsibility to cut off access to those who truck in advocacy for violence.

Second, the charismatic leader of this movement, soon to be ex-president Donald Trump, needs to be marginalized. People and organizations of good will must stop providing him funding and we must stop obsessing over his tweets and outrageous statements. No one should fund or participate in his proposed media enterprise. Candidates that he endorses need to be defeated at the polls.

Finally, we can take the steam out of this movement by addressing the economic calamities that have befallen white, non-college educated communities in rural America. Unlike the fictions that the movement propagates — these economic hardships are real and the failure to address them have degraded the confidence of many in our government and society at large.

As chaos consumed Washington D.C., I saw the fear, once again, that terrorism causes. But we can and will confront this challenge — first by calling it what it is — white supremacist domestic terrorism — and next, by taking action.

David H. Schanzer is the Director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University.

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