The risk of violence coming from the radical right in the US is high, and increasing. But it is only the logical consequence of a culture that promotes polarization and overreaction over finding consensus in political and public discourse.
These days they call themselves Patriot Groups and Militias, drawing on tradition and cherished cultural imagery to lend themselves legitimacy. But today’s far right wing is increasingly radical, and a recent West Point study is entirely correct: they represent an increasing threat of violence.
Far right groups are not new, and we have faced their wrath before. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, is the best-known example of far right terrorism, but he has a good deal of company, all incubated within radicalized conservative groups. As watchdog groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center have been pointing out, such groups have been increasing rapidly of late.
These groups pose a very real and increasing threat, but not entirely for the reasons Arie Perliger outlines in the West Point study, which focuses on an “idealized past-oriented” mentality. Although it's true conservatives tend to be past-oriented and liberals tend towards a progressive and therefore future-oriented mindset, radical leftist groups in the 60s, 70s and 80s were decidedly violent, so clearly being future-oriented is no barrier to violence.
The key is the word “idealized.” The radical leftist groups of past decades were willing to kill for an idealized future. That which is ideal is fixed, immutable and can be continued whole or shattered completely—there can be no reinterpretation, compromise or subdivision.
In the modern radical right, we see a kind of historical revisionism, a description of a past in which their ideals were enshrined as sacred, before becoming polluted by the profane. It should go without saying that as a view of history, this is very much incorrect—which, all things being equal, is still negative, in that all historical revisionism is negative, although innocuous enough.
It’s a human tendency to see the past, and hope for the future, through the proverbial “rose-tinted spectacles.” However, once the language becomes that of sacred and profane, we hit real problems—that’s exactly where the left went decades ago, and that’s exactly where the right is now. To a believer, this isn’t just an academic distinction or highfalutin language. It is meaningful and literal. Once something is seen as sacred, as the idealized all too often is, then one must defend it even to death—one’s own, or someone else’s. To fail to do so is faint-hearted and dishonorable, and the nation we are becoming is a threat to that idealized past.
As a group, the radical right is overwhelmingly white and Protestant, while demographic shifts will soon ensure that, for the first time in American history, this group will no longer be the majority. This recent presidential election has arguably proved it has already happened - politically, if not demographically - so this quarter sees a very real and present threat. With that in mind, more liberal political movements that would otherwise be merely distasteful now represent an existential threat. A cursory look at radical right websites shows language heavy with the threat of violence, justified as legitimate defense against aggression.
Once a group has locked onto that kind of armored mindset, historically speaking it’s only a matter of time before the violence spills out of rhetoric and into action.
But it’s not taking place in a vacuum: the language American government and society is using even in the most mundane political processes speaks only of finality, not ongoing process. It is neither about negotiated compromise and balanced governance—it’s about final solutions, end states and totalities. We talk about cliffs, we talk about redlines, we talk about finality and “nuclear options.” The obvious effect of this is that psychologically we increasingly tend to see that action by the other side not only risks permanence, but is done by an adversary that intends it that way—and that kind of adversary is an enemy.
This is increasingly true of the American society as a whole, and we have been feeling the effects of that divisiveness ever more painfully - but the radical right has taken it on as a definitional platform, which negates the possibility of negotiated political action.
When our mindset and our language goes to that extreme, we don’t see integrative solutions and ongoing processes any longer, we see winning and losing, permanently - winning equates to survival, while losing equates to destruction. A moderate would look at those same demographic shifts and say that the country is finally becoming what it always intended to be - these changes are not an imposition on or a removal of rights from the majority, but minorities are finally moving closer to having the same rights and pride of place in culture and society that they have previously been denied. But the radical right sees it as the orchestrated destruction and theft of their nation, and is operating with a decreasing amount of language available to it that does not suggest violence.
The risk of violence coming from the radical right is high, and increasing. It isn’t coming out of nowhere. We are creating it, as a people and as a government—not by pushing for greater social inclusivity, or women’s choice, or easier immigration, but in how we argue these points with one another. With every new mention of someone “taking off the suicide vest of governmental shutdown,” of cliffs and final solutions, we raise the risk by eliminating the space for politics and negotiation, leaving only action. We raise the risk by creating a political space in which the violent language of the radical groups seems ever more reasonable.
This country was founded on the principles of compromise. It was founded to be a work in progress, and to remain so, always educating itself, always striving towards a better and more inclusive place. This language of final solutions and end states is profoundly un-American—as is resorting to violence in order to reach our goals. The radical right has made it seem as though the coming violence represents the highest American ideals of justice and self-defense… and we as a nation have paved the way for them to do it.