The spike in hate and extremist group activity that America is experiencing now is ultimately the result of the response to a different election—President Obama’s. Anti-government and hate group numbers surged to record highs in 2008 and 2009. The Trump administration has been a period of normalization and mainstreaming for these groups, a time when the highest official in the country has failed to condemn them. Meanwhile, 2019 was the worst year on record for hate-crime killings. “Trump was just kind of a golden goose,” says Shannon Reid, who researches street gangs and white power at UNC Charlotte. “He wasn’t really the leader of the movement the way a [Steve] Bannon or a Stephen Miller or someone who truly wants a white ethnostate would be. He is a symptom. He is not the cause.” These extremist movements will outlast Trump’s presidency because the reason that they exist long predates it.
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Violence could still erupt after the Electoral College vote or Biden’s inauguration, and even if it doesn’t, experts urge caution, patience, and continued attention to this issue. “It would be the same mistake we made as a country, as researchers, as journalists after the skinhead scene,” says Reid. “Just because they weren’t on Maury or Oprah anymore didn’t mean they stopped existing.” In September, the Department of Homeland Security declared white supremacists the “most persistent and lethal” threat to the internal United States, more so than any foreign terrorist threat or any group on the left. A poorly attended rally or two is not a reason to think that these groups are going to fade away. “The ones who march in public are not the same as the activists who are interested in doing violence,” Belew says. “They’re not interested in getting a million people who will march down the street. They’re interested in getting six people who will detonate a bomb.”
Not only is this problem bigger than Trump, it’s also bigger than America. In the past five years, far-right terror has gone up 320 percent worldwide. “White supremacists do communicate with groups in other countries. Anti-government groups are traditionally more US-focused, but we’re seeing similar phenomena in European capitals,” says Miller-Idriss. “This isn’t just domestic politics. There are issues afoot globally.” Unfortunately it's not entirely clear what those issues are, since these kinds of extremist groups are notoriously understudied. “We can’t keep saying it’s economic insecurity,” Reid says. “We need the research that looks at who the more violent individuals are because that’s where the interventions and suppression are needed. It can’t keep hitting a federal level like the Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping plot before there’s any intervention.”
Many of those interventions will need to come from lawmakers and local law enforcement, but average citizens can do more than just wait—or put all of this quietly out of mind. “The better we can not keep dismissing all of this as a phase or fad or subculture the better we will be able to intervene early,” Reid says. “Families are the first line of defense.” Miller-Idriss’ lab has been developing a guide for parents, and training teachers on what to do if, say, a student shows up to a Zoom lecture with a Nazi symbol as their background. They urge alertness, and to ask questions rather than launch into corrective diatribes. America’s problem with far-right extremism runs much deeper than the events of 2020, and the easiest way to dig people out of that digital rabbit hole is to never let them wander too far down in the first place.
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