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From 9/11 to 1/6

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Radical ideas that are today considered right-wing—white supremacism, violent antigovernment libertarianism, Christian extremism—have played starring roles in the American story since the very beginning. For most of the postwar era, however, the far right has mostly stayed underground, relegated to the fringes of American society. It never disappeared, of course, and in the early 1990s, it seemed poised for a resurgence after a series of confrontations that pitted the authorities against antigovernment militias and religious extremists—a phase that peaked with the 1995 terrorist bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City by a white supremacist, antigovernment extremist, which killed 168 people.

By the dawn of the new millennium, however, those events seemed to be in the rearview. In the years following the Oklahoma City attack, a feared wave of right-wing violence did not materialize. If anything, the bloodshed seemed to further marginalize the far right.

Fast-forward two decades, and the picture looks very different. The past few years have witnessed an explosion of far-right violence and the normalization of the extremist ideas that drive it. In the United States in 2019, 48 people were killed in attacks carried out by domestic violent extremists, 39 of which were carried out white supremacists, making it the most lethal year for such terrorism in the country since 1995. In 2020, the number of domestic terrorist plots and attacks in the United States reached its highest level since 1994; two-thirds of those were attributable to white supremacists and other far-right extremists. In March of this year, the FBI had more than 2,000 open investigations into domestic violent extremism, roughly double the number it had open in the summer of 2017. Also in 2020, authorities nationwide arrested nearly three times as many white supremacists as they did in 2017. And last year, reports to the Anti-Defamation League of white supremacist propaganda—in the form of fliers, posters, banners, and stickers posted in locations such as parks or college campuses—hit an all-time high of more than 5,000, nearly twice the number reported in the previous year. This trend is not limited to the United States. Although jihadis still pose the biggest terrorism threat in Europe, the growth of far-right violence is increasing. The top British counterterrorism official, Neil Basu, recently described right-wing extremism as the United Kingdom’s “fastest growing threat,” and in Germany, violent crimes motivated by right-wing extremism rose by ten percent from 2019 to 2020.

Amid this increase in violence, extreme right-wing ideas were becoming mainstream and were normalized, with far-right political parties gaining representation in more than three dozen national parliaments and in the European Parliament. In the United States, Donald Trump’s electoral success was both a cause and an effect of this trend. His 2016 presidential campaign and his tenure in the White House were steeped in populist, nationalist, nativist rhetoric, which the far right perceived as a legitimation of their views. By the time the “Stop the Steal” campaign sought to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election (with Trump’s explicit encouragement), extremist ideas had taken center stage in American politics. The increase in far-right violence and the normalization of right-wing extremism together culminated in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol: a brutal assault fueled by far-right ideas that had gone mainstream.

The growth of the extreme right has been driven by many factors, including a reactionary backlash to demographic changes and a rising belief in conspiracy theories. It has been further accelerated by the megaphone of social media, as new online channels for amplifying and circulating ideas have significantly broadened the influence of far-right propaganda and disinformation, forged global connections across groups and movements, and created new ways for extremism to seep into the mainstream.

Ironically, however, it was another form of extremism—and Washington’s reaction to it—that in many ways set in motion the resurgence of the far right. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, al Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream. Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far right had been trying to stoke for decades.

But it wasn’t just the terrorists who gave right-wing extremists a boost: so, too, did the U.S.-led war on terrorism, which involved the near-complete pivoting of intelligence, security, and law enforcement attention to the Islamist threat, leaving far-right extremism to grow unfettered.

In recent years, right-wing radicals in the United States and Europe have made clear that they are willing and able to embrace the tactics of terrorism; they have become, in some ways, a mirror image of the jihadis whom they despise.

Western governments must act decisively to combat this threat. Launching a new “war on terror,” however, is not the way to do so. The fight against jihadi violence went awry in many ways and produced negative unintended consequences—including by aiding the rise of the far right, which now poses the gravest terrorism risk. In the fight against this new threat, policymakers need to avoid repeating the very mistakes that contributed to the dangerous new reality.

The modern far right exists on a broad spectrum and includes neo-Nazis, white supremacists, militias opposed to federal governments, self-described “Western chauvinist” groups such as the Proud Boys, “alt-right” provocateurs, conspiracy theorists, and misogynists who call themselves “incels” (short for “involuntary celibates”). What links these disparate elements is a conspiratorial worldview and a shared adherence to antidemocratic and illiberal ideas. A subset of them also support—at least in theory—the use of mass violence against civilian and government targets.

Although their ideas and iconography draw inspiration from the Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, and other dead or moribund movements, today’s American and European far-right groups are more firmly rooted in much more recent developments. In the early 1980s, episodes of far-right terrorism struck France, Italy, and Germany as part of a rising neofascist and neo-Nazi movement in western Europe. Those attacks were followed by a wave of neo-Nazi activity that swept through Germany and eastern Europe during the period of rapid social, political, and economic change that took place in the 1990s, after the fall of the Iron Curtain and German reunification. This form of radicalism manifested in a violent, racist skinhead youth culture, which celebrated street fighting and attacks on asylum seekers and immigrants.

Attending a Proud Boys rally in Portland, Oregon, September 2020

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

At around the same time, racist skinhead groups began to emerge in North America, too, some of them linked to the hardcore music scene. In the United States, another source of far-right and antigovernment extremism was a small but dedicated contingent of Vietnam War veterans who set up boot camps to train paramilitary forces, with the goal of establishing a white separatist homeland. As the availability of assault........

© Foreign Affairs

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