This week’s impeachment trial of Donald Trump for inciting an insurrection refreshed many Americans’ sense of shock at what took place on January 6, when thousands of pro-Trump extremists surrounded the U.S. Capitol, stormed into the building, bludgeoned police officers and sent congressional leadership into hiding.
But experts say the attack is hugely worrying for reasons beyond what the Senate is debating. Unlike other recent spasms of American violence, this was not the work of a lone wolf, nor of a small cell of radicals. The pathway to an attempted government overthrow unfolded in public, out loud on the internet, in a process that experts call mass radicalization.
The protest was likely just the tip of an iceberg; nobody knows how many Americans – tens of thousands? more? – would have willingly joined them if they’d been in Washington that day. It’s a new challenge for America, and a serious one: At times and places when large groups of people have been inspired to embrace violence, it often leads to long-term unrest, if not outright civil war. And right now, experts think, it’s happening faster than ever.
“Historically, mass radicalization took time,” says Michael Jensen, an expert on extremism who leads the domestic radicalization team at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). “But that’s not our reality anymore.”
Jensen’s research has found that over the last roughly 15 years, the average timespan of radicalization in the U.S. has shrunk from 18 months to 7 months, largely because of how much of our lives have shifted online. In the 1980s or ‘90s, a would-be far-right extremist had to “know somebody in your real-world life who was involved in it,” says Jensen. “They had to recruit you in or introduce you to the ideas. That tended to be a pretty slow process.”
Jensen has emerged as a leading figure in the fight against domestic extremism. And though it might be tempting to draw parallels between the insurrectionist movement and other extreme groups, he says America’s far-right extremists are different than you may expect. Compared to extremists animated by far-left or jihadist beliefs, they radicalize later in life, are substantially more likely to have a violent criminal background and are more prone to substance-use disorders. And where you may expect far-right groups to compete against one another for recruits, attention and resources — as has long been the case — that dynamic is currently evolving into a reality that poses an even greater threat. They are joining forces.
“The most concerning thing that we’ve seen in the last couple of years is that competition [on the far-right] is actually eroding to some extent, and there has been more of an effort for these groups to link and to cooperate with each other,” says Jensen. “To some extent, January 6th was these groups coming together.”
What should we know about mass radicalization? Should we expect the future of American extremism to look a lot more like January 6th? And is there something about American politics at the moment that is helping to fuel all of this?
To sort through it all, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Jensen this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.
This week, Americans have been horrified by new footage of the attack on the Capitol. How does an extremism expert see what happened January 6th?
From our vantage point, it was somewhat predictable. We saw the conditions coming together that would allow for something like the insurrection on January 6th. We have to back up and talk about how mass radicalization occurs, and — even more importantly — how mass mobilization occurs, which is what January 6th was. It wasn’t just the radicalization of beliefs; it was the mobilization of individuals on behalf of those beliefs.
Typically, when we talk about radicalization, we’re talking about it at an individual or small-group level. We talk about how Person X came to adopt an extremist viewpoint and act on it. We highlight things like personal grievances, their identity ambitions — perhaps they were seeking some thrill or meaning in their life, and got excited about the promises being made by an extremist ideology, and that if they participated, they would be revered as a hero. With small groups, we tend to talk about group cohesion. Individuals tend to isolate themselves among like-minded people — it’s just a natural human instinct. That tends to form echo chambers, where you hear the same ideas over and over, and they’re never challenged.
Mass radicalization is a much larger phenomenon in which you have tens of thousands — if not millions — of individuals who are vulnerable to [extremist] messages they receive from really influential people. And then, there might be movement towards mobilizing those individuals. They still talk about personal grievances, but there’s a broader national political message there, [where] this is a battle between good and evil, where the other side is looking to undermine us and our way of life, and we all have a responsibility to challenge and confront the other side.
What leads to radicalization occurring on that sort of mass scale?
First, you have to have a vulnerable audience receptive to the extremist narrative — individuals who are scared, angry, isolated and looking for answers that satisfy their own personal biases, looking to cast blame for their problems on someone else. They find narratives that tell them their problems are not their fault; it’s the product of a conspiracy trying to undermine your way of life and well-being. Those messages are deeply appealing, because it’s harder to look inside and question your own decision-making and behaviors. Over the past year in particular, we’ve had an unprecedented situation that has left a very large audience receptive to those narratives. The pandemic has left people scared, without jobs and looking for answers to what happens next.
The second thing you need is an influential voice pushing the extremist narrative. And over the last four and a half years, we have had a very influential political leader [President Donald Trump] pushing a narrative that is not only polarizing — not only highlighting that the right and left are far apart on policy issues and disagree on discretionary spending — it’s a narrative of “othering.” It’s a narrative that casts the other side as evil, as “enemies,” as individuals you have to fight at all costs in order to preserve your way of life. We saw this, whether [Trump’s “others”] were Democrats, the news media or the scientific community.
The final thing you need is a mechanism to spread that narrative to the masses. Historically, mass radicalization took time. If an influential leader wanted to spread a message, they’d do it through newspapers or political speeches in towns and cities throughout their country, and it could take a while for that message to spread. But that’s not our reality anymore.
Our reality now is one in which a radicalizing message can be broadcast to hundreds of millions of people in a matter of seconds. And if it catches on, you’re virtually guaranteed that millions of people will [believe] that narrative. We’ve seen this in the more traditional forms of media, with outlets like Fox News pushing some of these conspiratorial views, but we’ve also seen it with social media companies not cracking down on this rhetoric early, and instead letting it fester.
Those three conditions [make people] ripe for mass radicalization. And once that narrative changes into a call for action — when it’s not just about changing someone’s beliefs, it’s about inspiring them to act on those beliefs — you get January 6th. You get mass mobilization. That’s what we saw.
The question is moving forward is, are those conditions still present? Does the future of extremism in this country look like January 6th, or does it look like something we’ve been dealing with for a couple of decades? In my estimation, we are reverting back to somewhat of a mean. The future of extremism in this country won’t look like January 6th, but it will look like what we’ve been dealing with for the past couple of decades, [with a] significant threat we have to challenge in a very smart way.
You mentioned the role our current political dynamics play in fostering this environment. You’ve studied trends in radicalization looking back to the mid-20th century. Do you see politics driving people towards radicalization in a way that it didn’t a few decades ago?
Polarization is nothing new in American politics. There’ve always been multiple sides, and that gap has perhaps been widening over the last 20 years, where there are just fundamental issues [on which] it’s hard to find common ground. It doesn’t always manifest in expressions of violence unless it turns into that “othering” narrative.
That’s been a big change in recent years: it’s not so much that the other side disagrees with you on policy issues; it’s that the other side is in cahoots to undermine you and fundamentally challenge you and your way of life, and they’re doing it for their own personal benefit and greed, and you have to fight that at all costs. It’s more politically lucrative for individuals to play up polarization, to play up their tribe vs. the other tribe. It’s more politically expedient for them to do those things than to be the old-style leader who tries to find a bridge and a middle ground.
The other big change is that we’re just exposed to polarization a lot more now. It’s so much easier to be exposed to how much we don’t agree on things. Every time you jump online, you’re going to get hit with the fact that your viewpoint is quite different than perhaps your neighbor’s or somebody in your family’s. We’re confronted with that polarization a lot more, and I don’t know that we have found a way to constructively speak to each other about those divisions.
If you are likely to encounter political polarization anytime you go online, and if polarization can push people towards radicalization, does that mean that radicalization happens more quickly now because of the Internet?
The preliminary conclusion is yes, the main effect of the Internet on radicalization is that it speeds the process up quite considerably.
We ran a research project where we looked at this for individuals in the U.S. who tried to travel to Syria and Iraq to help the Islamic State. We were trying to measure [the time between] their first exposure to extremist beliefs and when they got caught in that airport or boarded that plane. We found that the average [timespan] of radicalization over the last 15 years or so had gone from something like 18 months to 7 months. Really, the only thing that changed in that period was the fact that these communities are now flourishing online.
Think about somebody in the 1980s or 1990s radicalizing into the “white power” movement. You had to know somebody in your real-world life who was involved in it. They had to recruit you in or introduce you to the ideas. That tended to be a pretty slow process — a process that, for a lot of individuals, didn’t happen. Now, it’s a click away. It’s really easy to find. And once you start expressing interest in those viewpoints, the way social media platforms are set up is to keep you immersed in their environment for as long as possible. As you express an interest in an extremist viewpoint, the algorithm says, “Well, you like this extremist stuff, so we’re going to give you more of it.” You fall into the rabbit hole. You isolate yourself into an echo chambers where all you’re hearing is the extremist narrative, and you’re hearing praise for individuals who have acted on behalf of the viewpoints. So [for instance,] you’re hearing a narrative that praises the Dylann Roofs of the world [Roof is a white supremacist who murdered nine Black churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015] for taking a stand and fighting on behalf of the cause.
It’s not only a hyper-radicalizing environment, it’s hyper-mobilizing — one that encouraged you 24 hours a day to do something. That has a pretty dramatic effect on speeding up the process of radicalization.
When you talk about American extremism “reverting to the mean,” what does that actually look like?
I think the overriding characteristic of extremism in the United States is its diversity in terms of the viewpoints promoted, in terms of the characteristics of the individuals who adhere to those viewpoints, and in terms of the actions and behaviors that individuals take on behalf of those beliefs.
We have always had a wide variety of extremist views in the U.S. For forever, we’ve had white supremacist and white nationalist narratives. Those have been paired with narratives on the far left — the social-justice narratives that promoted violence in the 1960s and 70s, and then morphing into animal-rights and eco-terrorism extremists. We’ve had anti-government views; “sovereign citizens” and the “patriot” movement have been around a really long time. We’ve had jihadist-inspired individuals and narratives. And then we have these kind of “fringe” ones we don’t really know where to put.
It is important to recognize, though, that there’s not an equal [threat] level across those ideologies. Our data suggest that far-right extremist views are the most prevalent of the extremist views in this country.
In your studies, you’ve found that far-right extremists in the U.S. tend to radicalize later in life than far-left or jihadi extremists. You’ve also found that they are statistically much more likely to have had a history of violent criminal activity — roughly 25 percent of far-right extremists, compared to 11 or 12 percent for jihadist or far-left extremists. What accounts for that difference?
In terms of extremist individuals [overall], when you look at the backgrounds, you see everything you can imagine. You see well-adjusted individuals who have good jobs, who are married with children, but maybe have some identity needs that aren’t being fulfilled, who want to matter more than they think they do, and find extremist narratives appealing. We see individuals who have had horrible lives — victims of physical, emotional and sexual abuse as children; people with substance-use disorders who join an extremist movement because it gives them access to friends, parties and drugs. We see young people. We see old people. We see people with mental illness. We see people without mental illness.
When we look at individuals on the far right, we’re seeing much higher rates of previous criminal history that had nothing to do with their ideology. We’re seeing much higher rates of substance-use disorders. We’re seeing somewhat older individuals. And the reasons why can be complicated.
Far-right narratives often appeal [more] to older individuals. “Grievance” narratives are often tailored to individuals who have unmet expectations about the way their lives were supposed to turn out — people who are already into their lives, where they supposed to have established a career and a family and their identity within the community. The narrative is really appealing to them: All your ambitions were thwarted because of this evil “other” working to undermine you.
There is also a decently high rate of individuals with past military experience in [far-right] communities. These individuals tend to be a little bit older because they had a previous life in the military. They are the most recruited of anyone. They possess a set of skills that these groups find really appealing. The Oath Keepers, for example, are [active in] recruiting military and law enforcement.
The final thing worth noting in terms of those more troubling characteristics, [like] substance-use disorders, mental illness, histories of past trauma: Those are really high in certain extremist groups because those individuals are the most vulnerable to recruitment. Far-right groups know that. They find individuals who have those characteristics, and promise them camaraderie. They promise them a “party scene” to be a part of, and a pretty radical change in their life. Whereas jihadist groups often shy away from recruiting people who they deem as having problems with their mental health or with substance use, for white supremacist groups, that’s their bread and butter.
If the far-right is larger, how does that manifest in terms of competition between extremist far-right groups? Does that make recruitment more intense? I could also imagine it leading to a drive to commit major acts of violence to gain publicity.
That is definitely a concern. There’s some scholarship outside of the U.S. that suggests that when these groups get into competition with each other, they get into one-upmanship, and that can lead to more extreme behaviors. They’re trying to assert themselves as the leaders of a movement, and the way you do that is by showing that you’re ready, willing and able to take the most extreme actions.
The most concerning thing that we’ve seen in the last couple of years is that competition [on the far-right] is actually eroding to some extent, and there has been more of an effort for these groups to link and to cooperate with each other. We’re starting to see neo-Nazis and Proud Boys adopt some of the language of the QAnon community — talk about pedophilia and a “satanic cabal” — as a way of forming a bridge.
What accounts for that change, where competition has gone down in favor of something closer to collaboration or, at least, appeasement?
I think it’s the recognition that they feel like they have a common enemy — the “left,” and liberal America — and they’re willing to look past differences to unify against that common enemy because it’s more effective than going alone. They’re stronger together. They can push their narratives more [effectively]. They can have demonstrations with a show of force. If it’s just the Proud Boys showing up, it’s probably not going to be the most amazing demonstration, but if they can get the Oath Keepers and “sovereign citizens” and QAnon supporters to show up, it ends up being a fairly significant display for the movement.
The “Unite the Right” rally [in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017] was all about bringing these different groups together against a common cause and common enemy. To date, we’ve really only seen that manifest in online rhetorical collaboration, and then that’s spilling offline in terms of marches and demonstrations. To some extent, January 6th was these groups coming together. You saw everyone from neo-Nazis to QAnon supporters to Proud Boys marching on the Capitol that day.
So, given that, should we expect more January 6th-style insurrections in the future, or do you see that as more of an anomaly?
I’ve had colleagues — people I admire and really respect — suggest that we’re confronting a mass movement that is ready, willing and able to engage in unprecedented levels of violence. That’s a position that I respectfully disagree with.
The conditions that allowed for January 6th were kind of a perfect storm that we may not get again. I think that the conditions have now changed. The political leadership is largely gone, and the ones who were pushing that [extremist] narrative have been silenced. Now, that could be temporary or it could be long-term, but right now, it looks like it has some staying power. At this point, [major] social media platforms are cracking down on the promotion of these [extremist] narratives, so we’re seeing individuals move to smaller platforms. Telegram and Parler and Gab just don’t have the reach of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube; they can reach millions of people, but not hundreds of millions.
There’s also a change to the audience itself. Its level of vulnerability and receptiveness is starting to decrease. Life is going to get back to normal at some point. People are going to get back to work. They’re not going to be as isolated and scared anymore. They just may not be as receptive [to extremist narratives].
It’s also really important to recognize that while many people were emboldened by what happened on January 6th, many were demoralized and demobilized. We’ve seen this in the QAnon community. We’ve seen this in communities pushing conspiracies around election fraud. Many people voiced their concerns that that was not where they were looking for the movement to go, and they’ve really started to walk away from it.
We have to recognize that it’s one thing for people to change their views, and quite another for people to change their behaviors. Most people who radicalize in terms of their views will not mobilize on behalf of them — will not pick up a gun and go to a mall and open fire on unsuspecting innocent people. That is not the most common outcome for individuals who radicalize. We have to be really smart about how we react to it. An overreaction can do more harm than good.
That seems like a difficult calculation to make, though. Is it enough for a radicalized person to simply be non-violent without changing their underlying views? Do we see that as a success, or are the views themselves a threat?
Look, I don’t think it’s good for the social fabric of our country for individuals to believe conspiracy theories and extremist views. But it’s not illegal. Individuals can hold those beliefs if they want to. What is illegal is when they mobilize on behalf of them and hurt someone else, or commit some other crime on behalf of those views. That’s really what we have the legal authority to do something about. When we’re talking about policies that we can reasonably enact in this country, then we’re talking about stopping people from engaging in illegal behaviors.
For the social good of our country, I hope that we promote more mainstream rhetoric over the next few years. I hope that we elevate science and evidence and fact to the position that it used to have, and that these narratives are not as prevalent, because it is bad for our democracy and our communities.
Can there be such a thing as mass deradicalization? And if radicalization can happen online very quickly, can deradicalization happen online — at all?
This is a tough one, because we just don’t have experience with our modern communication technologies in dealing with something like a mass-deradicalization program. In the historical examples that we can point to — Nazi Germany and places like that — the tools used are just not applicable in our situation. Ours is going to look much more like a public-awareness campaign than some systematic program to change the way people think about the world.
So is it possible? Probably, but we just we don’t have experience with this.
A reasonable starting point is to expect that the voices will really matter. Who are the individuals delivering the narrative that seeks to deradicalize or demobilize individuals? Right now, you have a collective of individuals deeply distrustful of the other side. President Biden coming out and saying, “Let’s all get together and work through our problems” may not be effective, because to those communities, he’s part of the “enemy” group. We have to see individuals from within those tribes coming out and saying, “OK, enough is enough. We have to find ways to resolve our issues peacefully and find common ground.” Republican leadership is going to play a fundamentally important role.
So, as a policy matter, what should President Biden be doing on this?
This is not a problem that we can or should try to arrest our way out of. There are individuals who constitute real threats and should be criminally prosecuted. But if the only tool in our arsenal are arrests and incarceration, then we stand a chance of creating a lot more harm than good. If we think that January 6th is a sign of things to come and requires a massive crackdown, we can foster ill will and distrust and play right into extremist propaganda that is used to radicalize more people. January 6th could be a bit of a “black swan” event, and we shouldn’t overreact to it. We should have a measured response.
I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re in a good place on this, because Biden came from the [Obama] administration, [which] tried to diversify the tools that we use to tackle this problem. So, investing in community-based programs that target at-risk individuals, that support the rehabilitation of folks who perhaps got in some trouble because of their extremist beliefs and maybe went to prison and are now back in their communities. Actions that aren’t just throwing people in jail — actions that actually try to help people and improve lives — play a big role in deradicalizing individuals.
But we have to acknowledge that things outside of our immediate control will influence our ability to push deradicalization. This pandemic is a major pain. When you have so many people out of work and isolated and alone and scared, then getting people back to work, getting life back to normal as much as possible [are important goals]. You can see a real pacifying, deradicalizing effect just from conditions in the world improving over the next year or two. And within a matter of months, we could be in a much better position than we are right now.
From a law enforcement angle, in the last couple of years, they have taken a much more balanced approach in dealing with these challenges. They are taking the domestic extremist threat a lot more seriously. It’s not just a singular focus on the jihadist threat emanating from abroad. That’s a good, productive change. We can reinstitute some of the [Countering Violent Extremism] programs that we started in 2011 that the Trump administration effectively killed; we didn’t even really get to a point where we could judge how effective they were, because they didn’t last long enough. Invest in public-awareness campaigns, public health campaigns. Invest in communities and give them the resources they need to help individuals. That will be a big part of reversing the tide here.
None of this will ever completely eliminate the problem. You’re just trying to get the problem to a point where it’s manageable and we can live with it. It’s not that high of a bar.
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