Far-right extremism in the US is deadly serious. What will Biden do about it?

Cas Mudde
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images

“The cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear. And now a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”

This sentence, in Joe Biden’s inauguration speech, was manna from heaven for anti-fascists, including me, and in many ways a direct refutation of President Donald Trump’s “American carnage” speech four years ago. After decades of presidents minimizing the white supremacist threat, and four years of emboldening and protecting it, finally there is a president who dares to call the threat by its real name: white supremacy.

My relief was somewhat short-lived, however. A few days later Biden both narrowed and broadened his focus. While there were still implicit references to the far right, most notably the storming of the Capitol on 6 January, the focus was now on “domestic violent extremism”. Why we needed yet another neologism, rather than the common term “domestic terrorism”, was not explained – nor was the fact that most definitions of extremism include the threat or use of violence, which makes the phrase “violent extremism” redundant.

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But leaving aside semantics, much more problematic was the generalization of the threat. Did jihadis storm the Capitol? Were “eco-terrorists” involved? Or antifa? No, the only people storming the Capitol were a broad variety of conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, and other far-right adherents. (To make this absolutely clear, given that conservative and far-right media and politicians keep spreading this lie, antifa was not involved in the storming of the Capitol.)

So why focus on “domestic violent extremism” and not, specifically, on white supremacy or, perhaps better, the far right? I know that there are other “violent extremisms” in the US, but with the exception of the far right, they have not been ignored or minimized by the state. The threats from leftwing extremism, from antifa to the Animal Liberation Front, and Muslim extremism too, have been overemphasized for decades by intelligence agencies and politicians of both parties. It is far-right extremism, including white supremacy, that has generally been ignored.

My second disappointment came from the fact that Biden called for a “comprehensive assessment of the threat of domestic violent extremism” by the director of national intelligence, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, thereby reducing it to a militarized security issue. This not only prioritizes a certain type of expertise and experts (eg military and security), at the expense of others (eg social sciences), it also tends to operate in the grey zones of democracy, with limited oversight from Congress and little to none from the public.

Obviously, there is a security angle here, given the violent core in many far-right subcultures, including the alt-right, self-described “sovereign citizens”, QAnon conspiracy theorists and militia groups. In fact, most of these threats have long been acknowledged by agents on the ground. An FBI report in 2006 warned of far-right infiltration of law enforcement, while in 2014 a national survey of 175 law enforcement agencies ranked sovereign citizens as the most important terrorist threat in the country. Even Trump’s own FBI director and the acting secretary of homeland security called white supremacist extremists the most important domestic terrorist threat.

However, the core of the far-right threat to US democracy goes well beyond these still relatively small groups of potentially violent extremists. That is why these extremists have been minimized and protected by sympathizers in law enforcement and the political mainstream. If Biden really wants to fight far-right “domestic violent extremism”, he has to go to the core of the issue, not limit himself to the most violent outliers. In fact, the “domestic violent extremism” threat can already be reduced significantly by simply providing political cover for FBI and homeland security agents who have been investigating them for decades. No new agencies, laws or resources are necessary – just a refocus of existing resources away from jihadi terrorism and towards the domestic far right.

Our task is to call out the far right in all its guises, irrespective of connections and power

The real threat comes from the broader political and public context in which these “domestic violent extremists” operate – such as the enormous media and social media infrastructure that promotes white supremacist ideas and spreads conspiracy theories. Banning extremist rhetoric and conspiracy theories from social media might help a bit, but it doesn’t do anything about more powerful voices in traditional media, such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity on Fox News. Similarly, it is easy to focus on relatively marginal groups such as the Proud Boys, but their actions are insignificant compared with those of Republican senators such as Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz.

That is why the fight against the far right is, first and foremost, a political one. Our task is to call out the far right in all its guises, irrespective of connections and power. It is to reject far-right frames and policies, including the ones that have been part of the country’s fabric since its founding and those that have been mainstreamed more recently by the Republican party and Donald Trump. If Biden is not willing to go to the root of the problem, much of his fight against far-right “domestic violent extremism” will fail too, just as it did during the presidency of his friend, Barack Obama.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security published an intelligence assessment of “rightwing extremism” in the US, which warned that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan might be particular targets for recruitment by extremist groups. The report sparked a conservative backlash which accused the Obama administration of unfairly targeting conservatives and veterans. Within days, secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, apologized, the report was effectively shelved, rightwing extremism was deprioritized, and the main author of the report resigned. The situation has not gotten better since. We know that the military, and police departments across the country, have been infiltrated and compromised by hate groups and far-right sympathizers. We also know that nearly one in five defendants in Capitol storming cases have served in the military.

So, the real questions are: does Biden understand how broad and entrenched the far-right threat to US democracy really is, and is he willing to boldly go where Obama did not dare? Or is he going to take the easy way out, as so many others have done before? I fear the Biden administration will engage in some rhetorical grandstanding and throw the might of the national security state at some of the more marginal far-right groups and individuals, further eroding civil liberties, while staying silent about the broader far right. While this might prevent some far-right terrorist attacks in the margins, it will also permit the further legitimization and mainstreaming of the far right at the heart of US politics and society.

  • Cas Mudde is Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, the author of The Far Right Today (2019), and host of the podcast Radikaal. He is a Guardian US columnist