Publisher’s Note: For years, counterterrorism officials and outside analysts alike have relied on identifying diverse groups, or at least analytical categories, to sort through terrorist and other violent threats. However, strange hybrids keep popping up, where different right and left extremists previously converged in dangerous ways. American University’s Cynthia Miller-Idriss and Brian Hughes examine these strange coalitions, describe how they came about, and identify the factors that drive them.
In recent months, right-wing extremists have upgraded the Unabomber and praised the Taliban. A newly formed white racist group announced a new “Bolshevik focus” calling for the liquidation of the capitalist class. A burgeoning eco-fascist youth subculture – spread through social media imageboard accounts and commercial goods – celebrates nature worship and roots in a physical home and at the same time calls for a white ethnic state.
After a violent uprising in the U.S. Capitol by a strange coalition of illegal militias, white supremacists, QAnon conspiracy theorists, Proud Boys, and simple Trump voters, these trends highlight the strange and unexpected ways in which domestic violent extremism scenes in the United States splinter and reassemble. The transformation is taking place organizationally as well post-organizational.
On the organizational side, political violence emerges from a loose new coalition that spans the extremist spectrum in a way that disrupts the ideological basis typically seen as the root of terrorist and extremist violence. On the post-organizational side, exposure to extremist content and radicalization to ideologies and violence outside the boundaries of organized groups is increasing – mainly through online encounters with propaganda, disinformation and extremist ideas.
The new coalitions became particularly visible when the coronavirus pandemic began, when protests against shutdown orders and mask mandates drew thousands into buildings in the state capital. These protests brought together groups whose interests usually mismatched – heavily armed, illicit militias, conspiracy theorists waving QAnon signs, and anti-Vaxxers whose traditional base is largely left and alternative medicine. They were mobilized by their only common denominator: the anti-government sentiment regarding the management of the pandemic.
This breakdown of previous ideological boundaries has continued. The boundaries between those who believe in radical ecology and the preservation of natural ecosystems and those who believe that environmental sustainability is linked to racial claims to land and requires extreme immigration control or deportation have merged. Some “boogaloo” supporters in favor of a new civil war marched with protesters against racial injustice over common anger over the law enforcement. Small but vocal contingents like the “post-left” and “national Bolshevik” tendencies have come together to form an ideological anti-capitalist column, which is expressed in the whirlwind of social media through different fragments of cultural war discussions, Stalinism, and fascism thrown everything together.
The phenomenon is nothing new in many ways. Extremist scenes and movements have conflicting views on certain parts of their ideology (such as Jews and whites), or restrictions on who can be members (e.g. women) due to differing beliefs about tactics (such as the use of force). This conflict is increasingly emerging not only in relatively limited groups, but also in a wide jumble of ideological beliefs within national and international extremist scenes, movements, and individuals. These trends differ from previous iterations of extremist Fraktur and Reformation.
There are at least four reasons for the increasing confusion of ideological justifications: the increasing ability of ideological concepts to mobilize violence, increasing event-driven violence, tactical convergence and communication infrastructure.
The amalgamation of extremist ideologies is encouraged through the use of ideas embedded with a simultaneous call to action that we “mobilizing concepts. ”They differ from traditional ideological frameworks, which are rooted in more clearly articulated beliefs or theories about how political or economic systems should work, such as anarchism, communism or fascism. Mobilizing concepts, on the other hand, can be applied to a broad spectrum of ideological frameworks or justifications. These include the term “Boogaloo” (a code word for a second civil war), the concept of “Three Percenters” (based on the false claim that only three percent of the colonists would be needed to rise up against the British), and the idea of a threat to “Western values”. All three justifications have the potential to mobilize significant ideological support for a concept rather than an ideology.
Event-driven political violence and extremism refers to relatively spontaneous coalitions between ideological groups and movements that arise around a common protest or demonstration. The protests in the state capital in connection with coronavirus mandates are an example; the January 6 uprising in the US Capitol is different. Event-driven ideological coalitions arise on the basis of opportunities to bring larger groups of people together by focusing on the lowest common denominator that unites them, creating a temporary convergence between myriad ideologies and extremist cultures.
It is not just concepts and events that lead to ideological confusion and coalition formation. There is also an increasing strategic and tactical convergence in an ideologically agnostic way, particularly with regard to the idea of accelerationism. Accelerationism is a goal and a tactic on which a multitude of movements are based, united around the goal of overthrowing the prevailing political and social order in the country. Extreme environmentalists could use the tactic to speed up violence against commercial logging companies, for example, while anti-government extremists would use it against elected officials or government buildings. Acceleration goals converge around the idea of inspiration; its advocates see their goals not as mere retribution or intimidation by terrorists, but rather to inspire others to perpetrate similar violence and hasten the collapse of systems that extremists believe must be demolished and rebuilt. As a strategic direction, the tactic has spread across the political spectrum.
Fourth and finally, the material infrastructure enables ideological justifications to be mixed up. Specifically, digital media shape communication and the consumption of ideological content. The infrastructure of digital communication technology, both at the engineering and the design level, makes motley ideological mixtures more and more common – and perhaps even inevitable. The arrival of the hyperlink has made it orders of magnitude easier for someone with a grudge to skip from left-wing anti-interventionism to New World Order reptilian conspiracy theories and anti-civilizational deep ecology to far-right “national anarchism” to the boogaloo movement and beyond. And the online nature of this ideological exploration makes it less likely that contradictions will ever be resolved. Instead, they grow in an ever-evolving series of fragmented ideological commitments, extremist identities, and conspiracy beliefs.
This fact makes it all the more clear that the current approaches to counter extremism are completely inadequate. Policy makers will not be able to solve tomorrow’s extremism problems with the surveillance and security tools honed in yesterday’s struggles. On the contrary, the only hope of reducing urgent extremist threats to democracy is through early prevention and intervention. This includes reducing people’s vulnerability to online manipulation, providing digital and media literacy training to all, and reducing the types of moral withdrawal and dehumanization that have been shown to precede political violence. But understanding the nature of the developing problem is an essential first step.