The Washington Post recently ran a interview arguing that what’s fundamentally lacking in this election is more “empathy” for Trump supporters, including the most racist, misogynist, and xenophobic among them. The country’s major newspapers have been awash with stories in which a buttoned-up reporter travels to Trumpland to try and understand the economic anxiety supposedly driving these voters.
We are not going to make the case against empathy. But the truth of the matter is that we show fervent Trump supporters a heck of a lot more intellectual and emotional charity than we display for members of other groups supporting other illiberal movements.
Here’s a different frame with which to think about the Trump movement: We have a vigorous academic literature on the issue of radicalism and radicalization, some of which overlaps with the burgeoning scholarship on countering violent extremism. With five days left before Americans finish voting, we want to pose the question of what this literature has to teach about the Trump movement.
Consider: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was a broad political movement with dangerous undemocratic overtones, a conspiratorial worldview, and ambiguous relationships with a radical fringe that, in turn, spawned violent and even terroristic offshoots. It held mass rallies and terrified the political establishment and religious and other minorities, offended gender equity norms, and threatened to upend Egypt’s traditional foreign policy and national security posture. It competed in major national elections and prevailed.
The Trump campaign is also a broad political movement with dangerous undemocratic overtones, a conspiratorial worldview, and ambiguous relationships with a radical fringe that is also linked to violent and even terroristic offshoots. Unlike the Brotherhood, Trump does not even commit himself to respecting the results of the elections in which he competes. The Trump movement has mass rallies and terrifies the political establishment and religious and ethnic minorities, offends gender equity norms, and threatens to upend the United States’ traditional foreign policy and national security posture. It is competing in a major national election and, according to the latest FiveThirtyEight forecast, has a roughly 33 percent chance of winning the presidency.
About one of these movements and its associated spectrum, the spectrum of Sunni Islamism, we have a deeply fearful political discourse. In connection with this spectrum, we have also developed a large literature on the process of radicalization and countering violent extremism. That is a literature we should be thinking about right now in connection with the other of these movements.
Let’s begin by being clear about what we are not saying: We are not saying that Trumpism is the moral equivalent of jihadism. We are not saying that Trump is a terrorist or supports terrorism. We are also not saying that his supporters are extremists. We are not saying that the body of the Trump movement is violent. But of course, the body of the Muslim Brotherhood movement did not sanction violence either. The overwhelming majority of its supporters were also not terrorists or extremists. In both cases, it is wrong to engage in guilt by association.
We are also not attempting to draw too close a comparison between Trumpism and the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, after all, has a long history in Egypt, violent and non-violent, political and non-political. The movement had big support among a wide swath of Egyptians because it had been a significant part of the country’s civil society, doing good works over a long period of time. It also has a deep intellectual history as a major alternative to either liberal or secular-authoritarian leadership in Arab societies.
It actually gives Trumpism, which is both new and intellectually incoherent, too much credit to compare it with a many-decades-old movement that has had such a tectonic impact on the Muslim world. Trumpism could well be a flash in the pan. It certainly does not carry the same intellectual weight as the Brotherhood carries with it.
But here’s what we are saying: Trumpism, like the Brotherhood, is a political movement built on the mass mobilization of faith—in the one case religious faith and in the other case faith in a single charismatic individual. Like the Brotherhood, it is a movement that exists within an electoral system but which has a deeply ambivalent relationship with the democratic norms of that system, a movement which both formally rejects violence yet manages also to tolerate or encourage it. Recall that less than a week ago, Trump declared that “we should just cancel the election and just give it to Trump” and has suggested he will concede the election only if he “wins.”
And at the fringes of both movements are radicals, some of whom are violent. The line between the Brotherhood and certain ultra-conservative Salafist and even violent Islamist groups in Egypt is a somewhat fuzzy one. This is more similar to than different from the Trump campaign which has, and often cheerfully accepts, the overt support of domestic white supremacists and members of the so-called “alt-right” movement—essentially white supremacy with a sheen of pseudo-intellectualism and a gleefully nihilist rejection of democracy in favor of authoritarian leadership. The most overt example of this is Trump’s connection to Breitbart, which Trump campaign CEO and on-leave Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon has called “the platform for the alt-right.” Prominent white supremacist and alt-right “founder” Richard Spencer has given several interviews expressing his delight at the prospect of a Trump presidency and at the new prominence his movement has received thanks to the campaign. He recently declared, “If you wear a Trump hat in many places, you might as well be wearing a swastika.” Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke has professed himself “Trump’s most loyal advocate.” Trump’s disavowal of such supports has been occasional—and equivocal.
Both movements have also spawned terrorists. Hamas is a spinoff of the Brotherhood—though the Brotherhood’s modern incarnation has also been emphatic in condemning terrorism and has often disassociated itself from extremists.
Trump, of course, also condemns violence, though he has often seemed to invite it at his rallies. Yet only today, the New York Times ran a story about extremist American militia movements “enthralled” by Trump’s message, who are convinced of the need to fight back against looming “tyranny” with violent resistance. “Donald Trump would fit right in with our little group,” said one militia member.
This portends violence that may lurk on the horizon. But over the last few weeks, we have also seen more immediate examples of terrorist attacks linked to one degree or another to Trumpism. On Tuesday, a Black church in Mississippi was burned and vandalized with the words “Vote Trump.” Less obviously connected to Trumpism but much more dangerous was a recently disrupted terror plot in Garden City, Kansas to launch a major attack on the city’s Somali immigrant community. While it’s not clear from the court documents that the perpetrators were specifically inspired by Trump, they certainly sounded a lot like the fringe of the candidate’s enthusiasts, expressing hatred of Muslims and discussing plans to kill Somali immigrants with arrows dipped in pig’s blood, a reference to a debunked story about General John Pershing’s treatment of Muslims in the Philippines, which has also been invoked by Donald Trump at campaign rallies. Notably, the perpetrators were timing their attack for the day after the election.
And that’s only the recent examples. Go back a few months and there are more:
- In December 2015, two men were arrested in Boston for severely beating a homeless Latino man with a metal bar after urinating on him. Speaking to police, one of the attackers declared, “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.”
- In March, two students from Wichita State University—one Bangladeshi, one Latino—said they were attacked at a gas station by a man shouting, “Trump, Trump, Trump.”
- In May 2016, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman reported an assault at a Starbucks in Chevy Chase, Maryland by a woman who called her a “worthless piece of Muslim trash,” declared her desire to vote for Donald Trump in order to “send all of you back where you came from,” and poured liquid over her from a bottle.
A study by researchers California State University, San Bernardino found that in 2015, hate crimes against Muslims rocketed to their highest level since 2001, with spikes correlated to particularly Islamophobic statements by Trump. A report from Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative found a similar increase in anti-Muslim attacks over the same timeframe. One Brookings employee was attacked only the other day on his way from work to a local mosque near Dupont Circle in Washington.
Threats of violence are even more common. An essay by anti-Trump conservative writer David French recently made the rounds describing the torrent of harassment he received from Trump supporters threatening the life of his young daughter, promising to shoot his wife—a threat that appeared serious enough to prompt French’s wife to acquire a permit to carry a handgun—and hacking into a phone conversation between his wife and her father to scream at them both about Trump. Journalists and commentators covering Trump, particularly Jewish writers, have also been targeted with death threats and anti-Semitic abuse online.
So what does the radicalization literature have to say about all of this? Broadly speaking, this research asks not only what radicalizes people, but what radicalizes some people as opposed to others, and what sets some people with radical ideas on a violent course while others live normal lives believing radical things. What this literature teaches is that the majority of people in any given community—even in any given undemocratic or illiberal political movement—are not, after all, attracted to extremist beliefs or actions. Moreover, most of those who might be mildly intrigued by such beliefs don’t end up becoming fully committed to extremist ideas or radicalism, especially not to the point of committing violence. So what distinguishes those who do?
These are the questions we ask when confronted by illiberal Muslim electoral movements on a spectrum with violent jihadism. This is also the question we should be asking about the Trump movement and its spectrum with violent white supremacy.
The radicalization literature generally treats radicalization as a process that takes place over a period of time. The radicalizing subject goes through a series of steps, with each step drawing him or her closer toward extremist beliefs and sometimes toward mobilization to violence as well. Some individuals mobilize right away, becoming violent in the service of an ideology they may not fully understand. Depending on the flexibility of the model, the subject might not need to go through every step, or might go through some steps in a different order. This is sometimes conceptualized as a funneling of sorts, with a smaller and smaller number of people progressing through each move toward radicalization until only a tiny proportion of the overall population has committed to extremism.
Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko propose a “double pyramid” model, where increasing extremism is represented by movement toward the tip of a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid are most people, who aren’t interested in or attracted to radical ideas. As you move toward the top of the pyramid, each slice contains a progressively smaller amount of people who are progressively more radical. The “double pyramid” refers to the idea that there are actually two separate measures of extremism: one pyramid that measures the radicalization of a person’s ideas, and one that measures a person’s willingness to commit violent acts.
One key issue is the extent to which certain characteristics and social situations of any given individual affect their chances of radicalization, versus the role of larger societal forces such as those studied by Will McCants and Chris Meserole, including broader political conditions. On the individual level, some researchers, such as John Horgan, have focused on psychological traits—such as “emotional vulnerability”—that might tilt a person toward extremism.
But also key are social ties and networks with radicals or others drifting toward radicalism, which have emerged as a particularly important factor in moving a person in the direction of extremist beliefs. Noteworthy here is the role of social media, which, as Raffaelo Pantucci and Gabriel Weimann (among others) have written, allows even would-be “lone wolves” to connect with other extremists online. Recently, there’s been a related surge of research on ISIS’s Twitter presence, particularly by J.M. Berger—who has also written in Politico about the embrace of Trump by white supremacist groups online.
In other words, Trumpism is very likely a kind of gateway drug for some people for violent extremism. It offers an ideational set of preconditions off of which the radicalizing individual can spring.
But Trumpism doesn’t simply provide—like certain Islamisms—an ideational platform on which radicalization can take place. It also provides key aspects of the crucial social networks for very large numbers of people. Nazis and white supremacists have always been able to find each other online, but unless you visited their particular corners of the web, they had very little way to reach you. They were a relatively small group of people speaking almost entirely to themselves.
Trump has changed that. Now white supremacists and alt-righters are a small group of people in a giant stadium, doing the wave in the bleachers with Sieg Heils. Everyone in the stadium gets to see them, particularly because the Trump campaign often puts them on the Jumbotron by retweeting them or refusing to repudiate them. Notoriously, in January, Trump retweeted a message from a user with the Twitter handle “@WhiteGenocideTM,” a reference to a widespread white supremacist meme. Later in the campaign, Trump also refused for days to conclusively repudiate David Duke’s endorsement of his candidacy.
What’s more, if you follow Donald Trump’s own Twitter feed, you inevitably get exposed to a steady diet of the hardest-core white supremacists as they fawningly reply to him. Even if you don’t follow Trump, you see those people attacking the journalists and commentators you do follow. And if you attend Trump’s rallies or watch clips of them online, you can find other Trump supporters chanting slogans like “Jew-S-A.” A recent video shows one rally attendee in Cleveland coaching another through calling reporters members of the “Lügenpresse”—a Nazi phrase meaning “lying press.”
So all of a sudden, huge numbers of people are potentially subject to the influence of peer groups they didn’t even know they had. More perniciously still, the radicals get to approach this very large new audience through the cleansing lens of an apparently mainstream political candidacy and party. That Trump supporter taught to shout “Lügenpresse” presumably didn’t know that he was screaming a Nazi slur; he was just following Trump’s lead, and the lead of those around him, in jeering at the “dishonest media.”
How big is the amplifying effect of Trumpism for white supremacy? This week, the name David Duke was trending on Twitter as a result of Duke’s appearance at a debate for a Louisana seat in the U.S. Senate. When he announced his Senate bid in July, Duke explicitly linked his candidacy to the Trump campaign, saying that he had been inspired to run by Trump and was “overjoyed” to see Trump “embrace most of the issues that I’ve championed for years.” As of December 2015, the white supremacist website Stormfront was upgrading its servers in response to its “steady increase” in traffic driven by Trump’s then-new prominence on the national stage. Its traffic, we regret to report, currently outperforms that of Lawfare by a factor of several times.
There’s a simple measure for whether our basic theory here is, in a general sense, right: If it is, we will see a significant spike in white supremacist violence over the next few years. The Trump campaign has provided a baseline undemocratic ideation to hundreds of millions of people and also provided a platform through which extremists, both violent and non-violent, can recruit and cultivate. If our collective understanding of the process of violent radicalization is correct, the result will be blood.