Can Biden Break the Back of the White Supremacist Movement?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest


The continued rise of white supremacist extremism is a deeper and more insidious problem than even Joe Biden may realizeone that cant simply be resolved by one election.

Scott Bixby

White House Reporter

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The fight for the soul of the nation wasnt won with Joe Bidens election and unless the president-elect plans to wage that battle with the full power of every part of the federal government hes set to lead, it may not be won at all.

Thats the consensus of experts in white supremacist movements and far-right radicalization, who told ishonest that the continued rise of racist extremism in the United States is a deeper and more insidious problem than even Biden may realize, and one that cant simply be resolved by one election or by any single government agency.

Weve seen a massive growth among the far right over the last four years, Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told ishonest. Its a movement that has existed in some form in American politics for as long as the countrys been around, but I think the far-right extremist movement adapts to the current political situation very effectively.

The SPLC, which tracks hate groups nationwide, has seen over the past four years an increasing push from white supremacists to normalize political violence, Miller said.

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Weve entered this really scary space where not only within the far right, but within more mainstream spaces, weve seen this shift towards more violent rhetoric and a larger acceptance of political violence, Miller said. And thats not easy to reverse.

The rise of white supremacist violence as the single greatest terror threat to the United States was a critical motivator for Bidens third campaign for the White House. Now that hes won, the next president is set to lead a nation riven with racist extremismand will soon hold the reins of a government that has largely allowed the subculture to flourish over the past four years.

Biden has vowed to dismantle white supremacist groups as part of his pledge to restore the nations soul, particularly when white supremacist extremism results in open acts of violence and terrorism.

This is a moment for this nation to declare what the president cant with any clarity, consistency, or conviction: There is no place for these hate groups in America, Biden wrote in The Atlantic in the aftermath of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, an inflection point both for white supremacists and for the recognition that their prominence has become a true crisis in the United States. In that op-ed, Biden declared that Americans were living through a battle for the soul of this nation for the first time, a line he would later repeat at every stump speech and debate to come. Hatred of blacks, Jews, immigrantsall who are seen as the otherwont be accepted or tolerated or given safe harbor anywhere in this nation.

Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty

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But leaders in the field of studying and combating white supremacist extremism say that viewing the fight exclusively through a political lensas something that rises or falls with Trumpmisses its pernicious resilience, and could allow it to fester long after Trump has left office.

Hes a symptom, right? Hes not the cause, said Shannon Reid, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He has brought to the forefront what has always been in the shadows.

Reid, whose research focuses on youth involved in the white power movement, said that past efforts to dismantle white supremacist groups has focused too much on law enforcement initiatives and not enough on preventing radicalization. That concern was echoed by other experts, who noted that incarceration is often a fast track to membership in white supremacist organizations like the Aryan Nation prison gangand that pressure to defund the police could also inhibit the prison-to-white power pipeline.

In terms of hard extremism, theres no real evidence that [incarceration] is effective, and in some cases we have evidence that it makes the problem worse, said Miller, who noted that Nathan Damigo, the founder of the hate group Identity Europa, was first introduced to the writings of David Duke and Adolf Hitler while in prison for armed robbery, as was Robert Rundo, who founded the neo-Nazi Rise Above Movement.

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So, not the best place to put someone who has extremist views, Miller said.

Other experts, however, noted that the federal law enforcement apparatus that Biden will soon command has a proven track record in reacting aggressively to terror attacks by white supremacists. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the Department of Justice put investigations into militia and anti-government movements on the front burner, paving the way for the infiltration and eventual break up of numerous white supremacist organizations at the time.

There was a real emphasis to get in front of what are now called the Boogaloo Boysthe people that think there needs to be a Second American Revolution, and are willing to blow up federal buildings and synagogues to make it happen, said Randy Blazak, an Oregon-based sociology professor and hate crime researcher. The good news is that people at the FBI do this work regardless of who's sitting in the White House. But having emphasis from the top, that this is a high priority item, has been lacking in the Trump administration.

While the Department of Justice will necessarily play a large role in countering far-right extremism, experts saidparticularly in tracking hate movements, as well as addressing the decades-long problem of white supremacists within the ranks of law enforcement itselfthey universally called for greater emphasis on the role of Bidens incoming secretaries of education, health and human services, and even state in addressing the crisis.

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We do ourselves as a society a disservice by primarily thinking of this through the lens of law enforcement and surveillance and monitoring, said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor of education and sociology at American University, where she runs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab. While federal law enforcement has done a decent job of infiltrating and breaking up some white supremacist and anti-government groups over the years, that mission is much harder given the modern route to radicalization for many Americans.

Its very difficult to do that with what now constitutes the majority of far-right and white supremacist radicalization, which is individuals self- radicalizing online, Miller-Idriss said. When you look at terrorist actors who have been able to execute their plot, inevitably, these are people who arent card-carrying members of any given group, but are inspired by the ideology and thats a much, much more difficult thing to kind of track and monitor.


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Reid, whose research focuses on youth involved in the white power movement, said that while Trump has emboldened white supremacists to be more public in their views, the unprecedented speed of the ideologys spread is rooted onlinewhich adults in power have been slow to realize.

It used to take somebody showing up at a punk show and hearing something or listening to music that they found or seeing a flyerit took more effort, said Reid, who came up in the punk scene and recalled seeing skinheads at shows having to work the room to win over potential converts. Now, thats much easier Most kids will find this stuff very easily.

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There is a global white supremacist extremist movement, Miller-Idriss said, noting that far-right acts of terror are up 320 percent internationally over the last five years. When we label things domestic terrorism, it just allows for international organizations like the United Nations to see these issues as domestic issues of member states and not as global concerns, which they are.

This isnt to say that Trumps open espousal of the politics of racial grievance during his 2016 campaign, which continued into his presidency, havent been seen by many white supremacists as a particularly legitimizing force for their ideology. Between 2017 and 2019, SPLC found that the number of white nationalist hate groups grew by 55 percent, and white supremacist extremists, Miller said, are clearly emboldened in this particular political momentin large part due to a climate of implicit, and sometimes explicit, permission under Trump.

Trumps rhetoric has introduced sort of a permissiveness into the terrain where people feel like they can openly express bigoted ideasand an act on them, Miller said.

Youre looking for the vulnerable and youre giving them somebody to blame, Reid said, summing up white supremacist recruitment strategy playing into conspiracies.

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We see these inter-related ways in which the same kind of scaffolding and conspiracy theories that motivate The Great Replacement or white genocide conspiracies about an organized orchestrated cabal of individuals who are manipulating and creating multicultural societies at the expense of white ones, that same kind of scaffolding is there in QAnon, said Miller-Idriss, who pointed to that dynamic as evidence of the limits of law enforcement-centric approach to combating far-right extremism.

The continued popularity of that conspiracismwhether its belief in QAnon or the presidents continued insistence that a deep state cabal has thwarted his re-electionspells more trouble for the Biden administration going forward. Addressing it will mean pulling apart the thick tapestry of far-right movements anti-government extremists, Proud Boys, QAnon, incels, Boogaloosall of which host white supremacist extremism to one degree or another.

The widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories is something that is not only the product of the last four years but of many decades of far right media, Miller said. Now were seeing that theres a whole cohort of right-wing media personalities who are lining up to draw on an audience in this post-Trump landscapepeople who feel completely disillusioned and disaffected, and believe that there is an entire system working against them.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated this dynamic, with millions out of work and millions more feeling acute mental and social stress that makes them potentially susceptible to the germinal core of white supremacy: the belief that the world is set against you, stacked in the favor of the undeserving or the all-powerful.

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Over the past year, extremists have been very very good at taking peoples grievances related to the pandemic and using them to push people towards more extreme views, Miller said. This is a movement that draws on peoples feelings of abandonment and political disempowerment and uncertainty and uses it to push them into these more extreme positions.

If the past month has been any indication, Trump will be there to encourage it.

One Timothy McVeigh can ruin your whole day, Blazak said. It just takes a small group of these anti-state actors to create incredible disruption, and then when they get reinforcement from a former president, its just its just a little bleak.

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