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Extremism Researcher On How Biden Might Confront Far-Right Terrorism

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are continuing now with another conversation about the challenges President-elect Biden and his administration will face. And we're going to talk now about something that's, frankly, been difficult to talk about until recently, and that is the threat of white nationalist extremism. We obviously saw this on display at the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, which was, by and large, conducted by white extremists. But even before then, despite President Trump's downplaying of it, government analysts raised alarms, including in an October report from the Department of Homeland Security that identified white supremacist extremists as the greatest domestic terror threat facing the United States.

We wanted to talk more about who these people are, why we're seeing this movement rise, or perhaps rise again, and what the Biden administration might do to address this, so we've called Cynthia Miller-Idriss to help us understand some of these questions. She's an expert in white nationalism and heads American University's Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab.

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

CYNTHIA MILLER-IDRISS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You know, I just have to say that, you know, white identity extremists, terrorist acts by people motivated by white supremacist ideologies is not new in this country. I mean, what is the Ku Klux Klan other than a white terrorist group? But it does seem that this movement has risen to a level of national concern. So I wanted to ask, is this ideology, this group - is this resurgent? Is it growing, or is it just now being named and described?

MILLER-IDRISS: It's really sort of a spectrum on the far right - a whole spectrum of groups that actually have been quite fragmented for some time. They make up a broad white supremacist extremist spectrum, as well as anti-government extremists and militias - for example, the white power movement. So what we saw is in 2017 in Charlottesville, you know, people sometimes forget that that rally was called the Unite the Right rally. So actually, in 2017, there was an orchestrated attempt by the right to bring them together and become less fragmented. And they failed. And then they remained as fragmented a year ago. A year later, they tried to have a Unite the Right 2 rally, and it just petered out.

And on January 6, what we really did see was a uniting of this anti-government fringe, along with the QAnon supporters and then the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups and individuals combined with kind of a mobilized, spontaneous group of pro-Trump supporters who were obviously now ready and willing to be violent. So they were brought together. They finally did unite in an insurrection at the Capitol and in an effort to reverse what they see as - because of mass disinformation, see as a fraudulent election and an attack on democracy itself.

MARTIN: As we saw, this was an overwhelmingly white movement.

MILLER-IDRISS: Yes.

MARTIN: But there were a lot of people there - I mean, we could see this - who were not. In fact, we've seen - I'm...

MILLER-IDRISS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Looking at the footage now, and I'm seeing people of color there. I'm seeing people who are members of minority groups who have been targets of some of these folks in the past. I'm seeing Jewish people there wearing the, you know, kippah - a head covering worn by observant Jewish men. How do you understand that?

MILLER-IDRISS: I think that when you understand one of the primary motivators as this idea of precarity, that it opens up a whole different range of possibilities. So the white - since white grievance or precarity coming from white people is a big one - right? - this idea that they're entitled to something, even if they don't articulate that. But you also see it with male supremacist groups. You see it with the Proud Boys, who are so-called Western chauvinists, so it's Western kind of supremacy, and then Christian supremacy.

So you can have - you know, in these hierarchies of superiority and inferiority, there are lots of different versions of it. And then you also just have people who are mobilized out of the pro-Trump and MAGA protester crowd who really feel like what's being taken away from them is an election. There are a lot of different motivations there, but I think they're all connected by this sense of something being taken away and then feeling like they're engaging heroically to thwart it.

MARTIN: So how does the Biden administration even begin to address this? As you've pointed out, this has such a deep stem. It's coming from a lot of different directions. What is to be done here?

MILLER-IDRISS: It has to be an incredibly sweeping response on multiple levels. And what I mean by that is, you know, when 9/11 happened, the result is, you know, we get an entire new agency, the Department of Homeland Security. We have seen - I'm not saying we need a new agency, but we need that level of response that recognizes that that's the level of threat, if not greater, that we're facing now, and that it cannot be done only through a counterterrorism or law enforcement or surveillance approach, first of all, because we already know there are problems in the law enforcement community to begin with, and the military, that we - that have to be investigated as well in terms of potential participation.

But we also know that that's always a Band-Aid solution, that by the time you get to the need to infiltrate groups or deplatform people who are spreading mass amounts of disinformation, you're already just so far down the pipeline that you're now talking about deradicalization instead of actual prevention. So this has to be something that involves, you know, Health and Human Services. It has to involve the Department of Education. It has to involve social work and scholars who really understand what prevention and intervention looks like - you know, helping people with media literacy, with recognizing persuasive online propaganda. How does manipulation work online? What is scapegoating as a technique, and why are they susceptible to it?

It's the kind of thing that we invest in as a country or through foundations and foreign ministries overseas in fragile democracies to help the public understand what manipulation looks like and how they could be persuaded by it, but we haven't done it in our own country, and I think that's going to have to change.

MARTIN: That's such an important point. I think Americans are used to recognizing this overseas. They aren't used to recognizing this in the United States. And I just wonder if there's anything that gives you confidence that this can be addressed. I'm thinking about that, you know, very powerful video that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former California governor, posted last week, where he talked about growing up in a household of people who had supported the Nazi regime and what an effect it had on their life - I mean, the brokenness that these men carried with them and the shame that they carried with them and how they - that carried through their lives. And I just wonder. You know, do you feel that - do you feel confident that Americans are willing to see this within themselves and to address it?

MILLER-IDRISS: I don't feel confident about that yet, but I feel confident that we could get there. And the reason why I have confidence is because we have example after example in places like Burundi and Rwanda and Yemen and other places around the world where peace-building organizations have been working to heal communities after divides. And there are good lessons to be learned about how it works in the theater and soccer programming and reality television and radio programming that brings together Hutus and Tutsi journalists to report together in Burundi, for example. I mean, there are just wonderful examples about what works and what kind of evidence we have about that success. I think we are at a place where we have to be thinking about democracy as a more fragile thing that has to be consciously committed to and rebuilt and can't just be taken for granted.

MARTIN: That's Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of American University's Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab. She's the author of the book "Hate In The Homeland: The New Global Far Right."

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, thank you so much for being with us.

MILLER-IDRISS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.