During the first presidential debate of 2020, President Donald Trump refused to denounce the Proud Boys, an alt-right white supremacy group he told to “stand back and stand by.” Just the next day, one of the group’s members was arrested during demonstrations in downtown Portland, Oregon.
Alan Swinney, a self-described member of the Proud Boys, was indicted on 12 charges, including second-degree assault, unlawful use of a weapon, and unlawful use of mace. Some of the allegations in his indictment include Swinney pointing a gun at someone, unlawfully discharging mace, and using a paintball gun to inflict physical injury on two separate occasions in August.
Swinney fits into a troubling trend that shows his arrest isn’t isolated nor novel — domestic extremist terrorism is a growing problem across the US, and it’s likely to get worse in the last few months of the year, according to the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
In June, CSIS analyzed terrorism in the US and found right-wing groups are the “most significant threat terrorism” to the country. Data from the brief also shows over 90 percent of terrorist attacks from January to May of this year were perpetrated by right-wing groups.
And now that we’re just days away from a contentious election that’s been marked by nearly unparalleled polarization, pettiness and anger, there’s fierce anticipation of extremism and potential violence in the wake of the results, especially in hot spot cities like Portland — last week, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said he’s seeking state and federal support to prepare for potential demonstrations or violence after election results.
Tuesday’s election isn’t just being watched for the winners and losers who are on the ballot — public officials and experts on extremism also want to see how fringe elements react. And many think the election could cause the problem to surge, according to Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
“We have noticed increased activity for those who are extremists, primarily because 2020 has been given some particular opportunities to become active for anti-gov extremists,” Pitcavage told The News Station. “Elections normally are polarizing events, and [Trump’s] rhetoric in the past couple months, basically, trying to pre-delegitimize the results … all of that sort of rashes up those tensions and increases the possibility that people will come out of the woodworks and do something.”
Domestic extremism has already been on the rise throughout America in recent years, and according to Dr. Peter Simi, a professor at Chapman University who researches extremists and white supremacists, this surge began back when former President Barack Obama won the 2008 election. Simi says Obama’s victory symbolically represented cultural and demographic changes happening in the country, which fueled white supremacists’ fears that whites will eventually become a minority in the US.
“This kind of idea of demographic change is a really salient issue for these folks. It creates a huge amount of fear and anxiety that they mobilize around and use as a recruitment tool,” Simi told The News Station.
“His election [was] a line in the sand in terms of how much change has happened, and much more is coming.”Dr. Peter Simi
When Trump ran for president in 2016, Simi says his campaign was a “major source of energy” for right-wing groups who saw the presidential-aspirant’s campaign as the embodiment of many of their interests.
Throughout his campaign and subsequent presidency, Trump has used terminology similar to what’s found on white supremacist forums, which has helped normalize white supremacist ideas within the broader public. The rise of technology, particularly social media, Simi contends, has increased the visibility of white supremacist sentiments.
But white supremacist groups aren’t the only ones being increasingly vocal — a new shade of right-wing groups has recently emerged with anti-government sentiments.
Pitcavage says militia groups and the boogaloo movement stampeded onto the scene this year, responding to government coronavirus measures by organizing anti-lockdown protests and opposing state government actions to implement gun control measures.
With the federal government taking actions, even if modest, to fight the coronavirus pandemic, the rise of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the approaching presidential election, domestic extremist groups have found more fodder to fuel their ideology, which has led to new attacks and counter-protests.
Domestic extremist groups don’t want to live on the fringes — they thrive off their sentiments going mainstream, according to Simi. In a way, the pandemic is “tailor made” for right-wing groups in particular, since some of the general public also feels the government has encroached on their rights with new mandates as a result of the pandemic. Simi says those sentiments tie in with right-wing groups’ messaging that the government is trying to take away citizens’ sovereignty.
Right-wing groups reacted differently to the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement this year. Self-described ‘militias’ counter-protested against the movement and some sought to ‘protect’ certain monuments, Pitcavage says. But for members of the boogaloo movement, some of the individual members’ personal anti-police beliefs prompted them to occasionally participate in Black Lives Matter protests, because they share anti-police sentiments.
Last month alone witnessed multiple arrests from a variety of white supremacy groups and anti-government individuals. On Oct. 14, 24 people, including members and associates of white supremacist group Aryan Circle, were indicted on charges of racketeering conspiracy, violent crimes in aid of racketeering, drug conspiracy, and unlawful firearms trafficking.
The next day, 21 members from the Soldiers of Aryan Culture, the Silent Aryan Warriors, and the Noble Elect Thugs, were arrested on charges of distributing drugs and firearms. And earlier in the month, on Oct. 8, six men were arrested and charged with spending months conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D).
With the presidential election now here, the CSIS brief warns that the election will likely increase terrorism in the United States. Pitcavage says the country’s in the same situation it was in around the 2016 election between Trump and Hillary Clinton. If Clinton won the election, the threat of right-wing violence was ripe. But when Clinton lost, that concern faded away — at least initially.
While there have been some demonstrations this year where left-wing individuals engaged in violence, James Lewis, the senior vice president at CSIS, says it’s more likely the huge numbers of protesters will only be there to do just that: protest.
But if former vice president Joe Biden wins, there’s a chance for a surge of right-wing violence and extremism.
“The general consensus is if Trump wins reelection, you’ll see demonstration and protests, but you won’t see violence,” Lewis says.
“The risk is if Biden wins, some of these right-wing groups may consider engaging in violence.”James Lewis
Lewis fears a win by Biden could make these groups initially feel “more desperate, which isn’t good.”
But even though there have been many mutations under the right-wing label, Lewis says there’s hope these groups could shrink in years to come, because there isn’t a strong system of cross-class support and young people aren’t flocking to join.
Like Simi, Lewis says fear is a big motivator for domestic extremist groups — a motive he thinks won’t get them very far.
“The main thing that drives these groups is fear, and that limits what they can do,” Lewis says. “Fear isn’t a good basis for doing any of this.”
Sophie Peel contributed to this story from Portland, Ore.