Donald Trump may be out of the Oval Office, but the right-wing extremists he enabled and incited to violence on January 6 aren’t going anywhere. Three weeks after the attack on the Capitol, the Department of Homeland Security issued a sobering National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin warning that:
“Information suggests that some ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence.”
The Bulletin raised the chilling, albeit thoroughly unsurprising, prospect that “Domestic Violence Extremists (DVEs) may be emboldened by the January 6, 2021 breach of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. to target elected officials and government facilities.”
Combating these home-grown terrorists will require a different mindset and a different approach than we have taken in the war against foreign-based terrorists.
When a fanatic, quasi-religious suicide cult attacked the United States on 9/11, the immediate task before us was clear. Not easy, to be sure, but clear: identify the perpetrators, hunt them down, and kill them before they could do it again.
This time the task isn’t so clear.
We don’t need to look for the domestic terrorists because they’re not hiding. To the contrary, they’re posting selfies, boasting of their accomplishments on social media, and competing for face time on television.
We don’t need to hunt them down because they’re right here, living openly among us.
And we’re not going to kill them where they stand.
These people, after all, are American citizens who believe, no matter how wrongly, that they are standing up for American values. They have jobs, families, friends, community ties, and at least tacit support from many within the law enforcement community. The national guard isn’t going to invade their backyard barbeques and mow them down – more likely they’ll grab a beer.
While we know who they are, it’s not so easy to pinpoint exactly what they are.
Like Al Qaeda and its progeny, the new American insurgency has leaders, but no centralized control or headquarters. It’s not a terrorist organization because it’s not an organization at all. Rather, it’s a minimally organized network of like-minded individuals and autonomous cells who share grievances, hatreds, prejudices, fringe religious beliefs, and conspiracy delusions.
The insurgency isn’t even a movement. The various components of the insurgent army don’t share a single common goal or objective. Different elements want different things.
So, what unites these people?
On Fareed Zakaria’s January 17 Sunday morning show, Cynthia Miller-Idress, the Director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University, described the uniting principle of this normally fragmented spectrum of far-right activists as a sense of “precarity,” the fear that something you believe you are entitled to is going to be taken away from you and, worse, maybe given to someone else who doesn’t deserve it.
Exactly what the insurgents fear will be taken away from them is the MacGuffin of our times. Who has it is more important than what it is.
For white supremacists it’s white privilege. For 2nd Amendment absolutists it’s guns. For the religious right it’s God. For the militias it’s what they call “freedom,” meaning unfettered personal autonomy. For anti-immigration activists it’s jobs and cultural identity. For Stop the Steal it’s electoral power.
While the precise threat may be defined differently across the various components of the insurgent army, for each group the threat is perceived as existential. Therefore, they consider themselves morally, if not legally, justified to resist with violence.
The insurgent army isn’t Donald Trump’s army. It’s the other way around. Trump was their president, but they were never his army.
Trump’s control over the insurgents is a one-way street: he can incite them, but he can’t order them to stand down. They will turn on him the moment they believe he has betrayed them, and they will continue their activities without him, unabated. It’s already happening. The New York Times reports that the Proud Boys have begun to mock Trump as an “extraordinarily weak” shill, moving from “Hail Emperor Trump” to “Trump will go down as a total failure.”
Trump will become just one more enemy on their list, and enemies are their mothers’ milk.
Trump’s real army, to the extent he has one, is the right-wing media and the tens of millions of Americans who support him as a cult leader, not the thousands who are taking up arms to ignite a civil war. Trump’s cult followers can do damage at the voting booth, and they can coarsen our culture and weaken our democracy.
But don’t worry – your benighted aunt who thinks that Trump is God’s gift won’t buy an AK, storm a state capitol, kidnap a governor, or bomb a government building.
The insurgent army will.
The insurgents will not be dumb enough to continue frontal assaults on heavily fortified government buildings. Not for long. Their initial foray on January 6 was successful (by their lights) only because it caught the Capitol unprepared. They may try again, but sooner or later the awesome might of law enforcement and the military will force them to adopt different tactics. Just like the early, spectacular carnages of Al Qaeda ultimately morphed into smaller, locally organized acts of asymmetrical warfare, the insurgent army will adapt. They will attack soft targets.
They will become an army of Timothy McVeighs.
So, now that Trump has activated them, how will it end? What will cause them to stop?
They are not going to just give up and go home – they have been preparing and training for this for years, and they’re not going to miss their shot. They have been emboldened, not chastened, by the January 6 assault on the Capitol. They are not going to be talked into seeing the error of their ways. They are not going to be hunted down and killed.
And their demands are not going to be met. They can’t be. Nobody even knows what they are. What do they want? They “want their country back,” whatever that means. That’s not something that can be handed over to them.
The only realistic way to defeat the insurgents is through the rule of law.
Yes, over time we will have to defeat them on the field of ideas, but that’s the work of generations, not months or years. At the same time we’re fighting a long-term strategic war for hearts and minds, we’re going to have to win the shorter-term tactical battle. Law enforcement is going to have to use every tool in its toolbox, including electronic surveillance and infiltration, to prevent violent acts before they happen. When lawlessness can’t be prevented, police, prosecutors and the courts will have to employ the full force of our civil and criminal laws to hold the insurgents accountable.
That will be a heavy lift, and it will change the way we live, at least for a period of time.
Increased surveillance will exacerbate already-passionate national debates over where to draw the lines between privacy and national security, between free speech and accountability. The presence of heavily armed law enforcement will be far more conspicuous, giving our country the look and feel of places that we used to consider less enlightened. Our access to government officials and buildings, already restricted after 9/11, will contract even further. We will be more circumspect about where we go and how we get there.
But at the end of the day, we have no choice. This is a war we can’t afford to lose.