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Three key factors that drive far-right political violence — and two that don’t

Rhetoric like Donald Trump’s is often a main driver.

- January 8, 2021

After the assault on the U.S. Capitol building Wednesday, many members of Congress — including several Republicans — openly condemned President Trump for his role in inciting violence. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) declared that Trump “bears responsibility for today’s events by promoting the unfounded conspiracy theories that have led to this point.” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) stated that there was “no question that the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.”

Research on right-wing violence in political science and related fields does suggest that while the president is not solely responsible for these events, his actions are probably a precipitating cause. Based on this research, here are three factors that increase the risk of right-wing violence, along with two that do not.

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Distrust in government is an important factor

One of the key features of far-right ideology in the United States is distrust of mainstream political figures and institutions. This is not the general skepticism of government that is central to Republican ideology, but it is a complete rejection of any legitimate legal authority as well as a strong anti-democratic disposition. Though adherents of this sort of thinking are growing in influence within the Republican Party, we and most scholars consider this a separate ideology from traditional center-right conservatism.

This extreme political cynicism legitimizes the belief that political violence is necessary to defend their rights. It fuels a distrust in elections as a mechanism for settling policy disputes, even before any effect from fabricated stories of election corruption. It also makes people less willing to trust political institutions to constrain their opponents.

The right-wing movement has a long history of legitimizing vigilante justice using this logic, which may help explain why a YouGov poll Wednesday found that 30 percent of Republicans viewed the D.C. mob as “patriots,” and 45 percent approved of the storming of the U.S. Capitol.

Perceived victimhood matters

A second key feature of the far right, and one that Trump has repeatedly exploited, is the belief in “white victimhood” or “aggrieved entitlement.” This is the message promoted on right-wing social media, and emphasizes the victimization of the traditionally dominant White Christian male, with empowered women, minorities and immigrants becoming the villains. Dylann Roof, the gunman responsible for the 2015 Charleston church massacre, justified his attack by claiming it was necessary retaliation against violence that Black people carry out against Whites.

Big trends in American politics are making events like the U.S. Capitol violence more likely

Despite what many may think, this isn’t a story of economic hardship — it is a fear of lost privilege. Many modern right-wing adherents come from the relatively successful middle class. Indeed, although men are more likely to engage in violence, White middle-class women from the suburbs are one of the fastest-growing groups of believers of QAnon and other right-wing conspiracy theories.

And divisive election rhetoric matters

Research in other countries has linked right-wing violence to heightened political competition, arguing that divisive language — used by politicians to mobilize their base — helps normalize the perception that a group is under threat and violent action is necessary. While violence may not be a politician’s goal, individuals exposed to even “mild violent metaphors” are more likely to support political violence against opposing groups than those who receive more neutral messages.

Our research on right-wing terrorism in the United States finds something similar. Drawing on data on instances of right-wing attacks from 1970 to 2016, we found that this violence was more likely to happen in counties that were electorally competitive — that is, places where Democratic and Republican votes were roughly equivalent.

While Trump has received considerable criticism for his use of polarizing language, his has not been the only voice fueling the fire. Right-wing organizations and individuals play an important role, especially groups like the Proud Boys, QAnon adherents and other right-wing social media influencers who helped coordinate this riot. In the lead-up to Wednesday, right-wing social media sites said people should “take the hill or die trying.”

Economic hardship is less important

Politicians and pundits have often invoked “economic anxiety” as a common explanation for right-wing extremism, but support for this claim is mixed at best. Some studies have noted greater right-wing recruitment and presence in areas experiencing greater economic hardship, and a high percentage of right-wing attackers tend to be unemployed.

However, several studies fail to find any link between right-wing violence and poverty, joblessness or other measures of economic stress at the state or county level. And as we mentioned above, the fact that right-wing extremism has a strong showing in the American middle class shows that economic disadvantage is not a necessary cause.

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Ethnic and racial diversity are less important

The rhetoric surrounding white victimhood may suggest that right-wing political violence is fueled by the country’s increasing diversity. But with some exceptions, most studies fail to find any link between right-wing violence and ethnic or racial diversity (or increasing diversity) at the state or county level. Furthermore, negative prejudices tend to decline in more diverse settings.

For example, in our study, we find that right-wing terrorism is more common in U.S. counties that are overwhelmingly White — but only if they are also electorally competitive. Right-wing violence is ultimately about white domination and perceptions of decline (fueled by divisive rhetoric), and has little to do with the objective reality of increasing diversity.

What can we expect going forward?

There is a lot that we still do not know about the factors triggering right-wing violence. In particular, while there are general theories about radicalization, there is a lot we can learn about why some people engage in political violence while others who hold similar beliefs reject these actions. Many attended the president’s rally that day and heard his words, but far fewer breached the Capitol building.

We do know, however, that right-wing violence will be with us long after Wednesday’s events. A 2020 report from the Department of Homeland Security emphasized that right-wing extremists are the most persistent and lethal domestic threat, and the factors that fuel right-wing violence are becoming more prevalent. And given that this violence tends to increase during Democratic presidencies, it will remain a major security concern for the Biden administration.

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Stephen C. Nemeth is an associate professor of political science at Oklahoma State University.

Holley E. Hansen is a teaching assistant professor of political science at Oklahoma State University.