Violent extremism in America is a far-right phenomenon
The stats are irrefutable. Trying to make it a "both sides" issue just distracts from the real deadly threat — which comes from the far-right.
The threat of right-wing extremism in the United States (and globally) is on the rise — a topic that I study, write about, and comment on frequently. The other day, someone asked me on Twitter if I look at violent extremism on the left, too, or if I only look to the right. My answer to them was that, yes, I do look at left-wing violent extremism, as well — but there just isn’t as much there to see. In 2022 in America, violent extremism is overwhelmingly a problem of far-right extremism, not far-left extremism, and it doesn’t help anyone to misrepresent the threat by turning it into a “both sides” issue when the sides are not even close to equal.
In fact, not only is this not helpful, but it can actually be extremely dangerous because it distracts from the reality of the problem at hand, and — in numerous instances — has resulted in resources being diverted away from the growing threat of far-right extremist violence to focus on lesser threats, some of which have been hugely exaggerated or manufactured for political purposes.
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But you don’t have to take my word for it — there’s plenty of data documenting these trends. So let’s dive in.
By the numbers: Far-right extremism vs. far-left extremism in America
Numerous agencies and organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, produce annual or semi-annual reports documenting trends in extremist activity in the United States. Let’s start by looking at several of these reports and comparing the figures on right-wing and left-wing extremist violence in order to get an objective view of the evidence from multiple sources.
The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Center on Extremism produces annual reports analyzing extremist murders in the U.S., as well as trends in the underlying ideological motives of those involved in extremist killings. According to the ADL’s most recent report, all but three extremist murders in the U.S. in 2021 were carried out by far-right extremists. Most of these murders were associated with long-standing far-right extremist movements like white supremacy and anti-government extremism, but an increasing number were linked to newer types of extremism associated with the far-right, including the QAnon conspiracy theory, those who self-classify as incels and identify with the toxic masculinity subculture of the “manosphere,” and anti-vaccination extremists.
Looking further back in the data, from 2012 through 2021, right-wing extremists were responsible for an estimated 75% of all extremist-related murders during that time period, compared to 4% attributed to left-wing extremists, including anarchists and black nationalists, according to an ADL review.
“From 2012 through 2021, right-wing extremists were responsible for an estimated 75% of all extremist-related murders, compared to 4% attributed to left-wing extremists.”
“This data underscores an indisputable fact: far-right extremists pose the greatest domestic terror threat to the United States,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said about the findings.
The ADL’s findings are supported by other recent analyses of terrorism databases. A 2022 study published in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) analyzed two unique databases that included incidents of violence carried out by left-wing extremists, right-wing extremists, and Islamist extremists, and found that, “across both datasets…radical acts perpetrated by individuals associated with left-wing causes are less likely to be violent.” The study found “no difference between the level of violence perpetrated by right-wing and Islamist extremists” within the United States, which is in line with other recent research.
According to an analysis of terrorism-related deaths published by the New America Foundation, “jihadists have killed 107 people inside the United States” since 9/11 — similar to the death toll from far right-wing terrorism, which has resulted in 122 deaths since 9/11. Terrorists motivated by ideological misogyny or incel ideology were linked to 17 deaths during that same time period, and those inspired by black separatist/nationalist ideology were linked to 12 deaths. Just one death was attributable to far left-wing extremist terrorism.
According to an analysis of terrorism-related deaths in the United States since 9/11, just one death in that time period was attributable to far left-wing extremist terrorism.
Other sources have reached similar conclusions. In an analysis of 900 politically motivated attacks and plots in the United States since 1994, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found just one deadly attack attributable to antifascists — and the single fatality was the perpetrator himself, in what may have been a case of so-called “suicide by cop.” During the same time period, right-wing extremists carried out attacks that left 329 people dead. To reach its conclusions, CSIS looked at incidents from three different terrorism databases, numerous annual reports, and a variety of news reports and news releases.
“The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found just one deadly attack [since 1994] attributable to antifascists — and the single fatality was the perpetrator himself.”
There’s more to the story than just static numbers. Far-right extremist violence is surging to new highs, increasing at a rate that far eclipses corresponding trends on the left. In the past few years, annual domestic terror incidents and plots in the United States have increased to their highest number in decades — a trend “driven chiefly by white-supremacist, anti-Muslim and anti-government extremists on the far right,” according to a Washington Post analysis of data compiled by the CSIS.
A similar increase in far-right domestic terror attacks was documented by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point in an analysis of data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), which is managed by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. Looking at domestic terror incidents from 1990-2012, the CTC found that far-right extremists were responsible for 4,430 attacks, 3,053 nonfatal injuries, and 670 fatalities. But even more alarming was the startling year-to-year rise in far-right domestic terror incidents, which surged from an annual average of 70.1 in the 1990’s to 307.5 in the first decade of the twenty-first century — an increase of more than 400%.
Different definitions; same bottom-line
Different organizations and agencies have unique ways of defining and classifying extremists and the attacks they carry out, which is why there are varying estimates regarding the total number of attacks and the breakdown of attacks based on ideology. However, regardless of terminology, classification criteria, or definitions, all of the datasets and reports on ideologically-motivated terrorism and violent extremism reach very similar bottom-line conclusions: Far-right extremist violence is irrefutably the greatest domestic terror threat in the United States, and the threat is on the rise.
CSIS, for example, defines terrorists based on the following criteria:
Right-wing terrorists are motivated by ideas of racial or ethnic supremacy; opposition to government authority, including the sovereign citizen movement; misogyny, including incels (“involuntary celibates”); hatred based on sexuality or gender identity; and/or opposition to certain policies such as abortion.
Left-wing terrorists are motivated by an opposition to capitalism, imperialism, or colonialism; support for environmental causes or animal rights; pro-communist or pro-socialist beliefs; and/or support for decentralized political and social systems, such as anarchism.
Religious terrorists are motivated by a faith-based belief system. This may include Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, or other faiths.
Ethnonationalist terrorists are motivated by ethnic and/or nationalist goals, including self-determination. Within this data set, issues driving ethnonationalist terrorism included political divisions within Haitian and Cuban exile communities and Puerto Rican independence.
This can create confusion, though, because CSIS classifies certain ideologies and attacks as “left-wing” that actually have certain characteristics typically associated with right-wing ideologies. For example, in its reports on extremist violence, CSIS includes violence by extremist black separatists/black nationalists under the umbrella of “left-wing” terrorism, even though many extremist black separatist and black nationalist groups espouse views such as anti-semitism and misogyny, and/or have ties to anti-government ideologies such as the sovereign citizens movement — none of which are associated with left-wing ideologies, and all of which are typically considered far-right phenomena. However, even when this somewhat confounding category of extremist violence is classified as far-left extremism, the story remains the same: Right-wing extremist violence still eclipses left-wing extremist violence by a magnitude so large that it’s difficult to even make a head-on comparison.
Beyond the sheer number of attacks, the evidence also indicates that far-right extremist attacks are much more likely to result in injuries and deaths than far-left extremist attacks. One reason for this finding is that far-right extremist violence overlaps significantly with America’s gun culture. The vast majority of far-right extremist murders are carried out with firearms, as are the vast majority of extremist killings more generally. In 2021, 83% of extremist murders were firearms-related, and over the past 10 years, shootings accounted for 75% of deaths at the hands of extremists. And in an average year, an estimated 10,000 people in the United States are victims of hate crimes involving firearms, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice.
As further evidence of this connection, the White House’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism even cites easy access to firearms as a key reason why domestic extremists continue to pose such a significant threat of violence in the United States. The presence of firearms significantly increases the likelihood of fatal violence at public gatherings and demonstrations. Armed demonstrations turn violent or destructive about 16% of the time, compared to less than 3% of the time for unarmed demonstrations, according to an analysis of 18-months of data on violence at protests and demonstrations in the United States conducted by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) and Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. Notably, the low number of fatalities at the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, has been attributed by some researchers not to a lack of willingness or desire to kill, but to the fact that most of the far-right extremists who were there that day left their guns at home since possession of a firearm in D.C. is a federal offense.
While far-right extremists are overwhelmingly likely to carry out attacks using firearms, far-left extremists are more likely to use weapons such as incendiary devices, which are “designed to start fires or destroy infrastructure, not kill people,” explained counterterrorism expert Seth Jones, who led the creation of the CSIS dataset. This, combined with the fact that many left-wing extremist attacks target buildings or businesses, explains in part why far-left extremist attacks are so much less likely to result in deaths than far-right extremist attacks.
“But what about Antifa?”
During the Trump administration, the specter of “antifa” — shorthand for “antifascists” or “antifascism” — became a common propaganda trope used to deflect from the issue of far-right extremism. The former president notoriously invoked “both sides” when delivering remarks in the aftermath of the deadly far-right extremist “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, and he and his allies were poised to blame “antifa” for the violence on January 6th until the idea became clearly untenable due to the lack of antifascists at the riot. Many far-right activists, social media influencers, and politicians have pushed for “antifa” to be designated as a domestic terror group, and the Trump administration even took significant steps towards making it happen.
Those significant steps, in many instances, included manufacturing a threat that didn’t actually exist to distract from a very real threat that is still growing to this day. Under Trump’s leadership, some national intelligence and security officials even reported being pressured into exaggerating the threat posed by “far-left groups” and overplaying their role in violence during protests — part of a pattern of “law enforcement intelligence being politicized in ways that endangered both protesters and police alike.” Additionally, federal and state law enforcement agencies have repeatedly been found to have included mis- and disinformation shared on social media by far-right activists in their intelligence briefings, resulting in a dramatically skewed view of the threat landscape. Even the FBI itself stated that “much of the violence and vandalism [at protests] is perpetrated by opportunistic, individual actors acting without specific direction,” not by individuals associated with “antifa” or any other left-wing ideology.
Indeed, despite the obsession with “antifa”, including among some law enforcement agencies — a phenomenon that former FBI agent and domestic terrorism expert Michael German described as “a strange sensationalization of the antifa threats” — there is scant evidence that antifascists actually pose a significant threat of violence. There is only one incident in modern history in which a death was attributed to an antifascist, and the victim was the perpetrator himself. Meanwhile, there is evidence that in multiple instances, disinformation and fear-mongering about “antifa” has resulted in physical attacks on innocent persons as well as wasteful diversions of police resources.
As far-right extremists seek to make further inroads with mainstream politicians and the Republican Party — and as many of them are getting re-platformed everywhere from Twitter to Mar-a-Lago — it’s more important than ever that we recognize the threat for what it is, and what it isn’t. The depiction of extremist violence put forth by far-right activists, and shared by many mainstream right-wing politicians and pundits, is dangerously distorted, and both overplays the threat of far-left extremism and severely downplays the threat of far-right extremism. This distorted characterization is, for the most part, a politically-motivated effort that has resulted in the mainstreaming of dangerous far-right extremists, as evidenced by the close ties between the Republican Party and far-right groups with a history of violence including the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, and the Oath Keepers.
Far-left extremist violence has sharply declined in the United States over the past several decades, while far-right extremist violence continues its steep rise. Reversing the rising tide of far-right extremism is possible, but not until the threat is recognized in the first place. This means avoiding the bias of false balance and taking an objective look at the evidence, which quite clearly shows that “both sides” are not the problem here.
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