Seven days after President Trump told the Proud Boys, a hate group that espouses a self-described “Western chauvinist” ideology, to “stand back and stand by” on national television, the United States Department of Homeland Security issued a warning about groups like it.
“I am particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years,” wrote Chad Wolf, the interim DHS chief, in an October 6 report detailing the agency’s top security concerns. Domestic violent extremism, the agency concluded, is one of the country’s greatest national security threats. Just two days later, federal investigators arrested a group of men who were planning on kidnapping and holding hostage Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. (In April, Trump tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”) An FBI agent would later testify that those same men also discussed kidnapping Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.
Experts on right-wing violence and extremism are urging the American public to consider the threat these groups pose to voters — both on Election Day, when Trump urged his supporters to monitor the polls, and in the time it may take to determine a winner of the contest.
GEN spoke with Brian Levin, the director of the California State University, San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, about the prospect of civil unrest, voter intimidation at the polls, and the president’s role in encouraging right-wing violence. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
GEN: Talk to me about the idea that Trump supporters might go to the polls to observe that things are going “fairly,” and what kind of precedent there is for voter intimidation by extremist groups in this country.
Brian Levin: Yeah, there’s a precedent. Just ask anyone who voted in the 1876 elections in the Carolina Piedmonts about the activity by the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists. Or in 1964, Freedom Summer, when [prospective voters] were massacred. There was one night in 1964 where Klan crosses were lit in every county in Mississippi. So, unfortunately, there’s a history [in the U.S.] with respect to voter intimidation.
The latest FBI data we have on hate crimes ends in December 2018. Up to that point, November 2016 was the worst month for hate crimes since September 2002, the first anniversary of 9/11. And the day after Election Day 2016 was the worst day since June 2003, during some heightened fighting in Iraq.
Let’s look at the second-worst month for hate crimes in that period: October 2018. What happened just days before the House was flipped from red to blue? The Tree of Life Synagogue massacre. And Cesar Sayoc was fixing pipe bombs [to mail to Trump critics]. You get the idea. All of this happened around election season or political events.
And by the way, 2019 will be the worst year for far-right domestic terrorism that we’ve seen this century once that data is released.
How is extremism on the far right, or at least the expression of it, different now?
What makes things crazy here is that we have a uniquely messed up-edness, which is that social media platforms, and subcultures, movements, and groups all influence what’s happening.
You know what served as an interesting way station for grievance? The “Liberate” posts on Facebook. The other anti-government posts were there too, and they did that marketing campaign quite well, quite adroitly. But the “Liberate” pages included mainstream business owners, hikers, surfers, all kinds of people who wanted to use facilities that were closed. But you also had anti-vaxxers and Second Amendment insurrectionist furor.
And when the president sends shout-outs to the far right, and fails to condemn them, it’s taken in their world as marching orders. In other words, wink and nod marching orders. They also believe that, well, they can’t get into the tent, but they’re happy that their sheet music is being played by people in the administration, like Stephen Miller and others. And that’s problematic because in the past with that bully pulpit — there were guardrails.
What might we see around the election?
We’re very concerned about the targeting of campaigns — candidates, supporters, canvassers, polling sites. We think a lot of stuff is going to be low-grade.
Nevertheless, we’re still concerned about the possibility of greater violence, as well as sustained violence. One thing we know about extremism is that it often responds to events that are taking place in the mainstream news cycle or politics. So, in other words, if a group sees another group as being a threat, they’ll respond to that group. Or if an extremist group sees their mainstream anchors or their mainstream conduits losing power or eroding, they may act like cornered animals, and be more violent. So there’s a seasonality to this violence. And what we are concerned about is that the escalation can possibly occur before the election.
Given the fragmented nature of right-wing extremism — both in terms of their ideologies, how they might organize, or where they might appear — how do people prepare for potential voter intimidation issues?
Campaign headquarters, voting sites — these are places where local police can be assigned. We know where they are. What we’d like to see is a statement from the attorney general of the United States as to what he’s going to do. We’re very concerned.
With stochastic terrorism [random acts of violence by politically motivated extremists], the hard part is knowing where the specific person might act.
People are calling me and going like, “What about the Proud Boys?” Well, I’m not a big fan of theirs. But I’m worried about the groups that don’t have a scrum of journalists and researchers behind them, and no return address. And certainly, the Proud Boys have been invigorated. But they’re a snapshot of just one player on the field that has a constellation of them. And I’m worried about the leaner ones that are organized in this broad funnel where everyone goes to, where there’s some broad set of grievances, you hate whoever it is, you hate some kind of governmental thing.
One thing that I think it’s really important to mention is that we’re seeing tensions relating to school officials. One of the Boogaloo Boys even had a plot to kidnap the children of public officials. Anyone working where there’s tension and controversy, and it’s gone through the spin cycle of politics — like public health officials, people who are enforcing mask policies, people who are administering aid, elected officials.
We’re not just serving the overflowing ale of prior election times. This one has its own unique volatility and explosive aspects that are tied to a variety of current events. An increase in gun sales, increased polarization, an increase in stereotyping, and wrongful information about elections, wrongful information about the threat of the far left.
Do you think that there are specific jurisdictions or states that are perhaps more in danger of this violence than others?
Portland, Seattle, the Bay Area, New York metro, and D.C. Sometimes Atlanta. But here’s the thing — when you put your finger in that part of the dam, another place will burst because a lot of this is event-oriented and timing-oriented.
Are poll workers in danger?
There is a heightened risk for people who are associated with the campaigns, with the election, as well as candidates, to the extent that they’re in public. By the way, this risk also extends to cyber attacks. But if you’re asking me, are people at polls among those that we are urging to a heightened level of vigilance? Yes.
But they’re not the only folks. And when the president counsels people to watch, or stand by, or stand down, or talks about vigilantism, that has an actual effect.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.