Donald Trump’s reign of error has been remarkable on a historic level in a variety of ways: COVID-19, the destruction of our traditional overseas alliances and open appeasement of Russia, the increasingly open embrace of white nationalism. To that list we must now add something with similarly long-term consequences: the stark surge of domestic terrorism committed by right-wing extremists—many of whom act on the belief they are supporting, defending, and enabling Trump and his agenda.
Data gathered from 2017 through 2019—and published today—by a team I led at Type Investigations and Reveal News shows that far-right domestic terrorism now dramatically eclipses all other forms of terrorist threat in the United States, both in raw numbers of events and in sheer lethality. It’s as though Trump lifted the lid off the Pandora’s Box of far-right violence and the demons promptly flew out.
The numbers show the stark increase during Trump’s presidency:
The 87 people killed by far-right terrorists over the first three Trump years—145 if we include the 58 killed in the October 2017 shooting rampage in Las Vegas—far outstrip the 17 killed by Islamists or the four killed by left-wing extremists.
That’s, conservatively, 87 deaths in three years, compared with the 46 killed by far-right extremists over the final three years of the Obama administration—a dramatic shift in lethality over a short period of time.
Yet law enforcement priorities remain skewed. The database shows that during the first three years of the Trump administration, cases involving Islamist extremists were preempted 18 times, compared with seven completed attacks, or 72%—a powerful indicator of the resources federal agencies poured into such probes. In contrast, a minority of right-wing extremist cases were preempted—18, compared with 30 realized attacks, or 37.5%.
Closer examination of the data—particularly the information about each of the cases included in the numbers—also reveals that the face of American domestic terrorism has changed dramatically in the past half-decade. What emerges from the data is a portrait of a new kind of domestic terrorist: familiar in its essential lone wolf appearance, but radically new in its networking, its motivations, and its targets.
Prior to the past decade, domestic terrorists were usually radicalized through traditional and underground media that relied on old methods of delivery, mainly print and radio, as well as face-to-face recruitment in meetings and semi-public gatherings. The modern Trump-era domestic terrorist looks something like this:
- Male (over 98% of all perpetrators in the database were men). Many are also highly prone to misogynist ideas and values, often violently so.
- Radicalized online. These actors were introduced to violent extremist ideas through various online interactions—social media, message boards, chat rooms, comment sections on videos—that are followed by an immersion in the world of conspiracy theories as well as white nationalist ideology.
- While eschewing organizational affiliation, is an avid participant in online communities where the violent ideology is shared.
- Directly inspired by preceding acts of terrorism, creating a kind of sequential effect in which the wave of violence keeps building.
- Significantly more likely to have killed and injured people, and their preferred weapon is a semiautomatic rifle using large magazines and high-velocity rounds.
- Is only a “lone wolf” in the sense that he is likely to be knowingly participating in and fulfilling a longtime strategic goal of organized white nationalists; these are not unrelated, “isolated incidents.”
This new database updates an earlier version the same team assembled and published in 2017. In many regards, the updated database resembles its earlier iteration despite the differences in timespan: The earlier database covered nine years while the updated numbers are those from 2017 through 2019, only three years. As before, there were roughly twice as many cases involving right-wing extremists (49) as Islamist radicals (25), while only a small percentage of the cases (five total) involved left-wing extremists.
To explore the database, spend some time in the interactive graphic entitled “The new domestic terrorism.” It contains each of the individual cases, including links to substantiating articles and documents. You can view it both in terms of raw numbers as well as via a map of the United States.
One of our more controversial findings, no doubt, will be our conclusion that Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock—who murdered those 58 people at a music festival in October 2017—was a right-wing extremist, despite official investigations that classified his motivation as unknown. It was our feeling, and that of the experts we consulted, that the evidence of Paddock’s motivations and political orientation was both substantial and eventually overwhelming, as the article explains.
In addition to our main piece, be sure to check out Stan Alcorn’s superb radio piece exploring how people become radicalized online, featuring interviews with a former far-right extremist named Joshua Bates who works nowadays to counter the movement’s effects.
Assembling this database has been a multiyear project that actually began in 2013, and the update has been in progress since October 2018. I’d like to express deep appreciation to the team members who shepherded it through its various stages and made it happen, particularly Sarah Blustain and Darren Ankrom at Type Investigations, and Esther Kaplan, Stan Alcorn, and Soo Oh at Reveal News.