We’ve known for awhile that there has been a measurable “Trump Effect” regarding right-wing violence, particularly in the form of hate crimes and domestic terrorism, both of which rose to new levels after his election in 2016. But new data shows that it reached unprecedented heights in the last two years of his tenure—and even more worryingly, the perpetrators increasingly include military and law enforcement veterans among their numbers.
The data, compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, shows that far-right domestic terrorism not only has been rising sharply in the past four years, but the 110 incidents recorded in 2020 represented a new high-water mark. Of those incidents, 70 involved right-wing extremists of various stripes, particularly white supremacists.
The report, titled “The Military, Police, and the Rise of Terrorism in the United States,” cited a Department of Defense report to Congress last month warning that the American military “is facing a threat from domestic extremists, particularly those who espouse white supremacy or white nationalist ideologies.”
An analysis of the data by The Washington Post found 36 instances in the CSIS data from 2015 through January 2021, including the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, which represented a kind of apotheosis of the trend. More than 40 people charged with conspiracy and other crimes for their roles in the insurrection had served in the military, as were more than a dozen current or former law enforcement officers, including police and corrections officers, facing similar charges. At least 31 veterans were charged with conspiracy or other crimes in the attack, along with one reservist and one National Guard member.
The CSIS study found:
U.S. active-duty military personnel and reservists have participated in a growing number of domestic terrorist plots and attacks, according to new data from CSIS. The percentage of all domestic terrorist incidents linked to active-duty and reserve personnel rose in 2020 to 6.4 percent, up from 1.5 percent in 2019 and none in 2018. Similarly, a growing number of current and former law enforcement officers have been involved in domestic terrorism in recent years.
The report also notes that in 2020, the FBI alerted the Pentagon “that it had opened 143 criminal investigations involving current or former service members—of which nearly half (68) were related to domestic extremism. Most investigations apparently involved veterans, some of whom had unfavorable discharge records.”
The broader, and most disturbing, trend in the data indicates that U.S. military personnel are increasingly involved in a growing number of domestic terrorist plots and attacks:
The percentage of attacks and plots committed by active-duty and reserve personnel rose in 2020 to 6.4 percent of all attacks and plots (7 of 110 total), up from 1.5 percent in 2019 (1 of 65 total) and none in 2018. Active-duty personnel perpetrated 4.5 percent of the attacks in 2020 (five incidents), and reservists conducted 1.8 percent (two incidents). While these individuals represent a tiny percentage of all current active-duty and reserve personnel, the increased number of incidents is still concerning.
In January, alarmed by veterans’ involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection, the Pentagon initiated a 60-day lockdown in recruitment while it began to assess the level of infiltration of their ranks by far-right extremists. Predictably, the efforts to do so have drawn complaints from right-wing pundits.
An FBI report in March also warned of far-right extremists infiltrating the ranks of American police forces.
The Post analysis—which includes a useful set of interactive graphics—focused more generally on the effects of, and trends within, the terrorist acts themselves. Among its more noteworthy findings is that there have been 30 attacks or plots directing violence against Black Lives Matter since 2015, with the large majority coming in the past year.
“Perpetrators beat BLM activists in the streets and attacked them with mace, knives, guns or explosives, records show,” the analysis reports. “Right-wing extremists used their vehicles as weapons against activists, plowing into crowds of racial justice demonstrators on at least nine occasions over the past six years … Businesses affiliated with racial justice protests were vandalized and torched, among them a Black-owned coffee shop in Shoreline, Wash.” A video shows two young white men hurling molotov cocktails at the business late at night on Sept. 30 last year; it was later vandalized with neo-Nazi graffiti.
The data also confirms that the outcome of the Trump administration’s approach to right-wing terrorism—worse than hands-off, it fundamentally winked and nodded at such extremism—was an entirely predictable plague of far-right violence. In the last year of his tenure alone, the terrorism ranged from attacks on black churches and synagogues, to militiaman-led plots to kidnap a governor and invade the Michigan statehouse, to the actual attack on the Capitol Jan. 6.
The common factor across all these trends is that the Internet has provided the platform both for radicalization and organization needed to give the radical right a robust presence in modern culture, particularly on social media. “Social media has afforded absolutely everything that’s bad out there in the world the ability to come inside your home,” one federal counterterrorism official told the Post. “And so that makes it hard for law enforcement to see potential tripwires and indicators.”
“What is most concerning is that the number of domestic terror plots and attacks are at the highest they have been in decades,” said Seth Jones, director of the database project at CSIS. “It’s so important for Americans to understand the gravity of the threat before it gets worse.”