October 19, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The U.S. Election and the Specter of Domestic Political Violence

• Recent events such as the firebombing of a Republican Party office in North Carolina and a foiled bomb plot in Kansas highlight an increased fear of domestic terrorism. 

• While the U.S. has a long history of political violence, the rhetoric surrounding the upcoming presidential election has elevated tensions to an extremely high level.

• While the current level of political violence is far below that seen in the 1970s and other eras, the ubiquity of today’s social media sensationalizes incidents into a false narrative of national crisis.

• Sustained levels of extreme rhetoric, coupled with campaign strategies intended to delegitimize and demonize political opponents, create the potential for serious and cascading consequences for the United States.


While foreign-inspired and directed terrorism receives the most attention in the U.S., there is increasing concern over a possible rise in domestic political violence. The upcoming U.S. presidential election has highlighted trends that have been in motion for years, in which partisan politics has devolved into rhetoric and accusations unseen in American politics for many years. Thankfully, the dramatic increase in the level of political discourse aiming to delegitimize and demonize political opponents has not manifested itself in an equally dramatic increase in domestic terror plots. However, violence of that sort tends to lag behind its incitement; if current incendiary political trends continue, violence may very well follow the rhetoric.

On October 15, a local headquarters office for the Republican Party in North Carolina was firebombed; the building suffered moderate damage, but the impact of the violence spread far beyond the damaged office. The tenor of the long-running presidential campaign has been marked with consistent and widespread violent imagery and language. Incidents of violence at rallies, and accusations followed by counter-accusations of improper or illegal behavior, have become the norm of this election. 

On October 14, the U.S. government announced the arrest of three men charged in a domestic terror plot in Kansas. The men, part of a so-called militia known as ‘the Crusaders’, intended to bomb an apartment complex in which a large number of Somali immigrants lived. The attack was planned to occur on November 9—the day after the U.S. elections—and was intended to ignite a revolution through a ‘bloodbath’. The term ‘militia’ itself is highly politicized; when groups of primarily white Americans form violent anti-government groups they are often referred to as ‘militias’, while minority anti-government groups are more often labeled extremist or terror groups.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of domestic terror and hate groups has risen in recent years. The number of anti-government ‘patriot’ groups that espouse violence in the U.S. increased in from 874 in 2014, to 998 in 2015. The number of right-wing groups in the U.S. now exceeds the previous high-point during the 1990s, when events such as the 1993 Waco siege and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing drove membership and rhetoric to extreme levels. The current trend lines suggest 2016 and beyond will see a significant increase in the already high numbers of domestic terror and hate groups.

In the 1970s, the level of domestic terrorism was far higher than it is now. During that period, the vast majority of extremist groups were on the far left of the political and social spectrum. Groups such as the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), and others operated at a much higher tempo throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s. The number of bombings and assassination attempts were significant; the FALN alone conducted 120 bombings. Additionally, the number of police officers killed in the line of duty in the 1970s was at an extreme high—more than double the numbers seen in recent years. 

Programs designed to counter violent extremism (CVE)—aimed at deterring and dissuading people from following the path from extremist viewpoints to extremist violence—understand the destructive power of persistent inflammatory rhetoric. Once the baseline of acceptable conduct and language is lowered, and vitriolic rhetoric towards individuals or groups with differing viewpoints becomes normalized, the threat of violence dramatically increases. The current political rhetoric and behavior that has become increasingly common across the U.S.—and on both sides of the aisle—is on par with the kind of rhetoric that gives counterterrorism officials concern when placed in different contexts and locations. Eventually, pervasive and virulent political language and hatred run the very real risk of giving way to violence.


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