| Sarah Heinonen
WESTERN MASS – In light of the riot on Jan. 6, in which supporters of former President Donald Trump and members from various far-right groups attacked the U.S. Capitol in an effort to stop the certification of votes declaring Joe Biden as president, Reminder Publishing wanted to take a look at how factions of the American ideological right have been radicalized, how we got here and what we can expect in the future.
Justin H. Gross, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, agreed to answer questions about this topic. Gross specializes in U.S. ideologies, political communication in mass and social media, public opinion, and the intersection of identity and political beliefs.
RP: Has the right wing of the American ideological spectrum seen a radicalization?
JG: In the sense that more Republican voters and people who self-identify as “conservative” have become increasingly likely to embrace or at least be open to ideas and claims that previously would have been called extreme – openness to wild conspiracy theories, willingness to tolerate or even welcome attacks on democratic norms and institutions, calls for violence – yes, absolutely. A number of studies of the U.S. Congress by non-partisan and bipartisan sources have also observed “asymmetric polarization,” with Republicans moving farther to the right than Democrats have moved leftwards.
RP: When did this trend begin? What factors led to this?
JG: We have been witnessing a gradual radicalization on the right over the course of the past two decades, accelerating after certain key moments, especially with the Tea Party movement and then even more so over the course of the Trump presidency.
There are many forms that such radicalization can take, but all involve distaste for institutional leadership (such as Republican office-holders deemed to be the “establishment” or not “conservative” enough), populist distrust or outright rejection of institutions, and inability or unwillingness to police the boundaries of acceptable politics by denouncing extremists on one’s own “team.”
In 1994, as Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich embraced a kind of anti-establishment Republicanism that at the time was seen by many – even Gingrich himself – to be “radical,” but which seems almost quaint by comparison to what we’re seeing today.
It’s downright bizarre the extent to which “conservatism,” ostensibly devoted to protecting existing institutions, resisting rapid change, and resisting the allure of radical ideologies, is being coupled with extreme right-wing views and even support for sedition. This is partially attributable to the difference between “conservative” as identity/brand and conservatism as set of philosophies. Witnessing the exodus of conservative intellectuals from Trump’s Republican party over the past few years is a reminder of how the meanings of labels change. Others argue that this was the inevitable endgame all along on the American right, but I’m not convinced.
What’s changed, as has been widely noted, is the fragmentation of media, the rise of social media, and the elimination of most sources of information that enjoy universal trust.
Additionally, there’s a kind of insatiable quality to anti-establishment populism. Many politicians who rode the Tea Party wave into office by condemning “Washington insiders” soon risked being seen as insiders themselves and so found themselves having to demonstrate their purity or risk losing power. Many prominent Republicans who criticized presidential candidate Trump in 2015 and 2016 changed their tune once he became president and maintained high approval ratings from Republican voters.
President Trump himself was the most potent force of radicalization, as he gave voice to and amplified various strands of radicalism, retweeted extremists, and only rarely and grudgingly condemned ultra-nationalist and racist groups.
RP: Do you foresee a change, increase or decrease in this mindset now that there has been a shift in the presidency?
JG: We are in such uncharted territory, at least in recent times in the U.S., that it’s really hard to say. Pundits are less hesitant in reading tea leaves than political scientists are or should be. There seem to be two major consequences of the recent change, working in opposition to one another.
On one hand, I do think President Biden will have a calming effect to a degree. The more he can take the lead in a return to competent government and in creating observable improvements in peoples’ lives, the more of an antidote to further radicalization he will offer. Effective leadership and technocratic competence will also demonstrate the practical benefits of not entirely hollowing out the bureaucracy and replacing civil servants with political appointees committed to “draining the swamp.”
On the other hand, I worry quite a bit about the millions of people who are certain the election was stolen, believe COVID-19 or the seriousness of the threat it poses is a hoax, and are receptive to whatever the next dangerous bit of misinformation will be. Such people are sealing themselves off from alternative perspectives and sources of information in a way that is unpredictable and frankly frightening.
By way of anecdote, I have had more than one acquaintance mention right-leaning friends or family who fear that the Biden administration is planning to send Trump voters to re-education camps. It would be surprising if many of those getting a steady diet of such nonsense did not become further radicalized; fear is an amazing motivator to act in seemingly extreme ways.
Recent warnings of domestic terrorism threats are extremely troubling but not surprising and I am concerned that this will get politicized, as was the case when DHS reported on similar risks in 2009. Republican leaders and conservative opinion leaders need to return to responsible gatekeeping of their boundaries with fringe characters and loudly denounce extremism.
RP: Should people try to engage with radicalized individuals to have a discourse?
JG: It depends. It can be exhausting, unfruitful, and even counterproductive in many cases. If one is perceived as liberal, Democrat, or left-leaning, one will likely be quickly dismissed. Unfortunately, most mainstream and non-partisan sources of information are now roundly rejected as “biased media” or “fake news” by those we might try persuade. More likely to succeed would be insiders who stand up against the most extreme claims and actions. Just as former white supremacists are extremely valuable in anti-extremist work, former QAnon-believers or audience members of far-right opinion leaders would be more likely to get through to others in that camp.
One problem is that going against existing groupthink can get one excommunicated too quickly to be a trusted guide back to reality. There really needs to be more of a coordinated effort by Republican and conservative leaders to de-escalate, rather than the drip-drip of individuals standing up one at a time and then often slipping off into exile.
We should probably distinguish between “radical” and “extremist” here. I think it’s possible to have radical views and yet reject extremism, including calls for violence, dehumanization of opponents, deeply anti-pluralistic and anti-democratic ideologies, and the spreading of conspiracy theories that cast racial and ethnic groups as enemies. If we signal that we view all people with radical right inclinations as indistinguishable from extremists, we make it easier for people to become ever more extreme in both beliefs and actions. This is becoming a recurring theme among conservatives and Trump-voters – they believe they are being lumped together with the most extreme right-wingers. And while others may feel justified in doing so, it is crucial to give people a reason not to radicalize even further. Group identity trumps ideology for most people, so we should allow for gradations and resist the temptation to just write everyone off – that plays right into extremists’ hands.
RP: What can be done on a larger scale to combat radicalization?
JG: I’m not an expert on this by any stretch, but there aren’t a lot of easy answers. Conquering COVID-19 will be an enormous help, both because it has created a wide sense of dread and confusion that fuels radicalization as people search for answers and because of all the isolation and extra time to surf the web and go “down the rabbit hole” of conspiracy theories.
Honestly, if Congress were to speak with one voice in rejecting claims of election fraud and at least censure the former President for his share of responsibility in inciting the Jan. 6 attack, that might still be helpful. If we do not draw any red lines, things may get worse before they get better.