People often believe that terrorism is the weapon of the weak.
In other words, terrorism is practiced by marginalized groups that cannot influence government’s policies through legitimate means. However, developments on the violent far right since the victory of Donald Trump, , present a different reality.
The attack at , as well as the sending of are just the latest examples of the consistent increase in the violence on the margins of the political camp currently controlling all branches of government. Because these acts were perpetrated by individuals with clear political agendas, I’d call them terrorism.
While neither of these men were part of a named terrorist organisation, and the synagogue shooting is being investigated as a hate crime, I’d argue that they are part of a virtual community that supported their political worldview.
It reveals that in 2017 the United States experienced a 70 percent increase in violent attacks perpetrated in the name of far-right ideology.
Could a victory at the ballot box actually facilitate violence? Examples from other countries indicate that this may not be such a rare phenomenon.
Both groups were engaged in a campaign of violence against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank in order to undermine any policies designed to promote conciliation between the two sides.
Similarly, the electoral successes of European far-right parties in recent years, especially in local elections, were followed by increasing activity of related violent far-right groups and movements.
How can these trends can be explained? A research project which I’m currently conducting with two of my Ph.D. students at the University of Massachusetts Lowell tests three possible explanations.
Potential perpetrators of violence may assume that the new political regime that they perceive to be supportive of their views will be more tolerant of politically motivated violence or illegal acts. These expectations are not without some basis.
Similarly, studies focusing on the rise of , and white supremacy groups in the American South, further confirmed that political officials are more reluctant to operate against groups that are located on their side of the political spectrum.
In the context of the US., individuals and groups that adhere to far-right ideology may interpret signals from government official as acceptance of their actions – or, at least, a sign that they can expect more lenient treatment from law enforcement.
Another example is Trump’s reluctance to single out and criticise far-right groups and activities. His attitude was manifested after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville with Confederate battle flags, anti-Semitic placards and torches – activities Trump seemed loath to condemn.
Lastly, conspiracy theories presented by some far-right pundits about , and the President’s decision to put the word “bomb” in quotation marks when addressing such incidents in his may be read as tacit defence of such acts.
Empowered by Trump’s victory
Another possibility we are testing is that perpetrators of violence feel empowered by Trump’s electoral victory in 2016. They feel his winning the election means their actions and ideology are gaining growing public legitimacy.
In other words, they feel a sense of duty to continue to be engaged in political participation to ensure the implementation of their political ideology, as well as to attain a more visible position within the political arena.
A third explanation is based on political scientist Ted Gurr’s . Gurr’s theory is that political violence often results from a gap between constituencies’ expectations and the actual goods provided by the government.
The reasoning here would go that the election of Trump led to high expectations in the American far-right that the federal government would adopt at least some of their militant views and policy ideas. If, in the eyes of far-right activists, these expectations were not met, some of them may express their frustration via violent activities.
The difficulties of the current administration in implementing some of its immigration policies, as well as some willingness to compromise on the issue of gun legislation, may have frustrated activists who may feel the need to express their concerns via violent or illegal acts. For example, the Pittsburgh shooter felt Trump was a globalist not a nationalist, and was .
Countering the Violence
While our study is still ongoing, some initial findings can provide insights about the applicability of the above mentioned explanations.
The fact that the rise in the level of violence occurred immediately after the 2016 elections, and the relative success of the administration in delivering on many of its election promises – the travel ban, electing two justices to the Supreme Court – indicate that empowerment rather than a sense of deprivation may be responsible for the rise in the level of violence.
The fact that the violence hasn’t increased since its peak in 2017 also suggests that the root causes of the violence are related more to the election results than subsequent policy developments.
Moreover, the administration’s reluctance to delegitimise violent manifestations further enhance this sense of empowerment.
It is important to note that historical dynamics also support these insights. shows that anti-abortion violence actually tends to increase following pro-life decisions of the Supreme Court. For example, between 1989 and 1992, a series of upholding increased state supervision of abortion procedures empowered pro-life activists. Anti-abortion violence increased.
Coming back to today, the growing polarisation of the American political system and the tendency to see elections as a zero sum game encourages each of the political parties to maximise the benefits of electoral victory. That, in turn, involves disregarding norms of cooperation and consensus building. What I would argue is that this need to exploit the fruits of victory may also encourage a few supporters of the winning political camp to use violence.
(Arie Perliger is the Director of Security Studies and Professor, University of Massachusetts Lowell)
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same. This article was originally published on The Conversation.)