An excerpt from a Politico interview with Michael Jensen, an expert on extremism who leads the domestic radicalization team at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism on mass radicalization:
First, you have to have a vulnerable audience receptive to
the extremist narrative—individuals who are scared, angry, isolated and looking
for answers that satisfy their own personal biases, looking to cast blame for
their problems on someone else. They find narratives that tell them their
problems are not their fault; it’s the product of a conspiracy trying to
undermine your way of life and well-being. Those messages are deeply appealing,
because it’s harder to look inside and question your own decision-making and
behaviors. Over the past year in particular, we’ve had an unprecedented
situation that has left a very large audience receptive to those narratives.
The pandemic has left people scared, without jobs and looking for answers to
what happens next.
The second thing you need is an influential voice pushing
the extremist narrative. And over the past 4½ years, we have had a very
influential political leader [President Donald Trump] pushing a narrative that
is not only polarizing—not only highlighting that the right and left are far
apart on policy issues and disagree on discretionary spending—it’s a narrative
of “othering.” It’s a narrative that casts the other side as evil, as
“enemies,” as individuals you have to fight at all costs in order to preserve
your way of life. We saw this, whether [Trump’s “others”] were Democrats, the
news media or the scientific community.
The final thing you need is a mechanism to spread that
narrative to the masses. Historically, mass radicalization took time. If an
influential leader wanted to spread a message, they’d do it through newspapers
or political speeches in towns and cities throughout their country, and it
could take a while for that message to spread. But that’s not our reality
Our reality now is one in which a radicalizing message can
be broadcast to hundreds of millions of people in a matter of seconds. And if
it catches on, you’re virtually guaranteed that millions of people
will [believe] that narrative. We’ve seen this in the more traditional forms of
media, with outlets like Fox News pushing some of these conspiratorial views,
but we’ve also seen it with social media companies not cracking down on this
rhetoric early, and instead letting it fester.
Those three conditions [make people] ripe for mass
radicalization. And once that narrative changes into a call for action—when
it’s not just about changing someone’s beliefs, it’s about inspiring them
to act on those beliefs—you get January 6. You get mass mobilization.
That’s what we saw.
The question is moving forward is, are those conditions
still present? Does the future of extremism in this country look like January
6, or does it look like something we’ve been dealing with for a couple of
decades? In my estimation, we are reverting back to somewhat of a mean. The
future of extremism in this country won’t look like January 6, but it will look
like what we’ve been dealing with for the past couple of decades, [with a]
significant threat we have to challenge in a very smart way.
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