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 anymore.
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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