Michael Jensen, “The Problem Isn’t One Insurrection: It’s Mass Radicalization,” interview with Zack Stanton, Politico, Feb. 11, 2021 https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/02/11/mass-radicalization-trump-insurrection-468746.
[From the intro to an interview that appeared in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol}:
Historically, mass radicalization took time,” says 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. “But that’s not our reality anymore.”
Jensen’s research has found that over the past roughly 15 years, the average time span of radicalization in the U.S. has shrunk from 18 months to 7 months, largely because of how much of our lives have shifted online. In the 1980s or ’90s, a would-be far-right extremist had to “know somebody in your real-world life who was involved in it,” says Jensen. “They had to recruit you in or introduce you to the ideas. That tended to be a pretty slow process.”
Jensen has emerged as a leading figure in the fight against domestic extremism. And though it might be tempting to draw parallels between the insurrectionist movement and other extreme groups, he says America’s far-right extremists are different from what you might expect. Compared to extremists animated by far-left or jihadist beliefs, they radicalize later in life, are substantially more likely to have a violent criminal background and are more prone to substance-use disorders. And where you may expect far-right groups to compete against one another for recruits, attention and resources—as has long been the case—that dynamic is currently evolving into a reality that poses an even greater threat. They are joining forces.
“The most concerning thing that we’ve seen in the last couple of years is that competition [on the far right] is actually eroding to some extent, and there has been more of an effort for these groups to link and to cooperate with each other,” says Jensen. “To some extent, January 6 was these groups coming together.”
Excerpts from the interview:
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.”
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.
Polarization is nothing new in American politics. There’ve always been multiple sides, and that gap has perhaps been widening over the past 20 years, where there are just fundamental issues [on which] it’s hard to find common ground. It doesn’t always manifest in expressions of violence unless it turns into that “othering” narrative.
That’s been a big change in recent years: It’s not so much that the other side disagrees with you on policy issues; it’s that the other side is in cahoots to undermine you and fundamentally challenge you and your way of life, and they’re doing it for their own personal benefit and greed, and you have to fight that at all costs. It’s more politically lucrative for individuals to play up polarization, to play up their tribe vs. the other tribe. It’s more politically expedient for them to do those things than to be the old-style leader who tries to find a bridge and a middle ground.
The other big change is that we’re just exposed to polarization a lot more now. It’s so much easier to be exposed to how much we don’t agree on things. Every time you jump online, you’re going to get hit with the fact that your viewpoint is quite different than perhaps your neighbor’s or somebody in your family’s. We’re confronted with that polarization a lot more, and I don’t know that we have found a way to constructively speak to each other about those divisions.
I think the overriding characteristic of extremism in the United States is its diversity in terms of the viewpoints promoted, in terms of the characteristics of the individuals who adhere to those viewpoints, and in terms of the actions and behaviors that individuals take on behalf of those beliefs.
We have always had a wide variety of extremist views in the U.S. For forever, we’ve had white supremacist and white nationalist narratives. Those have been paired with narratives on the far left—the social-justice narratives that promoted violence in the 1960s and ’70s, and then morphing into animal-rights and eco-terrorism extremists. We’ve had anti-government views; “sovereign citizens” and the “patriot” movement have been around a really long time. We’ve had jihadist-in
spired individuals and narratives. And then we have these kind of “fringe” ones we don’t really know where to put.
It is important to recognize, though, that there’s not an equal [threat] level across those ideologies. Our data suggest that far-right extremist views are the most prevalent of the extremist views in this country.