On April 30, hundreds of armed protesters entered the Michigan State Capitol and demanded an end to the state’s stay-at-home orders. Cries of “Heil to Whitmer” and “Lock her up,” aimed at Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, echoed around the rotunda. Several of the protestors donned pro-Trump gear and Confederate flags. Such protests have become more frequent across the United States in the age of COVID-19. White supremacists have congregated in Washington state, Michigan, Maryland and Texas, among other states, aiming to persuade lawmakers to repeal strict stay-at-home mandates.
These White supremacist rallies have been comdemned for epitomizing White privilege. To begin with, the rallies have on more than one instance featured protestors bearing symbols of White supremacy such as the Confederate flag. More broadly, the rallies advocate for a plan that will spotlight inequities: Opening up the economy prematurely will not endanger White individuals, who overall have better access to health care and economic resources, as much as it will endanger the racial minorities already disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The racial undertones present in these protests are fueled by the same prejudice that has led to an increase in the rate of hate crimes against Asian, Jewish, Muslim, and Black Americans, the LGBTQ community, and women since President Trump’s rhetoric began to reach national audiences in 2015.
As stay-at-home protests coincide with these concerning trends in race relations, one title still remains frustratingly absent from the descriptions of many of the protesters: terrorists. Terrorism is defined by Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University as the use of violence or the threat of violence to achieve a political goal.
Many of the Michigan protestors and others like them fit the definition of terrorism. Significant numbers of them were heavily armed, some with assault rifles capable of firing off a round of bullets at the pull of a trigger. Visitors to the Michigan State Capitol are allowed to openly carry arms so long as they are in plain sight and not used to threaten violence; however, the protestors carried arms into the building with the implicit — and successful — purpose of threatening violence against lawmakers. Protest organizers justified the presence of armed attendees, many of whom belonged to private armed militias, by labeling them as “security” for the anti-lockdown activists. However, gun providers did much more than merely provide security; they demanded access to the legislative chamber — which is off-limits to unauthorized visitors — in order to pressure legislators to reverse the governor’s extension of the state of emergency. State Sen. Mallory McMorrow reported that she was barraged with insults. Other lawmakers wore bulletproof vests to protect themselves. Under these circumstances, the Republican-controlled Senate voted to reject an extension of the stay-at-home orders.
While it was clear to legislators that the protestors were threatening the use of violence to achieve a political goal, these actions were not cateogorized as terrorism due to the politicization of counterterrorism efforts. Republican Party members fear that their small-government conservative values will be wrongly associated with White supremacist ideology on the far right side of the political spectrum. As a result, most American states, and most notably the federal government, have failed to properly designate violent right-wing groups as terrorists.
This failure is not just isolated to the present, however; the U.S. has failed to accurately categorize right-wing organizations numerous times throughout its history. In a clear example, during periods of violent political activity in the 1860s, 1920s, and 1960s, the Ku Klux Klan beat, lynched and raped Black, Jewish and Catholic Americans. The klan, which survives to this day as a loose network of White supremacist groups, has never been designated as a terrorist organization because the federal government uses the label primarily for groups of international origins. In fact, the U.S. has named only one White supremacist group a terrorist organization in its history.
Building on this history, the federal government has restrained attempts to properly label White supremacist terrorist groups in recent years because of Republican pushback. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all American counterterrorism efforts became focused on deterring radical Islamic extremism. The lone exception was a small division within the Department of Homeland Security focusing on domestic non-Islamic extremism. Following the 2008 election, the division published a report documenting a rise in support for extreme right-wing ideology in the U.S. It viewed this rise as a response to the election of the first Black American President, growing disillusionment among veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ongoing financial crisis. By the time the report was released, Republicans already felt vulnerable to Democratic political domination in the White House and Congress. They interpreted the report as a further attack on Republican conservative values and veterans. Then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano was forced to apologize to Congress for the report and the division regulating domestic terrorism was dissolved.
To be clear, the federal government did not spread radical right-wing ideology. Rather, it dismissed the report’s contents after Republicans vehemently denounced it, and following that dismissal, right-wing terrorism became a much greater risk to American national security than radical Islamic terrorism. The University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database illustrates that terror attacks have tripled and deaths have quadrupled in the U.S. since 2013, and that the majority of these incidents were perpetrated by White supremacists. The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism further underscores this conclusion, finding that 71% of terrorist attacks between 2008 and 2017 were committed by adherents to White supremacist ideology. These statistics highlight that right-wing terrorism is a greater risk to U.S. security than radical Islamic terrorism.
The global pandemic has only exacerbated the threat of White supremacist extremism, but the Republican Party still fails to address it in fear of alienating supporters. Stay-at-home orders have given gun-touting militia groups a perfect recruitment platform to spread their ideology to those angered by the economic collapse. President Donald Trump has even encouraged the protesters’ cause by calling on legislators to “liberate” Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia from stay-at-home orders. He also declared the armed protestors in Michigan “very good people,” recycling his praise of the “very fine people” violently demonstrating at the 2017 White supremacist protest in Charlottesville.
Reducing the prevalence of right-wing terrorism in the United States will inevitably be challenging. Nevertheless, the first step forward constitutes collectively admitting we have a problem. The media must take on the responsibility of calling out domestic terrorism when it occurs and informing voters of the egregious missteps of the federal government. Citizens, in turn, must call on their representatives to address the rising domestic threat. Finally, politicians must act to protect their constituents by designating right-wing extremist groups that have threatened or perpetrated violence for a political motive as terrorist organizations. Republicans must be among these politicians and denounce right-wing terrorists in order to support the majority of Americans at the necessary cost of alienating a select few supporters.
Collective action to address the rise of right-wing terrorism is especially important in the context of the global pandemic, racial discontent, and rising socioeconomic disparities. Labeling right-wing terrorists accurately will allow the United States to address the threat they pose with the severity that their title requires.