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Feature 07.27.2021 5 minutes

Target: Trumpists

Capito Behind Bars

The Biden Administration is using concerns about terrorism to crush Trump and supporters.

If the U.S. government has a genuine interest in reducing domestic extremism, then its recent behavior has contradicted the advice of the academic literature. If, on the other hand, the government is concerned with persecuting Trump supporters and demonizing Donald Trump himself, then its behavior is exactly as you would expect.

Political scientists have concluded that aggrieved people commit acts of terror because terrorism works, not because the perpetrators are blood-thirsty sociopaths. What it means for terrorism to work and how to measure success remain matters of debate. In theory, the effectiveness of terrorism could be evaluated by whether the violence pressures government concessionsextends the longevity of groups, fosters social solidarity within them, or destroys the national economies of target countries.

But the most basic rationale for terrorism is its presumed usefulness as a communication strategy for attracting attention to the perpetrators. Indeed, terrorists themselves often say that they escalated to this tactic because they were previously ignored. As the leader of the Tamil Tigers put it: “The Tamil people have been expressing their grievances…for more than three decades. Their voices went unheard like cries in the wilderness.” The head of the United Red Army, an obscure offshoot of the Japanese Red Army, stated: “There is no other way for us. Violent actions…are shocking. We want to shock people everywhere…It is our way of communicating with the people.” Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri likewise described the September 11, 2001 attacks as a “message with no words” which is “the only language understood by the West.” Clearly, political scientists are on to something when they characterize terrorism as a “communication strategy.”

The micro-mechanisms behind this communication strategy are compelling. Terrorism is seen in the theoretical literature as advantageous for attracting attention. It demonstrates that the perpetrators possess the capability to impose physical costs if target countries fail to redress their political grievances. Until shadowy groups use terrorism, the government cannot be sure whether the perpetrators are able to inflict pain for political noncompliance. Terrorism thus signals to the target that the perpetrators possess what Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling called the “power to hurt.”

Terrorism also communicates to the target that the perpetrators are deeply committed to their cause—and not just bluffing. By “costly signaling,” terrorists signal that they are both willing and able to punish countries for ignoring them politically.

Based on this logic, numerous political scientists have concluded that terrorism—particularly terrorism which results in a large amount of physical harm—may be evil, but is nonetheless strategically successful behavior. I’ve published extensively on a theoretical framework called the Strategic Model of Terrorism, which accords with the popular adage, “If it bleeds it leads.”

Who Counts as a Terrorist?

And yet, today’s domestic extremists seem to attract attention in proportion to their support for former president Donald Trump rather than their tactical severity. The political double-standard has become undeniable.

When perpetrators of political violence are Trump supporters, his political enemies in the establishment exaggerate the severity of their tactics to justify lavishing as much negative attention on them as possible. January 6 has attracted more media attention than any contentious political event in the United States since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. According to Trump’s critics in the media, this attack at the Capitol was even worse than 9/11, despite the fact that the former killed 0 people whereas the latter killed 2,977. That is a large difference in human lives.

To maximize negative publicity for the perpetrators of the Capitol riot, mainstream media outlets and Democratic politicians have spent months promoting the misimpression that the pro-Trump activists have blood on their hands. The New York Times reported on January 8 that Capitol officer Brian Sicknick was murdered from getting “struck with a fire extinguisher.” This account of his death was then cited in House Democrats’ February trial memorandum to impeach Trump.

Throughout the impeachment, Trump’s political enemies—from CNN to MSNBC, to the Lincoln Project, to Nancy Pelosi—emphasized that the January 6 unrest at the Capitol was a terrorist incident that killed Officer Sicknick. Even after the official medical examiner concluded in April that Sicknick died from natural causes, President BidenMSNBC, and CNN maintained the politically self-serving fiction that he was killed in a terrorist attack. Side with the medical examiner and you are branded a January 6 “truther.” By mischaracterizing Sicknick’s cause of death as terrorism in defiance of the scientific assessment, the American political establishment succeeded in attracting even more attention to the pro-Trump extremists than they would have otherwise garnered.

By contrast, the media did not devote sustained attention to the April 2 attack at the Capitol, even though it killed an officer. I suspect that most readers will be unaware or have forgotten that the April 2 perpetrator rammed to death a police officer and then charged another with a knife before being stopped dead in his tracks.

In addition to the lethality, a major difference between January 6 and April 2 was the ideological orientation of the perpetrators. In social media posts, the April 2 murderer identified himself not as a Trump supporter, but as a follower of anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam. I remember watching CNN’s coverage of this attack in disbelief. Before the ideological leanings of the perpetrator were known, and he was assumed to be a white supremacist, CNN fixated on the lethal attack. But the story faded the moment we discovered that the perpetrator was not a Trump supporter.

As coverage declined, CNN and other outlets reassured viewers that there are “No initial ties to terrorism” because “the motive is unknown.” While downplaying the attacker’s self-described political motivations, the media played up his mental health struggles—even though demographic studies find that most QAnon activists also suffer from mental health issues which in no way preclude the media or FBI from calling them terrorists or extremists.

Turning Trumpism into Terrorism

The Biden administration’s “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism” is a direct response to the events of January 6. Ironically, there is no mention anywhere in the document of the April 2 Capitol attack which did in fact kill somebody. Instead, the policy document reiterates that we should direct our attention exclusively to the far Right. Although the National Strategy purports to be “ideologically neutral,” the preface lists only examples of attacks by far Right perpetrators—specifically, the ones in CharlestonPittsburgh, and El Paso.

Predictably, mainstream media, Democratic politicians, and government agencies have also played down the June 2017 terrorist attack in which a radical Bernie Sanders supporter shot U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. Before pointing his gun at the Republican Congressman, the terrorist confirmed with other nearby politicians that the target was Republican. The perpetrator left no doubt of his far Left political agenda. On Facebook, he posted: “Trump is a Traitor. Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.” Another post read, “Republicans are the Taliban of the USA.”

But when asked on air, CNN contributor and top FBI official Andrew McCabe said as recently as this month that he still “doesn’t exactly know what that shooter was up to” because “they never really uncovered the sort of detailed evidence that laid out a specific plot or an objective.” As Representative Scalise retorted over Twitter, this is a truly “unbelievable” position for the FBI to take, as “The gunman came with a list of Republicans, he verified we were Republicans before shooting, he was in the Facebook group ‘Terminate the Republican Party.’” It’s impossible to imagine McCabe pooh-poohing this terrorist attack if the perpetrator had been a Trump supporter, even tepidly so.

As with the April 2 attack on the Capitol, the establishment defended the limited attention to this incident by casting doubt on whether it was terrorism even though the behavioral characteristics fit the standard academic definition of a nonstate actor using violence against a non-combatant for a political goal—just not a pro-Trump one. When not whitewashing the left-leaning goals of perpetrators, the media has downplayed their level of violence, even describing arson attacks caught on camera as “mostly peaceful” tactics.

All of this is quite odd from the vantage point of the Strategic Model, which predicts that attention will be a function of their tactical pain rather than the politics of the perpetrators. Although it does not accord with this literature, the American response to domestic extremism of course makes perfect sense given the unmistakable alliance between mainstream media, Democratic politicians, and government agencies against Donald Trump and his supporters.

Suggested reading from the editors
The War Comes Home

The War Comes Home

The Biden Administration’s Domestic Terrorism Strategy is practically designed for overreach.

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