In March, while serving as assistant secretary of homeland security for counterterrorism and threat prevention, I asked my team to research how pandemic mitigation efforts might exacerbate violent extremism. For decades, the Secret Service, the FBI and academic researchers have examined the backgrounds and pre-attack behaviors of mass-attack perpetrators. Some of the risk factors of violent extremism they identified are increasing nationwide: social isolation, financial stress, job loss, loss of loved ones and significant changes or uncertainty in life.
My team also found that some groups would perceive public health measures as government overreach infringing on rights and liberties, which might encourage anti-government extremists. And we observed foreign actors and domestic violent extremists spreading disinformation about the pandemic to foment discord and encourage violence.
These findings were included in the recently released 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment, which concluded: “Domestic Violent Extremists [present] the most persistent and lethal threat. … Violent extremists will continue to target individuals or institutions that represent symbols of their grievances, as well as grievances based on political affiliation or perceived policy positions. … The domestic situation surrounding the covid-19 pandemic creates an environment that could accelerate some individuals’ mobilization to targeted violence or radicalization to terrorism.”
This is what we see in the Michigan allegations. One of the alleged co-conspirators, Adam Fox, complained in a private Facebook group that Whitmer was a “tyrant bitch” because gyms remained closed. According to the criminal complaint against the group, “several members talked about state governments they believed were violating the U.S. Constitution, including the government of Michigan and Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Several members talked about murdering ‘tyrants.’”
My former colleagues in government are doing what they can to address the problem. But there’s only so much they can do. Though lockdowns were necessary public health measures that saved thousands of lives, they exacerbate risk factors and stressors that contribute to violence, and no amount of resource reallocation in the national security and law enforcement agencies can change that.
This is where leadership makes a difference. A good leader can speak to the country — especially those most susceptible to radicalization — and contextualize the national and worldwide struggle against covid-19 in a way that unites people and discourages division, anger and grievance.
In March, anticipating the effects of the lockdowns and the need for national unity, my team developed a messaging campaign to help federal, state and local leaders build resilience within communities. Although the materials were approved within DHS, they never received the required approvals from the White House Covid-19 Task Force.
Rather than bring us together, the president did the exact opposite. In April, he tweeted, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
Those words are in keeping with Trump’s slow repudiation of former KKK leader David Duke in 2016, his description of “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville in 2017 and his invitation to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” at last month’s presidential debate.
Language from campaign materials and Trump’s extemporaneous speeches at rallies have been used as justification for acts of violence. The president has repeatedly been confronted with this fact. He and his supporters retort that he has, eventually, denounced violence and white supremacists. But the issue is not whether he has ever condemned those ideas and people; it is that he is inconsistent and muddied in his condemnations. Extremists thrive on this mixed messaging, interpreting it as coded support.
Combined with the president’s repeated efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the election and militaristic calls to “join Army for Trump’s election security operation,” law enforcement and counterterrorism officials have expressed concerns to me that the president’s rhetoric will lead to more civil unrest and violence. A survey by YouGov and Voter Study Group and published by Politico shows that “among Americans who identify as Democrat or Republican, 1 in 3 now believe that violence could be justified to advance their parties’ political goals — a substantial increase over the last three years.” The authors of the Politico piece note that there are preliminary studies demonstrating “messages from [Joe] Biden or Trump denouncing all violence can reduce mass approval of violence.”
If anyone still questioned whether the president’s rhetoric encourages violence, the plot against Whitmer provided the answer. Regardless of his intent, the president’s effect is to embolden white supremacists, violent militias and anti-government extremists. He has been warned of this numerous times, yet he persists. He knows. He just does not care. And the country, I fear, will pay the price.