The United States has grown to be a nation of considerable influence around the world. In less than 300 years, the country became a world power with its own political ideologies and cultural values that have come to be known across the globe. However, as history has shown us, influence can just as easily have negative outcomes. Right-wing extremism (RWE) has been gaining traction for many years, both in the U.S. and in many other western nations. It has been further emboldened under what many consider the most controversial and polarizing presidency in decades. Under the leadership of an unconventional president like Donald Trump, one of the United States’ latest global contributions has involved taking dangerous far-right rhetoric abroad — galvanizing millions more around the world.
Many critics believe Trump has been a pivotal factor in the RWE equation as it stands today, not only in the United States, but on a global scale as well. From 2014 to 2019, the Global Terrorism Index found that violent far-right attacks increased by 320% in North America, Western Europe, and Oceania. Interestingly, it also indicates that this U.S.-based rise coincided with an uptick in far-right terrorist incidents in Western Europe. Further illustrating this global increase is a September finding by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), which reported that the organization’s percentage of violent far-right extremism caseloads had increased from 10-15% to 30-40% in four years. Closer to home, a CSIS study found that far-right extremists perpetrated 57% of terrorist attacks and plots in the U.S. between 1994 and 2020. Another study from 2019 by the Anti-Defamation League found that the number of white supremacist propaganda efforts in the United States had increased by 123% over the previous year. The speed at which RWE has grown in recent history warrants a closer look at some possible contributing factors.
To be clear, neither far-right extremism nor white nationalism began with the current president. The roots of these political ideologies run far deeper than a businessman-turned-Commander in Chief. Many western nations have seen their own unique ebbs and flows in public visibility of RWE activity. In a brief written for the Center for International Studies, Seth Jones points out that the most recent rise of violent RWE activity in the U.S. gained traction in 2009 after Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of violent RWE incidents grew from 5 to 31 per year.
According to the same graph by the Global Terrorism Index mentioned earlier, previous waves of far-right extremist violence in the United States and Western Europe have not always been so synchronized. This is perhaps indicative of one crucial tool in the spread of right-wing radicalization: the internet — especially social media. Bruce Hoffman, an expert in terrorism and insurgency, writes for the Council on Foreign Relations that technological advances like social media can act as an “echo chamber” for “disparate, disgruntled individuals.” The rise of the internet has given virtually anyone a platform, including those with extreme views that don’t fit within the parameters of traditional political ideology. For example, President Trump used Twitter extensively throughout his campaign and presidency to share radical opinions.
One such incident came at the beginning of October when a far-right extremist group was found to have been planning the kidnapping of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in response to lockdown measures implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19, which they considered an infringement on their rights. Rather than defend a fellow member of the U.S. government, Trump used Twitter to go on the offensive, continuing to place blame on Gov. Whitmer for the danger in which she found herself by concluding that she should “open up” her state, schools and churches.”
The reach of social media’s influence can be found abroad as well. In Australia, a government-run study points to a rising virtual presence of Australians in online RWE groups. The study quantified expressions that indicated Donald Trump’s influence among New South Sales RWE individuals (e.g., #Trump, #MAGA, #Trump2020) on a variety of online platforms, including Twitter and Gab. Results showed that these hashtags and expressions occurred in especially high numbers among the target population — thus demonstrating the leverage of “Trumpism” on the Australian far-right extremist movement.
The online presence of RWE is, of course, not limited to Oceania. Those wishing to spread right-wing ideologies transnationally have grown with the internet and use it to connect with like-minded individuals worldwide. The Christchurch, New Zealand attacks served as a poignant example of how right-wing extremists have embraced the internet as a tool to further their agenda. Brenton Tarrant, an Australia native, used online platforms to live stream his attack of a Mosque filled with worshippers and had even posted about his plans in the days leading up to taking action. Part of Tarrant’s inspiration for killing dozens of Muslims came from conspiracy theories spread online by the pan-European white nationalist group Generation Identity. Just as the New South Wales government found the internet to be a breeding ground for RWE, Generation Identity has amassed approximately 70,000 Twitter followers across multiple accounts in May 2019.
It would be naive to place blame for rising RWE on one man alone. Just as far-right extremism did not begin with Trump’s election, it will not necessarily end with his replacement. History has shown that political ideologies are deep-seated and can be felt across the globe — especially now in our rapidly interconnecting world. Trump is merely a symptom of a more significant issue. We must not forget what insights his presidency has revealed about far-right extremists and how they shape a new age of transnational politics today.