While President Joe Biden was supposed to turn down the temperature and restore normalcy to our political life, rhetoric from those in power increasingly echoes with dark references to “homegrown terrorists” and “extremists” emerging from a process of radicalization. For months after the inauguration, the ruling class maintained Washington, D.C. as a fortress city, complete with a Green Zone. The FBI, Justice Department, the Pentagon, and Biden himself have all said that countering extremism is now their first priority.
The left’s disparate factions united for a time around their opposition to the unorthodox Donald Trump. Having removed him from office and prevailed upon social media monopolies to silence him, the left is like the dog that caught the car: Trump’s absence leaves them in need of a new cause. The left’s internal need for a common enemy, more than the facts, explains their campaign to categorize Trump voters, and the right in general, as extreme. Countering extremism is the new unifying principle of the left.
Media figures, politicians, and law enforcement executives describe extremism as the end product of “radicalization.” The narrative of radicalization includes several layers of misrepresentation. First, the left defines right-wing beliefs as extreme by reference not to actual moderation, but to the revolutionary modern center. Then, they describe these beliefs themselves as a type of violent threat. Finally, they move the disagreement from the realm of politics into the more intrusive realm of psychology, where right-wing beliefs are treated as a type of mental illness.
Extremism is, by its nature, defined by reference to a political center. In a time of harmony and consensus, the center is where most people happily reside. But in a revolutionary age the ranks of extremists grow even among those who do not change as the center moves further left. Since the 1960s we have lived in a revolutionary age.
Thus, the revolutionary ruling class labels as extremists those who only a decade ago would have been called moderates. Their opinions and thoughts are now dismissed as disinformation. Those who are younger and uncomfortable with society’s leftward drift are commonly described as going through a process of radicalization. If they come to these beliefs alone, seeking out information from the dissident right ecosphere, they are said to have “self-radicalized.”
These descriptions implicitly assume that the center is correct and unassailable. Voices invoking the specter of extremism do not question whether the current center—a commitment to international empire, multiculturalism, open borders, job-destroying globalism, financialization, transgenderism, and social engineering—is a reasonable one. The managerial left, whether in the White House, the FBI, or the media, does not engage with supposed extremists on the merits of their arguments, and they do not try to understand their grievances, as they do with aggrieved anti-Western extremists, such as jihadists or black nationalists.
Rather, leftist managerialism treats almost every political question as having been “settled” through a combination of self-evident moral axioms and highly technical analysis. For them, there is a single correct answer, one derived by credentialed experts, and any failure to endorse the ever-changing, left-moving center is pathological and unusual. The left’s assumption that questions of law and politics are “settled” directly opposes the beliefs undergirding the American constitutional order, including formerly universal commitments to free speech and republican self-government. Free speech presupposes that there are multiple competing viewpoints, that the best answers are distilled from the cauldron of debate and discussion, and that no single person has all the correct answers. For these reasons, it would impair the search for truth to have competing views, particularly outsider views, censored.
Self-government and voting assume one of the components of legitimacy is the “consent of the governed.” Instead of every political question being a matter of technical analysis, the principle of consent presupposes that individual interests and individual opinions are relevant and worthy of accommodation and inclusion in crafting policy. After all, many political questions are mixed questions of fact and value, including prioritization of values.
All the usual rituals of compromise and give-and-take are undermined by the imperative of policing extremism and detecting radicalization. Deeming these complex and debatable issues “settled,” the ruling faction uses the same language one employs against scammers and foreign enemies. For example, a National Public Radio headline from earlier this year about the online popularity of right-wing media outlets like Breitbart and NewsMax read, “Far-Right Misinformation Is Thriving On Facebook.”
Concern over right-wing extremism is more than a media fixation. Anti-extremism implicates every department of the administrative state. In February, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered a 60-day “stand-down” across all branches to discuss the problem of extremists within the ranks, which apparently has required teach-ins and struggle sessions for the entire military.
The most prominent example of the left’s campaign to pathologize the right was its overreaction to the Jan. 6 protests at the Capitol. FBI Director Christopher Wray spoke of the Jan. 6 protests in exaggerated terms. “That attack, that siege, was criminal behavior, plain and simple, and it’s behavior that we, the FBI, view as domestic terrorism,” Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee. The FBI also manages a program of “deradicalization” aimed at young people and educators, entitled “Don’t Be a Puppet.”
The Capitol protests were, after all, mostly symbolic in nature. A medical examination confirmed that the death of Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick was due to a natural cause—a stroke—unravelling the attempt to make him into a martyr of right-wing violence. But the Capitol protest did unmistakably communicate widespread anger, fearlessness, and contempt for the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
This loss of legitimacy has frightened a ruling class increasingly detached from ordinary Americans. Rather than aiming to persuade, the managerial left has moved on to draconian force. They’ve labeled the trespassing that occurred on Jan. 6 as treason, put up billboards seeking suspects all around the country, and arrested nonviolent suspects using SWAT teams.
Of course, trespassing is a crime—though normally a misdemeanor—and protests sometimes get out of hand or include deliberate civil disobedience. What shocked the ruling class was not the tactics or the crimes of the Capitol protests, which were tame compared to the Black Lives Matter and Antifa protests that occurred in many other American cities last summer, but that it was a protest from ordinary, middle-class Americans on the right.
The right has been, until now, mostly respectful of the government and its authority. Leftists in power could always appeal to the right’s sense of patriotism and decorum to keep it in line. When Antifa and black nationalists tore down cities all summer, the right mostly reacted to these events with quiet resignation and a commitment to work within a system they regarded as legitimate.
While not an insurrection, the Jan. 6 protest was a serious break from previous patterns. That half or more of Republicans think the election was stolen is a real problem for perceived legitimacy of the ruling class.
The ideological tone and aggression of the left’s prosecutions of the Jan. 6 participants is evident in the effort to deny suspects bail. Federal prosecutors argued one elderly Virginia defendant, disabled veteran Thomas Caldwell, should remain behind bars until his trial because he believes the 2020 election was stolen.
The extent and vigor of the dragnet against “domestic violent extremists” rivals earlier campaigns against Islamic radicals and communists. It amounts to a declaration of war against a large cohort of American citizens because of their beliefs. “I think, for me, Jan. 6th really ended the post-9/11 era, those 20 years where the threats came from abroad into the United States,” Congressman Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analysist and Pentagon official, said in an interview with NPR. “And it inaugurated another era, which is where the divisiveness between us as Americans is, I believe, the greatest threat to our national security.”
Like many in the government, Slotkin has forgotten one of the more obvious lessons of the campaign against Al Qaeda. An oppressive and heavy-handed response risks becoming the real engine of extremism, playing into the fears of the aggrieved, while giving their compatriots cause for revenge and retaliation.
The legacy media, social media giants, the FBI, and Justice Department act as if there is one—and only one—correct view on the election, and that failure to endorse the official view is a sign, not only of being wrong, but of being evil and potentially violent.
We have seen this demand for uniformity in other instances, including global warming, COVID-19, and, for that matter, the supposed illegitimacy of Trump’s election in 2016, which official voices described as marred by Russian interference. The ruling party displays an unusual concern regarding private beliefs. It’s not enough for citizens to obey the government out of fear, prudence, or habit. One must publicly affirm the legitimacy of Biden’s election in 2020.
Official discussions of extremism follow a disease model. Radicalization is treated as large-scale brainwashing, in which otherwise sane people contract strange beliefs and violent tendencies that would normally be anathema. As with purely psychological accounts of suicide, this model largely dismisses the possibility that a whole society may be sick and driving people to despair, or that the reactions and beliefs of the radicals may be reasonable in light of their perception of circumstances.
By treating the right’s beliefs like a strange disease, and not the product of a rational process, the left never takes any of the right’s ideas, beliefs, or criticisms seriously.
Right-leaning views generally do not arise from exclusive contact with official news, much of which consists of “fake news.” Those on the right tend to seek out alternative sources, not least because the official stories contradict what their own eyes and ears show them to be true. Thus, the right has a higher proportion of autodidacts and skeptics. Such people are more confident, curious, and independent and, therefore, prone to “radicalization.”
The radicalization label deliberately obscures the distinction between ideas and actions. For the ruling class, expressions of belief and actual violence are conjoined morally, even though actual political violence on the right has only been undertaken by a tiny number of people. We have seen this occur regarding critical discussions of the election. Election skepticism is now treated as one step removed from imitating Guy Fawkes. Those who ask empirical questions regarding voting rolls and statistical anomalies are deemed guilty by association.
The term “radicalization” gained prominence during the War on Terror. Official guidance described certain Muslims as “vulnerable” to radicalization, as if the combination of their religious beliefs and their alienation from Western society were not enough to describe their turn towards violence. The latter account would describe things accurately, but also have significant implications for the left’s immigration and multiculturalism policies. Radicalization became the watchword instead. Islam, after all, is a Religion of Peace™.
Similarly, the radicalization rhetoric about the right allows the government to ignore and marginalize its critics, delegitimize the movement, and utilize tools normally off limits against its dissenters, such as mental health screenings, denials of security clearances, additions to “no fly” lists, and removal from the financial system.
There is a recent historical parallel of exaggerating threats when the real goal is to control beliefs. At the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, James Fields drove his car into a crowd of Antifa protesters blocking the road, killing one young woman. Thereafter, the Alt-Right became a damaged brand, inseparable from Fields’ violent action that day; while the violent actions of Antifa—attacking rally participants and blocking the roads in large, agitated crowds—were forgotten. President Trump’s nuanced and fair comment on the rally that there were “good people on both sides” was repeatedly described inaccurately as apologizing for political violence and white supremacy.
This conflation of extreme thoughts and violence also works in reverse. The supposedly noble cause of BLM renders all of the extensive violence done in its name forgivable. This is why the media described a summer of riots as “mostly peaceful protests,” and the FBI director dismissed Antifa as “an idea, not an organization.” For the ruling elite, Antifa, while violent, is not really extreme. While both are objectively revolutionary, there is little daylight between Antifa’s message and that of officialdom and corporate America.
Unable to refute critics, the system deems the right as infected with “radicalization.” That is, the ruling elite ignores the content of the right’s beliefs other than as evidence of psychopathology. It’s not just a problem to be solved or mitigated, but a disease, and one with a cure.
There is a long history of psychoanalyzing and pathologizing political opponents. Frankfurt School psychologist Theodor Adorno, in his work The Authoritarian Personality, saw a fascist behind every healthy, happy, well-adjusted family. His work amalgamated all kinds of Freudian nonsense to label the average American’s respect for parents or the law as a proto-fascist sickness. More recently, the Soviet Union’s coercive psychology was a prominent tool of social control. While Stalin used brute force and imprisonment, after his death and the regime’s “thaw,” coercive psychology became a common means of abusing political dissidents, under the rubric of treating ersatz disorders such as “delusions of reform” and “sluggish schizophrenia.”
As a consequence, political dissidents spent years drugged up in psychiatric hospitals, forgotten by the world, their beliefs maligned as the rantings of madmen. These are the same types of people the frenzied political left today labels as dangerous radicals. The potential for abuse is not difficult to imagine. While elevating the obviously dementia-ridden Biden to the presidency, the same left (and Never Trump right) ridiculously sought to declare Trump incompetent under the 25th Amendment.
In the Soviet Union, the use of psychological diagnoses and treatment avoided publicity and the minimal requirements of Soviet law. The same advantages prevail today. Doctors are in better graces with the public than politicians or law enforcement. Labeling someone as sick gives the patina of medical science and charity to coercion.
above: a protester holds up a Black Lives Matter flag in front of the Federal Courthouse in Portland, Oregon during another night of violent protests on July 18, 2020 (Leslie Spurlock/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News)
Treating radicalization like a disease, with an aggressive therapeutic police state as the cure, is intrinsically totalitarian. It classifies ordinary political expressions and beliefs held by half of the country as outside the mainstream and dangerous, failing to distinguish mere belief from unlawful activity. The principles of “deradicalization” permit the government, social media companies, and medical professionals to monitor private associations, discussions, and thoughts lacking any real prospect of violence.
One can expect that every psychologist, family doctor, school counselor, and neighbor will soon be on the lookout for signs of “radicalization.” A wayward comment, a bumper sticker, reading the wrong kinds of books, or making the wrong kinds of jokes may unleash the full panoply of tools in the arsenals of the state and its corporate and health system allies. One thing we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that there is a large cohort of eager snitches with a deformed moral sense walking among us.
Treating radicalization like a disease is intrinsically totalitarian and stigmatizing. It permits the government, social media, and medical professionals to monitor and judge private associations, private discussions, and private thoughts. These monitoring activities undermine the ability of people to politically organize in real life, fearful of “Feds” and other hostile elements.
One can expect elements within the Republican Party to cooperate in this marginalization of the right-wing. A total of 35 Republican congressman voted to support a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 protests, an impending farce that will further solidify this episode as an example of “dangerous radicalism.” Perhaps realizing the totalitarian principles and trajectory of this radicalization narrative will pull some of these congressmen back from the brink.
The ruling class has stated its intention to undertake an unprecedented assault on core American freedoms and the heritage of the American people. One must ask, who radicalized them?