The Psychology of Radical Right Violence: Social Dominance Orientation and the Cases of El Paso and Dayton

The Skyline of El Paso, Texas. Source: Pixabay.

On August 3, 2019, an armed gunman killed 22 and wounded 24 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Media reaction was swift, naming the act far-right violence due to the killer’s “anti-immigrant screed” and decision to target shoppers in a predominantly Hispanic area. Less than 24 hours later, a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio was cast as violence from the “far left.” However, this ideological categorization came not from a manifesto or target choice but rather a statement on the killer’s Twitter biography. While political ideology may have played a role in both attacks, this media framing provides a false equivalency of the role of political ideology in the violence. Below, I propose a new way to conceptualize the relationship between these acts of mass violence: psychological motivation of the offenders.

Psychological Motivation and Extremism

I propose that what links the El Paso and Dayton attackers is not the role of political ideology but rather the perpetrators’ psychological motivation, namely, Social Dominance Orientation. Research describes two major psychological motivations behind participation in far-right extremism: Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) and Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). Although the Dayton shooter self-identified as a leftist, his target choice and history of violence against women situates his violence within far-right ideological terms, thus enabling the categorization of RWA or SDO.

RWA individuals are motivated by “fear of a dangerous world” and desire for moral order. They tend to be religious, engage in a “benevolent sexism” (i.e. women are to be respected but, in the home,) and fear immigrants who refuse to assimilate as they threaten the social order.

SDO, by contrast, is best understood as the “need to make ingroup-outgroup comparisons” and to see one’s own group as better and thus deserving of special privileges. These individuals are more likely to engage in “violent” forms of sexism–including rape–and to be against immigrants who do assimilate as they threaten social divisions underlying hierarchies. I argue that what links both mass attacks is offenders’ social dominance orientation irrespective of self-reported political ideology. To explore offender motivation, I turn to the language and pre-attack behaviors of both offenders.

How does SDO show itself in language and behaviors?

Research suggests that two topics are particularly useful in differentiating psychological motivation: immigration and women. How individuals discuss these issues can illustrate their SDO/RWA motivation and the violence they may employ. Notably, it is not acceptance or rejection of an issue, i.e. being pro or anti-immigration, but rather the language used in discussion that suggests psychological motivation.

The El Paso shooter’s manifesto was noted for its anti-immigrant rhetoric. However, the specifics of his discourse link his anti-immigrant views to a strong social dominance orientation. SDO motivated individuals desire differentiation between social groups in order to prove their group is different and “superior”. This is emphasized repeatedly in the El Paso manifesto with the writer going so far as to propose geographic segregation for the minorities who remain in the US:

The best solution to this for now would be to divide America into a confederacy of territories with at least 1 territory for each race. This physical separation would nearly eliminate race mixing and improve social unity by granting each race self-determination within their respective territory(s).

Further, he advocates for the “danger” of race-mixing purportedly due to the “identity issues” it creates. “Race-mixing” also serves to lessen the boundaries between groups, thus disrupting the social hierarchy. RWA motivated individuals may also be anti-immigrant but would favor immigrants who assimilate as this is less threatening to the status quo. These individuals are not preoccupied by the need to be socially superior but rather driven by the fear of disruption to their daily lives. Thus, the El Paso shooter demonstrates SDO motivation.

The Dayton shooter’s antipathy towards women covers the second major way to differentiate SDO motivated individuals. Those driven by social dominance orientation often display a violent (in contrast to “benevolent”) sexism. This shooter’s history of developing a “rape list” for female students, domestic violence towards former partners, and killing his own sister suggests a violent sexism that is a trademark of SDO motivation. In the same way SDO-individuals suggest separation by races to assert their group’s superiority, they emphasize gender differentiation and the inherent inferiority of women in order to increase their own status.

From personal grievance to political ideology

Research on online radicalization describes how these spaces draw-in individuals seeking belonging and cultivate group identity based on extremism and the support of violence. My dissertation explores, in part, whether mass attacks against marginalized communities are the result of individuals high in SDO finding online spaces which package their personal grievances (i.e. unemployment) within far-right ideological terms and declare mass violence against “socially inferior” groups as the solution.

One potential example of this can be found with the El Paso shooter. In his manifesto, the shooter describes his personal grievance regarding rising costs of college degrees and their “plummeting values” which has led to a “generation of indebted, overqualified students filling menial, low paying and unfulfilling jobs.” He continues “of course these migrants and their children have contributed to the problem, but are not the sole cause of it”, blaming not only immigration, but automation for unemployment. Further, the manifesto states that Hispanic people were not his first choice for a mass attack. Rather, his desire to commit mass violence preceded his target choice which came from the novel “Invaders” and online rhetoric which (to him) plausibly linked his personal grievances (i.e. unfulfilled dreams) to a narrative blaming immigrants. Thus, personal grievance and desire to dominate through violence came prior to political framing.

Whereas RWA motivated individuals may commit targeted violence for a cause—such as assassination of an abortion provider—I posit that SDO motivated individuals are driven by a desire to dominate through violence, thus making mass casualties ideal and using ideology to excuse and validate these impulses.

In order to combat mass attacks against marginalized populations it’s essential to find variables, such as SDO, which link these offenders. Future research should look at this variation in online far-right forums to assess the environment from which spontaneous, mass attacks are most likely to occur.

Ms Jaclyn Fox is a CARR Doctoral Fellow and Doctoral Candidate in School of International Service at the American University, Washington D.C. Her profile can be found here.

© Jaclyn Fox. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).