The Role of Ideology in Radical Right Violence: Lessons from America

Protesters both for and against President Trump in Washington. Credit Shawn Thew/European Pressphoto Agency

In the world of political extremism, we often make assumptions about the relationship between extreme ideology and political violence. We assume that extremist views lead to violence, and that those who commit political violence are on the farthest ends of the political spectrum. However, there is strikingly little research that empirically supports this relationship. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from hearing the oft repeated trope that those on the farthest right and the farthest left ends of the political spectrum are both “Nazis,” “fascists,” and so on. And so, what is the relationship between ideology and violence? Does ideology prompt violence, or do violent people use ideology as an excuse? Why has the radical right committed the majority of political violence in the US over the last 20 years, and the radical left almost none? And what explains their recent resurgence and entrance into mainstream politics, despite the violence associated with them?

In light of the most recent US presidential election, there have been widespread pronouncements of an increasingly divided and partisan country, with many researchers suggesting Donald Trump’s victory is an indication of support for authoritarianism and political violence among his base (MacWilliams, 2016). In addition, his use of violent rhetoric (such as his infamous statement at a campaign rally in Iowa that, “if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Just knock the hell …. I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise”) has led to many worrying that his presidency will encourage politically motivated violence in the United States, especially that geared towards immigrants and other minorities. In fact, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has attributed a recent rise in hate crimes in the US, most notably against Muslims, to Trump’s policies and rhetoric. Others claim his brand of nationalist populism is racist at best, and undemocratic at its worst. Regardless, his election represents an acceptance of radical right politics in the mainstream, an unprecedented shift in a system that has historically trended towards moderation.

Additionally, political extremes and polarization appears to be growing, with more and more Americans identifying with either a far-right or far-left ideology. Recent Pew data indicates that both the median Republican and Democrat in the United States are both more conservative and liberal than twenty years ago, respectively. They also found that the center, or “moderate” position, has shrunk from about 49% in 1994, to 39% in 2004. The space where the right and left overlap on the ideological spectrum seems to be following a decreasing trend, and the contentious election of Donald Trump, who maintains many radical right values, is underpinning this shift. In short, we are increasingly polarized politically in the United States, and the current states of affairs in the political arena suggest this trend will continue. In addition, those with centrist views are generally disengaged, with those with the most polarized views serving as the most prominent players in the political arena.

Some scholarship has explored the idea that the most extreme ends of the political spectrum share more ideological points than the more centrist ones. The French writer Jean-Pierre Faye is known for having likened the theory to a horseshoe, where both the far-left and the far-right share more in common than more moderate individuals (Encel, 2004). While there is some empirical support for this theory, others are quick to dispute it, arguing that there’s simply no comparison between the two (Talshir, 2006; Michael, 2009; Rooduijin, Burgoon, van Elsas, & van de Werdhorst, 2017). However, in the 2016 Presidential Election, there were reports of some Bernie Sanders’ supporters (Sanders being a far-left candidate), choosing to vote for Donald Trump, a far-right candidate, over Hillary Clinton, after he lost the Democratic nomination. Others still accuse the President of having promoted the concept of the political horseshoe when he equated neo-Nazi demonstrators in the 2016 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, with the anti-Nazi protestors who were there in their opposition.

Despite the oft-repeated trope in popular culture of parallels between opposite ends of the political spectrum (the political horseshoe effect, where everyone on the opposing extreme end is described as a “Nazi” or “fascist”), work on the relationship between ideology and personality, preferences, and behavior, indicate significant differences between those on opposite ends of the spectrum. For instance, when comparing the relationship between Big-5 personality traits and ideology, liberals tend to be more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, contrasting with conservatives who tend to be more organized, conventional, and orderly (Carney, et al., 2008; De Neve, 2015). Other work evaluates the differences in conceptualization of morality between liberals and conservatives highlighting why those on opposite ends tend to view each other as immoral or even criminal (Haidt & Graham, 2007).

However, while there’s an appeal in labeling those who are most opposite our views as oppressive or immoral, the reality is that most of the ideologically motivated violence we see in the United States is the result of radical right ideology. In fact, at least in the context of the United States, there haven’t been any major radical left terrorist attacks this century, with only one left-wing attack having been identified in 2018. The reasons for this aren’t immediately clear. There is evidence that social dominance orientation tends to have a positive correlation with support for violence (Henry, et al., 2005; Lemieux & Asal, 2010) as well as anti-Semitic attitudes, right-wing authoritarianism and anti-immigrant/out-group feelings (Frindte, et al., 2005; Craig & Richeson, 2013). Political and social polarization may increase these effects (Warner & Villamil, 2017; Mckeown, et al., 2017). Finally, the association between right-wing authoritarianism, ethnocentrism, and perceived injustice are all positively correlated with right-wing beliefs, which in turn has a positive effect on self-reported right-wing political violence (Pauwels & Heylen, 2017).

And so, while we often see this theme of labeling those on the most extreme ends of the political spectrum as “Nazis,” the reality is, that neo-Nazis only fall on one side of the political spectrum, and the far-right is the greatest perpetrator of politically motivated violence, accounting for two-thirds of the terrorist attacks in the US in 2017, and the numbers of right-wing attacks continuing to rise . What is perhaps most concerning is that this speaks to a trend rising across the Western world, which have historically maintained democratic ideals that are at odds with nationalism and authoritarianism. With major radical right and neo-Nazi marches in Poland and Germany recently, it appears that the radical right is not only growing in prominence, but that its increasingly breaking into the mainstream. It may be too early to tell what speaks to this shift, but one can only hope that the trend towards radical right violence will trend downwards soon.

Ms Katherine Parsons is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral Student in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University. Her profile can be found here:

© Katherine Parsons. 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).