What is Reciprocal Radicalisation?
Reciprocal radicalisation, cumulative extremism, tit for tat extremism: these recent terms all relate to a symbiotic political relationship whereby the extremism of one group fuels the narrative of the other. Researchers have shown that the effects are a ratcheting up of violence inspired by the acts of a diametrically opposed groupings, as with the 34 attacks on mosques following the brutal 22 May 2013 Islamist murder of Lee Rigby in London . To date, much scholarship has focused on the relationship between radical-right and Islamist extremists, despite little empirical evidence for the actions of right-wing extremists directly inspiring the actions of radical Islamists, except in anomalous cases. By contrast it is absolutely the case that Islamist extremists have inspired radical-right racism and even political violence. For example, the formation of the EDL in 2009, in hindsight, represented the emergence of an Islamophobic ‘new far right’ extremism in response to Al-Muhajiroun and cognate groups.
Yet a recent monograph by Alexander J Carter, Cumulative Extremism: A Comparative Historical Analysis, suggests a more fused relationship between the far-right and -left wings. Importantly, the ‘reciprocal’ of reciprocal radicalisation need not refer to equal levels of action, but rather denotes the presence of incitement and escalation on both sides, with past and present examples demonstrating this to be a long-term relationship. Although Carter draws on the relationship between fascists and antifascists in 20th century Britain, there is a case to argue we are seeing new forms of reciprocal radicalisation emerging between the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and more militant detractors, by which the activism of one side has spurred the other into upping the ante, and vice versa.
The American Perspective:
Seemingly as a by-product of the BLM movement, some far-left activists have fed into radical-right narratives. Unlike the majority of left-wing activists, Antifa militants have used violence in some confrontations with the far right, as seen recently during a counter-demonstration against a ‘free speech demonstration’ staged in San Francisco. Furthermore, riots, looting and periodic civic unrest in places like Portland – sometimes also fed by law enforcement officers –have buttressed an increasingly mainstream right-wing perception that the views of Antifa and the Left in general are somehow incompatible with contemporary US society. This perception has been emboldened by the rhetoric of the President – including referring to leftist protestors as “animals” – coupled with continued threats of a breakdown of “law and order” and tacit approval of certain radical-right groups like the Proud Boys. Incitement via legitimate voices, alongside instigation from far-right online milieus, appeared to encourage the young Kyle Rittenhouse to travel across state borders to Kenosha, Wisconsin. What allegedly began in defence of private property and “law and order” left two people dead in the process. And Rittenhouse is one of many that seems to have been radicalised by closely focusing upon those with diametrically opposing views.
Macklin and Busher believe that the wider social and cultural context can exacerbate the existing threat of cumulative extremism. With excessive force being utilised by law enforcement against left-wing demonstrators during BLM protests in Portland, repressive policing can directly lead to increasing militancy and violent radicalisation by removing the safe space for activism. Moreover, increased radicalism has galvanised the radical right into further action – as has greater media attention towards protests– by portraying the protests as overtly extreme and riotous. This context is vital when considering how outside actors can drive cumulative extremism between diametrically opposed groups through galvanising the actions of one of the two contesting sides.
The recent protests have thrown these sides of the political divide into direct conflict, with members of both groups being accused of inciting the other. Trump and the mainstream conservatism place the blame squarely upon Antifa anarchists, while broadly, Left and Centre-Left have pointed the finger at far-right groups for deliberately exacerbating the conflicts. To take but one prominent example, according to the New York Times, the continuation of upheaval would play into certain ideologies by hastening “the collapse of a multiethnic, multicultural United States”. Additionally, the presence of the BLM movement appears to have further fuelled narratives of “The Great Replacement” and “White Genocide”, further underpinning more extreme concepts of accelerationism and empowering the Boogaloo Boys, or neo-Nazis prepping themselves for an ‘inevitable’ second American Civil War.
The actions of far-right groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer have inspired a range of leftist groups to organise self-defence groups to protect themselves and others. One member of the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club – a left-wing antifascist group formerly affiliated with Redneck Revolt – spoke for many in asserting that they acted in proportion to the threat faced by far-right groups in protecting Seattle’s 2019 Trans Pride March: “when other people are out with rifles, we’ll be out with rifles”. In the paradigm of ‘cumulative extremism’, violent actions of the far-right could spark counter-protest groups to arm in self-defence, thus potentially leading to further violence. While the above did not erupt into open conflict, it was a sign of things to come, with the fatal shooting of a member of Patriot Prayer in August 2020 by Michael Reinoehl – a self-professed Antifa supporter – emblematic of the increasing tensions on either side of the US political divide.
Shift to the UK
This is not solely an American issue, of course, and Britain has exhibited the gradual ratcheting up of radical activism in recent months. Galvanised by American protests against the gruesome killing of George Floyd, UK protestors began to advance Black Lives Matter in a domestic context. Yet far-right groups saw the desecration of statues – exemplified by the toppling of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol – as well as graffiti on war memorials and the Churchill statue in Parliament Square, as an attack on UK values and history. Much like in the US, the two sides have now been thrown into direct conflict, as elements of the British radical-right used the protests to mobilise supporters. Hundreds of far-right activists made the trip to London in June for ‘peaceful protests’ in defence of statues, with Paul Golding, leader of the right-wing extremist group Britain First, stating they had turned out to “guard our monuments”. Yet this pretence wore thin once the throng of bare-chested white male football hooligans began to attack police and counterdemonstrators.
While the ratcheting up of tensions in the UK seems to have abated for now, the incitement and violence between far-left and right in the US continues dangerously apace. With President Trump refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power prior to the November 3rd election day, the worst may be yet to come. Trump has already told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”, if the election is contested, or if Trump continues to incite his base after losing, ‘cumulative extremism’ suggests things could get very dark indeed.
James Hardy is an Intern at CARR and has recently graduated from his MA in Terrorism, Security and Society at King’s College London. See full profile here.
© James Hardy. 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).