However unprecedented the storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob was on Jan. 6, the participants are but a crest of a wave of far-right extremists who have been rising worldwide over a large part of the last decade. The data speak for themselves. Far-right terrorist attacks increased by 320 percent between 2014 and 2019, according to the 2019 Global Terrorism Index. In 2018 alone, far-right terrorist attacks made up 17.2 percent of all terrorist incidents in the West, compared with Islamist groups, which made up 6.28 percent of all attacks. The causes for the populist tilt to the right have been ascribed to globalization and its discontents, economic inequalities, and the refugee crisis. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic compounded the distress felt by millions, and in the United States, rising racial tensions and encouragement by President Trump significantly accelerated the translation of the angst into populist rage.
Understanding that psychology may allow us to mitigate and prevent far-right extremism. In my work with colleagues interviewing and researching thousands of violent extremists around the world — Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Islamists in the Philippines, ISIS in Iraq, and Neo Nazis in Germany — we uncovered three factors that jointly promote radicalization: the three N’s of violent extremism.
The first is “need,” the motivation to feel significant and respected. This universal quest for significance is elevated when one’s dignity is in question, when we feel humiliated, disenfranchised, cheated, or taken advantage of. It is also elevated when the opportunity arises for a great boost to our significance, an occasion to do something exceptional, become a hero or a martyr celebrated by all. All humans have the need to feel significant and respected, yet few become violent extremists. The question is why?
It’s due to the other two N’s: “narrative” and “network.” The narrative ties the need for significance to a course of action. It reinforces the need and instructs what must be done in order to gain significance. And the network — people’s communities — affirms the narrative and validates it. It also bestows respect and admiration on those who do what the narrative tells them.
Participants in last week’s siege of the Capitol probably felt an acute need for significance fed from varied sources. For some, it may have been economic hardships (a loss of a job, the shuttering of a business); for others, it may have been the pandemic lockdowns, the mask mandates, and other COVID-19 restrictions that aroused their ire. Yet others may have felt threatened by claims of systemic racism and believe that the Black Lives Matter antiracist protest movement imperils their place in society. The far-right narrative binds these various strands of grievance into a package that wrongly identifies the culprits responsible for it all: Jews, who they believe dominate the deep state and are colluding with Democrats, Black people, and liberals, in taking over the country from its rightful owners — white Americans. Anti-Semitism and white supremacy are the major pillars of the far-right movement.
In the aftermath of the 2020 election, this general narrative was funneled into a specific — and false — accusation: that the establishment stole the election from Trump, the leader and hero of the extremist movement. Much like the Dolchstosslegende, the stab-in-the back fable of 1918 that Germany was winning World War I only to be betrayed by Jews and socialists, the election-steal lie accuses a corrupt Washington deep state of a comparable treason. Just like that mendacious myth of Germany’s past, its current Americanized version is a powerful goad to action to white supremacists.
How will it all end, and what impact will it all have on American populism in general and the far right in particular? Time will tell, but this much is clear: From the far right’s perspective, the storming of the Capitol was a glorious achievement, a veritable milestone, validated by the president’s “loving” message to the rioters: “So go home, we love you, you’re very special.” It is likely to reverberate on the movement’s social platforms for years. The euphoric mood of those who entered the Capitol building, the compulsive taking of selfies, and the effusive postings on social media attest to the great boost to participants’ sense of significance their actions delivered. The Trump supporters who lost their lives will be hailed as martyrs and heroes; their names and stories will be engraved in the far right’s collective memory and mythologized in its lore. The siege of the Capitol will probably contribute to the movement’s appeal and boost its recruitment efforts. In the political arena, the general outrage that the events evoke are likely to deepen the split in GOP ranks between moderates and extremists, and reduce the cohesion and solidarity that American conservatives have been known for.
What lessons are we to learn from Jan. 6., and how can we prevent a repeat? Understanding the ubiquitous need for significance that fuels extremism is fundamental. This means appreciating the grievances and anxieties that threats to dignity entail, and focus on inequalities, intolerance, and disenfranchisement to create a society where such threats are minimized. We must forge networks within various community institutions, schools, social services, churches, and law enforcement, and task them with initiatives that lend all people significance and dignity. Such initiatives would need to rebuild the trust people have in society, educate Americans to appreciate differences, and focus on tolerance. It has to be a whole society effort for building an inclusive and humane America, one that resists attempts to split our nation asunder.
Arie W. Kruglanski is coauthor of “The Three Pillars of Radicalization: Needs, Narratives, and Networks” and a distinguished university professor in the department of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park.