Words Matter: The Dangers of Extremism

I want to start by briefly describing my background. For much of my professional career, I have worked as a political researcher, conducting analysis on concepts like political legitimacy and institutions. My work has mostly revolved around foreign affairs, and one of my most important experiences was a stint as a research intern for the organization Hedayah, a group that specializes in countering violent extremism (CVE). There, I conducted work on CVE deradicalization programs, with particular focus on understanding why individuals became radicalized in the first place. This experience was vitally important for me and it helped me understand just a bit about what transpired on January 6, 2021, and I’d like to share these considerations with you.

Within the realm of international relations, there is a concept known as constructivism. When broken down and given a basic definition, it essentially means that ideas are socially constructed and that these ideas matter. Different concepts and things we hear get weaved together and we individually form our own narratives and their meanings. On January 6, we witnessed a group of individuals inflamed by years of blatant lies and weeks of conspiracy spurred to consequential action. We saw the weaponization of caustic rhetoric and acidic optics. As violent individuals stormed the nation’s capital, one fact became clear: this was radicalism and extremism in action. That, however, is not the end of the story. In fact, these recent events are simply a facet of a larger problem within America writ large. 

A poll conducted by YouGov noted that over 45% of polled Republicans supported these acts, while a vast majority didn’t believe these actions to constitute a threat to our democracy. These statistics should be alarming. Many of those that marched and vandalized Washington D.C. did so for a multitude of factors, but one unifying element was a distrust in our institutions. This physical act was a metaphoric gesture signifying the distrust some Republicans had in democracy and the will of the people. This sentiment played out in the House and Senate chambers just mere hours after the insurrection had been quelled. 147 Republicans, 8 in the Senate and 139 in the House of Representatives, continued to contest the November 2020 election. Many in the House spewed conspiracy theories and blatant lies while claiming to defend the values set forth in the Constitution. A few others claimed that Antifa had instigated the attempted coup, deflecting falsely, probably because they understood that their actions were anti-democratic and possibly criminal.

What these “leaders” have done is obfuscated truth and undermined the political institutions that have been foundational to America’s history. They have broken trust in the voting system, in electoralism, and in democracy at large. When Donald Trump told these individuals that Democrats had “rigged [the election] like they’ve never rigged an election before” or that “Democrats have gotten away with election fraud,” there really was going to be only one outcome. They would destroy these systems with their hands if they could.

In the realm of CVE, it is clear that many extremists emerge out of an existential fear, that the world systems around them are collapsing and action must be taken. When individuals believe themselves to have limited options in instigating political change, some may resort to radical action. When political institutions and long-upheld systems are tarnished and dismantled, then it was only a matter of time before radicals emerged. And, instead of doing anything to prevent this backslide, to halt the spread of dangerous ideas, many Republican leaders chose to embrace and accelerate them. Worst of all, these actions have occurred openly and in plain view. 

Senator Schumer’s words given on January 6 around 8 PM ET ring clear. Ideas matter. Ideas are powerful. Ideas built on lies and with the purpose of undermining legitimate systems will only result in severe consequences. Even as we move forward to a new presidency, with Democratic control in both the House and Senate, it is important to keep this in mind. Thousands of individuals will continue to be influenced by the blatant falsehoods of the Trump era. Conspiracies and accelerationist prophecies will continue to flow. This means that the horrors we recently witnessed will not go away so easily. No, the lies brought forth by Republican leadership cannot be forgiven or forgotten. 

Radicalism and extremism are problems we must contend with. We must understand the power of ideas and how they influence individual actors. Instead of promoting alarmist fallacies, the next administration must focus on restoring public faith in each branch of government. To avoid the tragedy of January 6 and to move onward as a nation, we must consciously strive for a future where truth prevails and where trust in public institutions is restored.