The scourge of right-wing terrorism
The next president will need to be ready
America has experienced a slew of terrorist attacks over the last year from secret ISIS cells across the country. One man drove his car through a crowd of demonstrators, killing one of them, another murdered a gay Jewish man, and another stabbed two people to death on a train. Overall at least 20 people were killed in this way in 2017 — more than twice as many as the previous year.
Just kidding! I was actually referring to right-wing extremists who have done all those things. Everyone can return to their normal daily business.
In seriousness, it's becoming increasingly apparent that the United States has a sizable right-wing terrorism problem, and authorities are not doing nearly enough to combat the problem. It's something the next presidential administration will have to be prepared for.
Now, that is not to endorse the psychotically belligerent response law enforcement typically uses against suspected Islamist terrorists. There is no need to stack every conservative evangelical church with informants trying to incite gullible or mentally ill parishioners into committing acts of terror, or to assassinate extremist right-wing propagandists (and occasionally their children) with drone strikes, or to throw Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer in Guantanamo Bay without trial indefinitely.
Furthermore, the universe of violence in this country is many orders of magnitude greater than that of terrorism. Murders, assaults, suicides, and car crashes happen in the tens of thousands every year, not dozens. Those problems deserve a priority arguably well above terrorism.
Nevertheless, there is something especially upsetting about politically-motivated spectacular violence, and there's nothing wrong with dedicating special attention to stopping it, so long as we do not shred the entire Bill of Rights in the process. For one thing, law enforcement resources can absolutely be dedicated to tracking guns (which would require federal legislation), materials to build explosives, and other such items. Investigative police work to penetrate extremist groups — see this ProPublica report on a neo-Nazi terrorist cell — can disrupt terror before it happens, while successful investigations and prosecutions can raise some deterrent. (Some terrorists are fanatical enough to commit suicide in the process, of course, but others are closer to play-acting and might be scared off.)
Perhaps most importantly, authorities can attempt to de-radicalize people. Violent confrontation can easily backfire and fuel even more extremism, as seen in Waco and Ruby Ridge. But platform monopolists like Facebook and YouTube could be regulated to stop the way their algorithms spread extremist propaganda without firing a shot. Or more directly, groups can work with individuals to talk them back from the edge, as the group Life Against Hate does.
Of course, there is basically zero reason to think the Trump administration will do this. Indeed, after the 2016 election, Life After Hate received a 20-fold increase in requests from people worried their friends or family members might be becoming extremists — but in mid-2017, the Department of Homeland Security canceled a planned $400,000 grant to the group without explanation. The latest policy from Attorney General Jeff Sessions is pursuing the death penalty for drug dealers.
One likely reason for this is because President Trump has been notably reluctant to condemn right-wing extremists. He infamously defended the white supremacists who organized the Charlottesville rally in which a neo-Nazi murdered Heather Heyer, saying there were "fine people" among them and blaming the violence on "both sides," including a supposed "alt-left."
However, that isn't the first time such a reversal has happened. Back in early 2009, conservatives flipped out over a completely sensible DHS report on right-wing extremism, which was actually planned and written by Bush-era personnel. Nevertheless, then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano was forced to walk back much of the report, particularly apologizing to veterans, who had been identified as possible recruits for extremist groups. (Can't imagine where they got that idea.)
Whoever replaces Trump will need a stiffer resolve than that. Despite a certain backlash from conservatives, motivated by whatever combination of fevered anti-government paranoia and active sympathy with extremism they happen to have, the next president will need to persevere and deflate the threat of right-wing terror. That doesn't mean a paroxysm of repression, but it does mean careful and deliberate action to keep religious and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and other vulnerable communities safe from violent extremism.