The Big Question: Can the U.S. Defuse Violent Right-Wing Extremism?

This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve today’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been condensed and edited.

Romesh Ratnesar: The Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol was an alarming assault on American democracy. You served in the Obama administration and are now the head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which is at the forefront of monitoring and fighting hate groups and violent extremism. Did what happened on Wednesday come as a surprise to you?

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO, Anti-Defamation League: What I would say is that it was shocking, but not surprising. The attack on the Capitol was in many ways a bookend of what you saw play out in the summer of 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia — from Charlottesville to Capitol Hill. In Charlottesville, you had hardcore white supremacists who converged on that college town and marched out in the open, unapologetic and unafraid. And then you had a president who said in the aftermath, “There were fine people on both sides.” At ADL, we are the oldest anti-hate group in the world. We have been tracking extremists and fighting this battle for generations. We monitor these actors, not just on the public web, but you know, in their private messaging spaces. And when I say they feel emboldened, I’m saying that because that’s what they were saying. They were saying, verbatim, “We feel emboldened.”

In the intervening years, you had white-supremacist media being credentialed by the White House. You had extremists showing up in meetings in the Oval Office. You had interns flashing the white supremacist “OK” sign in photos. You had the president adopting not just their rhetoric but their ideas and enshrining them in policy. You had moments like last fall, when asked to condemn white supremacists, he told the Proud Boys to stand back and stand by. For years, the president has been undermining so many of our institutions — Congress, the Democratic Party, members of his own party who disagree with him, the judiciary, the civil service, a free press. He has been taking a sledgehammer to the very foundations of our system. And then, of course, for the last six months, he has been relentlessly going after our electoral process, which is the invisible firmament that holds those institutions together. 

And so, after years of this behavior, what we saw on Jan. 6 was the culmination. But whereas in Charlottesville, you had hardcore white supremacists, you had something profoundly different on Wednesday. When they stormed the Capitol, you had the extremists in front, but then you had hundreds of ordinary Americans behind them. If Charlottesville was the introduction of extremism in the political conversation, Wednesday was the normalization of extremism. That is a frightening development. I would describe it as nothing less than maybe the darkest day our democracy has ever seen.

RR: How would you characterize the attack? Was this a mob riot, or something more coordinated or organized?  

The Big Question: Can the U.S. Defuse Violent Right-Wing Extremism?

JG: There is no doubt this was a watershed moment for the white supremacist movement in the United States. This was an achievement that even escaped the Confederacy — they never penetrated the Capitol. Wednesday’s attack involved a melange of right-wing extremists. There were white supremacists. There were anti-government types. There were armed militia members. There were Boogaloo enthusiasts. There were accelerationists. This was a who’s who of right-wing extremism. The act of breaching the Capitol — not the protests on the lawn, where there were thousands of ordinary Americans who were swept up in the President's unending and relentless rhetoric — but those who actually stormed the Capitol, these were not protesters, they were militants. This was not spontaneous; it was planned. I think we’ve got to be intentional with our language. We can’t let them off the hook, as if this somehow just happened. This was very deliberate. It was domestic terrorism, and it needs to be treated as such by law enforcement authorities.

RR: Leading up to this there was a great deal of evidence on social media about these groups’ plans. ADL and other organizations have tracked them. If these threats were coming from, say, a jihadist group, you would have expected a huge security presence and much more aggressive efforts by our intelligence and law-enforcement bodies to disrupt the plot. Why wasn’t that done?

JG: I think we’ll need a thorough investigation. I think it’s fair to ask these questions. Why weren’t they better prepared? At the ADL, we work with law enforcement actively. We’re the largest trainer of law enforcement on extremism and hate in the United States. We had been reaching out to law enforcement ahead of this, because we knew this was going to be serious. So I think we’ve got to ask, why weren’t they better prepared? And I think we can also ask, why did they respond in a way that’s so profoundly different than what they’ve done with peaceful protests at the Capitol, from Black Lives Matter protests to immigration? I don’t understand that. 

It’s fair to say the FBI knows what a threat white supremacists are. U.S. attorneys know the threat of right-wing extremism. So do state and local police. If you look at the data on hate-related murders over the last decade, 76% have been committed by right-wing extremists. You can go back to the explosion in 1995 of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City to today, this trend hasn’t changed. Absent the attack on 9/11, the human toll wrought by right-wing extremists blows away any other kind of terror that’s happened in the homeland. And I don’t think this ends on January 20. This wasn’t the beginning of the end so much as the end of the beginning. If these extremists felt emboldened after Charlottesville, you better believe they are exulting after what happened on Wednesday. So it’s going to take not just a whole of government effort, but a whole of society effort if we want to turn this around.

RR: So one thing that’s changed since 1995 is the rise of social media and the extent to which these movements can propagate online. What further steps should technology companies be taking to remove this content from their platforms?

JG: First things first, I think we need to reckon with the fact that the person most responsible for this situation is President Donald J. Trump. The blame is firmly and squarely at his feet. But yes, I think we have to look at and be clear-eyed about the role that social media companies play. I worked in Silicon Valley before I went into government service. ADL opened up a presence in Silicon Valley, the Center for Technology and Society, in 2017, because I felt that Facebook was really the frontline in fighting extremism. I used to build software products and I know from managing teams of engineers that we need to engage these companies, because the pace of innovation is so great. I don’t think we can rely on policymakers to keep pace with quantum computing and all of the extraordinary developments happening around innovative technologies, like AI and machine learning and natural-language processing. You can forget it if you think that folks in Washington who are still on their Hotmail accounts will figure this out on their own. We need the companies to be engaged with us.

After the George Floyd murder last summer, when Facebook failed to move as quickly as seemed clearly appropriate to combat white supremacist content, we launched a Stop Hate for Profit campaign. It was the first time in 15 years that Facebook responded to pressure and started to institute reforms. They started taking white supremacy much more seriously. They created a civil-rights executive position on their leadership team. They expressed a willingness to participate in an audit of their hate content. They started classifying Holocaust denialism as hate speech that they would take off. 

In the wake of the attack on the Capitol, we demanded that Twitter and Facebook and all the major services ban Trump from their platforms. Freedom of expression is not the freedom to incite violence. That is not protected speech. I was an executive at Starbucks. If someone stands in the middle of a Starbucks and starts screaming obscenities at the staff, you don’t say freedom of speech — you throw him out. As businesses, whether you’re in media, or hospitality, or retail, you make those kinds of choices every day. I think these mainstream services that are a huge part of our information economy need to make choices. Companies like Facebook and Twitter are surely accountable to their shareholders today, but they’re really and truly accountable to history. And they need to get on the right side of this issue, once and for all.

RR: As the head of the ADL, you have conversations all the time with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. You also have a background as an entrepreneur and an impact investor. Beyond the tech industry, what role can corporate America play in depriving these extremist networks of the oxygen they need to thrive?

JG: I think there are a few things. Brands and businesses have the ability to vote with their purse strings. They have the opportunity to participate in our society with how they hire and how they contribute to the communities in which they operate and what they do with their profits. I’m proud to have worked for Starbucks, which has been really foot-forward on this since Howard Shultz founded the company. So what I would say is that companies can decide, do we want to patronize businesses that are out of step with basic norms, like decency and equality? That shows up in terms of advertising dollars. Facebook’s collecting $70 billion a year in advertising. Companies can make a decision: Do I want to put my dollars there? Or do I want to put them to work at a different business that might not give me as micro-targeted a demographic, but will allow me to look at my employees in the eye, allow me to look at my shareholders and my customers in the eye and say, we’re on the right side of history. 

RR: There’s also the issue of corporate political contributions. 

JG: Right. Companies have PACs, their executives can make contributions and I think they need to think really hard about whether they support individuals who would at a minimum, dismiss an assault on our democracy, let alone participate in that process. They don’t have to answer to me. I think they have to answer to their employees, they have to answer to their customers and ultimately they have to answer to their children. I don’t think that’s really such a hard call. One of the most important things that happened in the last 48 hours was the National Association of Manufacturers stepped up and condemned Trump and those who enabled him. The NAM is not exactly an outpost of the Democratic Party, right? This was an important symbolic move. This is not about politics and social media. This is about principles. This is about the purpose of our country. There’s no right and left on this, there’s only right and wrong.

RR: What’s the bottom line? Based on your own government experience, what can the Biden administration do to mobilize a whole of society response to combat the threat of right-wing violent extremism? 

JG: President Biden should issue an Executive Order on day one creating an anti-hate capacity at the White House. He should create a White House Task Force on fighting hate and promoting national healing, a cabinet-level working group, and should appoint Vice President Harris to chair it. She understands these issues, I think, in a pretty visceral way and much of her career has been focused on it. Another thing we need to do is acknowledge  right-wing extremism, and white supremacy specifically, as a global terror threat. In terms of the agencies you need to have at the table, you need to have the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, but you also need to have the State Department and USAID. You need to have both the FBI and the CIA. There were European white supremacists marching in Charlottesville. I’m sure when the dust settles and we sift through the wreckage, we’ll find there were European white supremacists marching this week. We’re tracking these people; we know that these connections are real. 

In addition to creating this White House capacity so that the full resources of the executive branch are leveraged, you need to be engaged with Congress. You need both parties here. This can’t be seen as some kind of vendetta by the Democrats. This needs to be a bipartisan effort through and through that also can reach down to the state and local level. There’s a lot that can be done in this context — you can leverage DHS’s officer community partnerships to fight the radicalization of young people. Because the reality is there are a lot of people who are upset for good reason. The middle class has shrunk; the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown. The structural issues are real, and they need to be addressed, but at the same time, that doesn’t preclude us from fighting the threat of radicalization. So I think you’ve got to fight the white supremacists with a clenched fist and you’ve got to use an open hand to kind of heal the country.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Romesh Ratnesar writes editorials on education, economic opportunity and work for Bloomberg Opinion. He was deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek and an editor and foreign correspondent for Time. He has served in the State Department, and is author of “Tear Down This Wall.”

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