When people think of violent extremists, they tend to think groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, or other international terrorist organizations. But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under Donald Trump actually said that white supremacist extremists are “the most persistent and lethal threat” in America.
In fact, those groups perpetrated two-thirds of the attacks and violent plots in the US in 2019.
Simon Clark, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, has helped develop a plan to beat these groups. He says that we can defeat them, but it will take an all-hands on deck effort from the federal government.
Listen to the full conversation here:
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Matt Robison: What do we mean by white supremacist violence?
Simon Clark: We include white supremacist groups and anti-government groups that have committed or plan to commit acts of violence. Some of those acts of violence also fall into the legal definition of terrorism. The important thing to remember is that all of this is politically motivated. It may look like just sluggishness, nastiness and racism. And it is all of that. But there is a reason behind it and that’s what makes it so dangerous.
Matt Robison: What are these people trying to achieve?
Simon Clark: Their basic idea is that white people used to rule this country, should rule this country, are losing the country, and need to do whatever it takes to win it back. They therefore think they have the duty and the opening to take extreme measures.
Matt Robison: How big and pervasive is the threat?
Simon Clark: The problem is, we don’t know. And one of the recommendations we make in the plan is to get much better information.
Matt Robison: How concerned are you about people you want to engage with in the Republican party dismissing this whole topic as simply another case of partisan politics or liberal, woke overreach?
Simon Clark: Trying to be bi-partisan doesn’t mean being blind. When we see people using or exploiting violence for political purposes, we call it out. And that is going to turn some people off. But there are plenty of serious Republicans who care about this country and want to be engaged in dealing with the threats to it.
Matt Robison: You have five broad categories of actions that you outlined in the blueprint. The first one is to better leverage executive branch actions and authorities. So tell us what that’s all about.
Simon Clark: To start with, rhetoric is really important. To go from a President who at best was somewhat indulgent of white supremacist ideas to one who calls out white supremacist violence in his inaugural as a threat to the Republic is a huge change and it matters.
Then, there’s a ton of work that the federal government needs to do. The starting point is that we cannot tolerate active white supremacists inside the federal government itself. There’s a lot that other agencies can learn from the seriousness with which the Department of Defense has taken this issue.
And we need to focus the money and the people on the right issues. The FBI says that white supremacist violence is the most serious threat that we face. So then we cannot have a situation in which there’s a 16 to 1 ratio in one state of agents looking at foreign terrorist groups versus fighting domestic terrorists. That’s something we found that exists today and it needs to stop.
Matt Robison: Another category in your blueprint is to employ financial and technological tools and authorities.
Simon Clark: That’s probably the number one lesson in the last 20 years in the fight against Al-Qaeda. Fighting terrorists using financial tools to understand money flows has been one of the great American success stories. The US did a lot wrong after 9/11. But one thing we did right was to cut off the funding. Nowadays, we also have to ensure that online platforms do not become homes for spreading violent extremist content at the most basic level.
Matt Robison: What would you say is everyone’s stake in this? Why does this issue matter to everyone in America?
Simon Clark: We have had a system under our Constitution where Americans choose their leaders and choose their governance. White supremacist, violent extremists want to change that system so that they – not We the People – decide who rules his country. We can’t allow that to happen.
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Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.