Newton’s Third Law of Motion Applied: The Populist Rise of the Alt-Right and White Nationalism

Recent study finds that alt-right Nazi-sympathizing and white nationalist movements outperform ISIS on social media growth and recruitment in America, causing greater divisions and perhaps a new wave of an often-ignored homegrown extremism.

“Extremism” is a buzzword that has become so pervasive in Western political and social rhetoric, you would think it should be a prime focus for government resources, and grass-roots organization. In the post-9/11 world, and in the midst of threats from groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, we hear “extremism” used frequently in tandem with implications of Islamism. The US Department of State and Canadian government have at times used “violent extremism” interchangeably with “terrorism,” a term used perhaps much too frequently in other parts of the world, where lines of distinction between rebel movements and terrorism become blurred. Lacking clear legal definitions that can broadly encompass relativity, while honing in on critical intricacies, remains a challenge to uniform implementation and enforcement surrounding politically motivated violence and violent rhetoric. However, it is a mistake to court familiarity and lose focus on the many dangers of extremism, in all of its manifestations.

Though Isaac Newton spoke of understanding the physical world, his principles fundamentally apply to interactions. Newton’s third law of motion formally states that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Where this relates in the political realm applies to the growth of radicalism within historically dangerous factions of America, which will in-turn, drive growth in radicalization of other kinds. The 2016 election highlighted a large space in the current American state which is focused on fear. This fear of attacks and threats to American ways of life, perhaps from terrorism, or maybe shifting demographics and a new or diverse America that has a different skin tone than it did fifty years ago, have helped drive a political shift in other demographics: to the right. This is a change that is currently sweeping across several European administrations, won out in the recent US election, and is predicted to continue as a trend in the European elections to come. In Europe, the marked rise in Islamic oriented extremist groups has been alarming, as a series of attacks in 2015 and 2016 proved devastating to several EU member states. Growing concerns over changing demographics within Europe, and the complexities of the migrant crisis, have left many concerned over the impact radicalization and extremist views will have.

Extremism has been a large focus of discussion and research in recent years, with many government officials and policy-makers citing this increasing trend as a concern. Religious and ethnically non-European communities are growing more isolated and becoming at greater risk to radicalization. A Newtonian explanation of the force of the political right will help us understand the situation that is poised to create greater divisions among the groups most at-risk. The 2016 Presidential election has achieved greater divisions through extremist, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric than arguably could have been anticipated. Following the election, the marked rise in hate-crimes and racist and anti-Semitic altercations across America are a testament to the pervasiveness of alt-right language that drove the election and brought home an Electoral win for Mr. Trump. The average American needs to understand that this is a growing extremist movement that falls alternatively farther than the customary ‘right’ on the political spectrum; the “alt-right” of America.

J.M. Berger, a Fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, conducted a study where he analyzed 18 Twitter accounts belonging to major white nationalist groups, including Neo Nazi organizations. In it, he found that the growth of self-identifying white nationalists or Nazi sympathizers in general has out-performed radicalization and recruitment of Islamic State (ISIS) on Twitter. His paper states that “On Twitter, ISIS’s preferred social platform, American white nationalist movements have seen their followers grow by more than 600% since 2012. Today, they outperform ISIS in nearly every social metric, from follower counts to tweets per day.”

In the study that compared Twitter use of white nationalists, Nazi sympathizers, and ISIS supporters evaluating how each group used the platform, it was found that major white nationalist groups added 22,000 followers since 2012, which is an increase of about 600%. The study found the most popular theme was “white genocide” or that the white race is in danger by the increased diversity of the general population with Nazi sympathizers being the most prevalent white nationalist group on Twitter, of the various factions out there. The study states that “White nationalists and Nazis had substantially higher follower counts than ISIS supporters, and tweeted more often. ISIS supporters had better discipline regarding consistent use of the movement’s hashtags, but trailed in virtually every other respect. The clear advantage enjoyed by white nationalists was attributable in part to the effects of aggressive suspensions of accounts associated with ISIS networks.” 

Though not dismissing the long-noted existence of Nazi-oriented and white supremacist organizations and their ubiquity in American culture, the most concerning aspect at the moment to this writer is the overwhelming support these groups demonstrated for Mr. Trump, the candidate who received the open endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. The study found that “Followers of white nationalists on Twitter were heavily invested in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. White nationalist users referenced Trump more than almost any other topic, and Trump-related hashtags outperformed every white nationalist hashtag except for #whitegenocide within the sets of users examined.”

Racism and anti-Semitism have been sustained problems within America and are not new topics of discussion. Islamophobia and anti-GLBTQ sentiments remain a common problem as well. Studies into radicalization have taught us that extreme views of hatred towards an “other” often come from ostracism and marginalization within a society where one has sought opportunity and acceptance and been met with perceived and often times actual unfair rejection. This rejection comes in all its forms, whether as a majority or a minority stance, in fear of the different and unknown. Political platforms that catered to the white middle class of America along a narrative of forgotten and diminished greatness within their own nation, whom Trump called the “forgotten men and women of our country,” coupled with anti-immigration stances and a Reagan-esque message of sole-saviorism carried the Trump campaign to victory on the Electoral College level. As Reagan took on the Communists, so would Trump take on Islamic radicalism with a vow “only I can fix it.”

America has long focused on an enemy who charges Western hedonism and imperialistic savagery, while preaching Salafist or Wahhabist return to an Islamic state. In the midst of America’s “war on terror” with the far-enemy, groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, the average American did not recognize the dormant extremist factions growing below the radar in our towns and cities across the country. Changing demographics, and generations of American’s who cannot achieve the financial stability of their parents, have mongered fear and boosted appeal of controversial organizations to some, which posit explanations of blame and champion exclusivity. As globalization, liberalized trade relations, and outsourcing have taken away an Americana-way of life that is no longer pragmatic, so have some looked for points of pride to focus on as they are left behind the curve. As white nationalism is growing as a movement and organizing politically to elect perhaps the most controversial President which history will judge, so too will be see an equal and opposite reaction in growing and opposing extremism elsewhere. Extreme views lead to hard lines of division. When this division persists in a volatile state, opposite forces will yield alternatively forceful repercussions with unknowable long term implications. As radical Islam has risen out of anti-colonialism and a push-back against a globalizing and liberalizing world, so too has white nationalist extremism sought scapegoats and yearned for a time perceived as “pure” with white-dominated prosperity. Whether Salafist or white Imperialist and Colonialist, extremism remains a threat to America’s democratic values. Though steps have been taken to combat ISIS on social media, now law enforcement must continue to walk the fine line between freedom of speech and protection of citizens as white nationalism and alt-right numbers grow.

This political shift to the right is not simply a tipping of two political party scales that transfer weight every few years raising one side to political prominence until the circumstances tip the scales in an opposite direction. The 2016 US election has served to highlight deeper and uglier divisions that have long been removed from the forefront of American political consciousness, but are emergent again with a new and extreme vengeance. It is a mistake to become expectant that you know your enemy across the field when an equal and in some ways greater threat to American and universal freedoms stands in your ranks and at your back.