Predicting Right Wing Terrorism: What to Expect in the Aftermath of Charlottesville

By Paul D. Brister

The views expressed in this paper are the author’s alone. They do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the United States Government.

Dr. Brister is an active duty Air Force officer currently working in the Pentagon. He has served in the Special Operations community for 19 years and deployed to multiple locations in support of named operations. He graduated from the United States Air Force Academy and earned his Masters and PhD from the Naval Postgraduate School.

In the wake of the recent Charlottesville tragedy and continued friction points associated with the removal of Confederate statues, the American dialogue has once again focused on the potential terrorist risk posed by the American radical right. By some accounts, the threat of violence by white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, and militia members is poised to shake the foundations of American democracy. By other accounts, the danger posed by the contemporary radical right is an overblown response stoked by a well-coordinated, “leftist fake news” program. As is the case with most polarized conversations, the truth lies somewhere between these two views.

The focus on the American radical right, and its potential for violence, is a recurring aspect of the American dialogue. In 2010, as President Obama came into office, some predicted a massive wave of right wing violence, pointing to: a depressed economy; the election of a left-leaning administration; and the return of veterans from an unpopular war (among other variables) as justification for their prediction. Today, equally vocal warnings predict a resurgence of the radical right based on: the election of a right-leaning administration; a rejection of globalism; and the return of a more nationalistic American identity. The sheer diversity of predictive variables leaves one scratching their head trying to determine the actual causes of right-wing extremism and the threat it poses.

This paper suggests that—using history as a predictor of the future—the radical right will continue to engage in sporadic acts of terrorism, but—owing largely to internal fissures of the extreme right combined with effective law enforcement and the presence of watchdog groups—this terrorism will remain largely uncoordinated and unsustainable. Drawing upon case studies from various periods of Ku Klux Klan violence, variables such as internal organization, a unifying ideology and narrative, and strong leadership emerge as more effective predictors of sustained right wing terrorism. The contemporary radical right—lethal in its own right—lacks in each.

Readers will undoubtedly ask “why study the Ku Klux Klan?” The Ku Klux Klan was chosen for a number of reasons. Among the most important is the Klan’s tremendous lifespan. For over one hundred and fifty years, American society has experienced both peaks and lulls in Klan terrorist activity. This allows for the longitudinal study of the group. Additionally, throughout this time, the Klan has altered its organizational design, shifted recruitment techniques, and operated during times when it attracted both social sympathy and outright hostility. The Klan has tried to be all things to all people and—with varying degrees of success—has offered violent remedies to cure what it saw as the perceived ills of society. In short, this generational lifespan provides for the chance to test multiple theories about terrorism by examining a single organization. Given the relatively short life span of other terrorist organizations, this is a rare opportunity.

Most importantly, a focus on the Ku Klux Klan is relevant for policy reasons. The type of terrorism represented by the Klan has been responsible for some of the deadliest violence in U.S. history. Today, this form of terrorism remains a topic of great concern for counter terrorism policy analysts and policymakers. Armed with a better understanding of this violence, the United States will be better equipped to craft strategies that effectively counter it.

America’s History of Racial and Ethnic Violence

Right wing extremism—and the terrorism that frequently accompanies it—is nothing new to the American political landscape.1 Right wing violence is as old as the country itself and is virtually guaranteed to remain a factor for the duration of American existence. From as early as 1780, militant organizations were created to protect America from the supposed evil machinations of the Bavarian Illuminati and other related secret enterprises bent on world domination.2 Concerns about American men becoming “disciples of Voltaire” and American women the “concubines of the Illuminati” spread throughout the fledgling country with alarming speed and strength.3

In response, so-called “pure American societies” were organized to root out the spread of immorality by these enlightened European sinners and return America to what was deemed its proper, morally superior position in the world. Organizations such as the Anti-Masons, Know-Nothings, and Native Americans would promote themselves as patriotic defenders of American values as prescribed primarily by the Protestant church. These groups directed a full-scale war against the conspiratorial undertakings of the Catholics, Masons, Illuminati, immigrants, and anyone deemed un-American. Even prior to the Civil War, “murderous battles were marked by barricades of carts and hurled paving stones, assaults with knives, brickbats, bludgeons, teeth, and fists.”4Books and publications “proving” such tales became best-sellers throughout the United States.5 Although right wing groups were numerous during the early 1800s, none were able to sustain their existence for any considerable amount of time. This would change in the aftermath of the Civil War with the birth of an organization that would become the epitome of domestic right wing terrorism for over a century thereafter.

Whereas antebellum America produced several flash-in-the-pan extremist organizations, the post-Civil War era gave rise to an organization capable of weathering over one hundred and forty years of societal changes. In 1866, six young Confederate veterans “hungering and thirsting for amusement” created what would become one of the most formidable politico-terrorist organizations in American history.6 Adhering to traditional Greek methods of naming social clubs—in particular the fraternity Kuklos Adelphon or “old Kappa Alpha”—the group of men dubbed their organization the Ku Klux Klan, and reveled in “its novelty, its alliterative content, and its uncertain meaning.”7 The Ku Klux Klan, originally designed to be nothing more than a quirky social club aimed at overcoming the unyielding boredom of small-town life, would quickly and unexpectedly transform itself into an organization capable of systematically weaving together acts of terrorism into sustainable campaigns. Responding to societal issues of the day—be they perceived assaults on Southern institutions or transgressions against the sanctity of white womanhood, serving to defend Americanism or acting as a bulwark against school segregation—and offering cleverly crafted ideas about how to rally supporters, the Klan would soon become a right wing terrorist organization par excellence, capable of spurring some Americans to violence for over a century.

Since 1866, the Ku Klux Klan has been able to muster three distinctive and sustained campaigns of terrorism, commonly referred to as the three “waves” of Klan violence. The first occurred between 1866 and 1871, the second between 1915 and 1928, and the third from roughly 1954 to the mid 1960s. Klan activity continued in one form or another in the years between these waves, but did not achieve a similar ongoing pattern of organized and sustained violence. Subsequent to the third wave, the Klan unsuccessfully attempted another resurgence in the mid 1970s/early 1980s but was snuffed out before a campaign could be triggered. By studying the three most successful Klan campaigns of the past (granting that each varied in scope, intensity and outcome) alongside the failed campaign attempt of the 1970–1980s, we are able to investigate which commonly cited factors and conditions were, in fact, associated with the rise of the KKK’s campaigns of terrorism.

Fueling Campaigns of Terrorism

This paper does not purport to explain individual or isolated incidents of white nationalist terrorism; a certain level of racist violence has unfortunately been an almost constant feature of American society. Instead, it seeks to explain campaigns of terrorism. This is more than a nuanced distinction. Terrorism will never be completely eradicated.8 Terrorism is a tactic that has been used since ancient times and will continue to be used for the duration of human existence. Although it will never be fully eliminated, it may be possible to prevent organizations from stringing together acts of terrorism into a sustained campaign, the concern of this paper. Preventing campaigns is important as a way to reduce the total amount of violence and keep terrorist organizations from achieving their objectives.

A terrorist campaign is defined as a series of systematic terrorist attacks aimed at accomplishing a specific objective within a given time and space. The objectives of the Klan have changed dramatically over time: the overthrow of Republican government during the 1860s; maintenance of a nebulous “100% American” concept during the 1920s; and opposition to desegregation efforts during the 1960s. In order to send its message, the Klan targeted specific groups of people in hopes of achieving these goals: supporters of the Republican Party in the 1860s; bootleggers, Catholics, and perceived communists during the 1920s; and those who promoted Civil Rights during the 1960s. In one study—the 1860s—ways and means were aligned effectively, resulting in the eventual attainment of Klan strategic ends. For the vast majority of its life, however, the Klan has been unable to achieve its goals through the use of terrorism. For over 80% of its life, the Klan has generated only small amounts of localized violence, but at other times, it has expanded the scope and scale of its terrorism.

At times the Klan has taken advantage of societal unrest to generate sustained terrorist campaigns. This has given the Klan the opportunity to take the normally localized violence and translate it into a program which generates national effects. It is here—where the Klan has been able to generate systematic terrorist activity on a regional or national scale, and for extended periods of time—that this paper focuses.

The study of Klan violence suggests that four factors: the presence of a safe haven; organizational structure; leadership; and recruitment techniques are necessary and jointly sufficient to explain Klan campaign emergence. The first significant set of correlates is the presence or absence of safe havens and their relation to the organizational structure chosen by Klan leadership. The second set of correlates is the ability of the Klan to downplay its core ideology and effectively frame a recruitment message which resonates with a pre-existing dominant social narrative.

The study of Klan campaigns finds that the presence of legal, societal, and/or judicial safe havens was a necessary condition for the emergence of a Klan terrorist campaign. In the case of the Klan this meant the ability to carry out specific acts of terrorism when law enforcement, politicians, media outlets, and society either turned a blind eye or actively assisted. When and where the Klan was provided such freedom of operational maneuver, a centralized organizational design proved far more effective in generating and sustaining terrorist campaigns.

Tailoring an organization’s structure to the presence of safe havens is critically important, but is only one piece of the puzzle. A terrorist organization is destined to die without an effective method to sustain members and grow in size. This points to a group’s ability to recruit. Akin to the “fit” between an organizational structure and the environment, a recruitment pitch must possess a similar fit with the current beliefs at large in society. A concept that social movement scholars dub framing, defines this interplay as “an interpretive schemata that simplifies and condenses the ‘world out there’ by selectively punctuating and encoding objects, situations, events, experiences, and sequences of actions within one’s present or past environment.”9 Following the crafting of a proper frame, important aspects for terrorist messaging are specifying diagnostic, prognostic, and motivational tasks. Diagnostic tasks pertain to the assigning of blame for whatever grievance the organization has decided to adjust its frame to. For the Klan, African Americans have always served the lead role, although various other groups have has their turn as Klan targets. Prognostic tasks define for an organization the remedies required to eliminate either the people or structures that have been assigned blame. Finally, motivational tasks are those which keep individual members together in a cohesive unit and compel them to violence.10

The two relationships described above—the “fit” between organizational structure and environment, and the proper framing of messages—do not happen by accident. They are both the product of leadership decisions. Klan leaders that chose the correct organization and followed with an effective message with broad appeal proved most capable of launching a campaign of sustainable terrorism.

The first decision point involves a leader’s ability to recognize the dynamics of the environment and organize his group accordingly. Should a leader choose to organize hierarchically in an environment lacking a safe haven, his organization is likely to be destroyed since law enforcement units will be able to penetrate and systematically eliminate sub-leaders at every level. This is exactly what occurred to Robert Shelton during the FBI’s COINTELPRO initiatives during the 1960s. By maintaining a hierarchical structure in the face of overwhelming opposition, Shelton made the FBI task of decapitation an easy one. One by one, Klan leaders were arrested and prosecuted, and the leaderless Klan spun into disarray.

Where a terrorist organization has a safe haven, the decision to organize hierarchically can dramatically improve its chances of sustaining a terrorism campaign. During both the 1860s and 1920s, Imperial Wizards were able to standardize public messages, develop secure internal communications, manage Klan financial operations, and (sometimes) keep their followers’ violence in check. Their centralized organizational structures also allowed Klan leaders to have a hand in crafting recruitment messages and developing a “public face” behind which to hide the more nefarious aspects of Klan operations.

This brings us to the second leadership decision point. When provided a safe haven, Klan leaders had the opportunity to launch a campaign of terrorism, but the probability of its coming to fruition depended on how well Klan leaders framed societal issues (and how effectively the Klan was portrayed as an acceptable remedy to those issues). Successful Klan leaders were able to hide some of the less appealing aspects of Klan ideology, focusing instead on the chivalrous, patriotic, defensive, or honorable aspects of the organization—false as that may have been. Nathan Bedford Forrest, for instance, promoted his 1860s Klan as a defensive unit designed to protect a virtuous Southern society. In the 1920s, Simmons and Evans painted the Klan as a morally upstanding group, tasked with defending the United States from drunkenness, sexual immorality, Communism, Catholicism, Judaism, and bound to uphold the Constitution as it was written by the forefathers. In the 50s and 60s, Robert Shelton was less successful in portraying continued segregation as a form of anti-communism (although defense of white womanhood sold fairly well).

Concluding Thoughts

Klan terrorist campaigns of the past resulted from three factors: an unforeseen event which served as a mobilizing “spark” to the violence; the presence of safe havens and the corresponding adoption of a hierarchical organization; and proper message framing and distribution of a socially palatable message. The “spark” is beyond the control of the terrorist organization, but the final two factors and their interactions are products of a leader’s decisions. The role of leadership is to recognize when and where safe havens are available and structure the organization accordingly. Successful Klan leaders understood the dominant social narratives of their time and framed a socially acceptable message which weaved Klan ideology into that narrative.

Today, thanks to watchdog groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League, right wing terrorist organizations are hard pressed to find either physical or virtual safe haven. Relentless pressure from these watchdog groups and local law enforcement agencies have prevented right wing organizations from adopting an effective organizational construct. Additionally, these groups have largely failed to craft a narrative that resonates with either modern society or amongst themselves. Right wing extremists remain divided among ideological lines and—when they are able to craft a narrative that unites them—it is typically fleeting and evanescent in effect. Although this appears to a good news story, it is necessary for us all to continue discussing the potential violence from the radical right (and, to ensure balance, the radical left as well) and maintain relentless societal pressure to prevent these groups from ever sustaining violent campaigns of terror again.

* This paper was accomplished by the author in his personal capacity, utilizing previous work from his 2011 dissertation. The views expressed in this paper are the author’s alone. They do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the United States Government.

[1] For narratives on the history of right wing movements see: Ray Allen Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860; a Study of the Origins of American Nativism (New York,: Rinehart, 1952); David Harry Bennett, The Party of Fear : From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History, 1st Vintage Books ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1990); Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, The Politics of Unreason : Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1977, 2d ed., A Phoenix Book P75 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays, 1st Harvard University Press pbk. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); John H. Bunzel, Anti-Politics in America; Reflections on the Anti-Political Temper and Its Distortions of the Democratic Process, 1st ed. (New York,: Knopf, 1967); Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein, Danger on the Right (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976); Carleton Beals, Brass-Knuckle Crusade; the Great Know-Nothing Conspiracy, 1820-1860 (New York,: Hastings House, 1960).

[2] Even today, the Bavarian Illuminati remains central to many of the right wing extremist conspiracy theories. The Illuminati was an organization developed in the late 1700s that advocated reason over religion in solving societal problems. Many right wing conspiracy theorists credit the Illuminati as the driving force behind the French Revolution, while others insist that the Illuminati, in conjunction with Jewish power holders, are now manipulating world politics through an entity they refer to as the ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government). It is not uncommon for the Illuminati, the Freemasons, immigrants, and Jews to be used interchangeably in right wing extremist discussions concerning the world’s ills.

[3] Lipset and Raab, The Politics of Unreason : Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1977, 36.

[4] Bennett, The Party of Fear : From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History, 38.

[5] For instance, see: Maria Monk et al., Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk : As Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings During a Residence of Five Years as a Novice, and Two Years as a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery at Montreal (New York: Howe & Bates, 1836).

[6] Allen W. Trelease, White Terror; the Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction, 1st ed. (New York,: Harper & Row, 1971), 3.

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] Terrorism is defined here as the systematic use or threatened use of violence, directed against targets chosen for their symbolic or representative value, as a means of instilling anxiety in, transmitting one or more messages to, or altering the behavior of a wider target audience.

[9] David A. Snow and Robert D. Benford, “Master Frames and Cycles of Protest,” in Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, ed. Aldon Morris and Carol McClurg Mueller (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 137. See also: Myra Marx Ferree and Frederick D. Miller, “Mobilization and Meaning: Toward an Integration of Social Psychological and Resource Perspectives on Social Movements,” Sociological Inquiry 55, no. 1 (January 1985); Bert Klandermans, “Mobilization and Participation: Social-Psychological Expansisons of Resource Mobilization Theory,” American Sociological Review 49, no. 5 (October 1984); Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow, “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment,” Annual Review of Sociology 26(2000). R.H. Williams and T.J. Kubal, “Movement Frames and the Cultural Environment: Resonance, Failure, and the Boundaries of the Legitimate,” Research in Social Movements, Conflict, and Change 21(1999).

[10] David A. Snow Scott A. Hunt, and Robert D. Benford, “Identity Fields: Framing Processes and the Social Construction of Movement Identities,” in New Social Movements, ed. Hank Johnston Enrique Larana, and Joseph Gusfield (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).