By Asha Rangappa
Last week, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted that former President Donald Trump has been entertaining the idea that he will be “reinstated” — presumably in the Oval Office — by August of this year. Trump’s speculation has led to varying responses, from ridicule to sober explanations of why this is constitutionally impossible to cynical analyses of how this will be another one of Trump’s fundraising grifts. All of these responses, of course, are true. The claim is ridiculous, not legally possible, and will undoubtedly be the basis of another GOP money-making scam. But all of this should not distract us from the fact that even floating this idea is providing shape and coherence to an emerging terrorist ideology.
What separates terrorism from just random acts of violence is that the former is motivated by a worldview that sees violence as a means to a specific economic, political, or religious end. Terrorist ideologies have a particular narrative structure designed to both encourage violence and inspire people to join the movement. The most effective terrorist ideologies have three main components: First, they offer a noble cause, in which the righteous “warriors” are allied against a decadent, immoral, or illegitimate enemy. Second, because the cause is righteous, the ideology justifies the use of violence against all those who oppose it. Finally — and this is important — the ideology promises the “return” of a utopian future, in which the victors establish their own ideal society.
Both foreign and domestic terrorist ideologies follow this narrative structure. Al Qaeda’s ideology, for example, is rooted in the writings of the Islamic philosopher Sayyid Qutb. Qutb blamed the deterioration of man’s connection to his spiritual nature on the secularism of the West, led by Jews, Christians, and complicit Muslims. These groups, in his view, were attempting to extinguish the Islamic religion itself. The preservation of Islam thus required the “vanguard,” Islam’s “true champions,” to fight against infidels — including other Muslims who had betrayed their faith — and found a new state. Victory would usher in the reestablishment of the Islamic caliphate and the spread of the righteous faith around the world. Qutb’s manifestos have all the powerful rhetorical elements al Qaeda needed to effectively recruit and mobilize followers around the world.
The same formula is found in the white supremacist ideology driving domestic terrorists. Qutb finds his American analog in the 1978 racist utopian novel, The Turner Diaries, by William Luther Pierce. As Kathleen Belew writes in her book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, Pierce’s book “worked as a foundational how-to manual” for the white power movement. Framing the advancement of civil rights for minorities as a project by the Jews to repress whites, The Turner Diaries predicts a race war in which secret cells of white nationalists fight to overthrow the U.S. government. Once victorious, the pure white race engages in genocide of Jews, lynchings of Blacks and government officials, and forced migration of other minorities in order to establish an all-white utopia. Belew observes that the novel tied together disparate threads of the white power movement over time, surfacing in acts of white supremacist violence from the indictment of 14 members of the white power group “the Order” in 1987 for seditious conspiracy to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
The Trump movement doesn’t yet have a clearly articulated manifesto, but the elements of a terrorist ideology are rapidly taking shape. I have written previously about how the Big Lie — the fiction that Trump actually won the 2020 election — seeks to clothe itself in civic virtue. It argues for “election integrity” while implicitly blaming (depending on your source) Democrats, Blacks, immigrants, “globalists,” Antifa, Communists, socialists, Hugo Chavez, China, and Italy for the casting of millions of illegal votes. This “cause,” which was used to justify the violence at the Capitol on January 6, has now essentially been endorsed by the GOP in its refusal to establish an independent bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection. Meanwhile, Trump supporters have encouraged future violence, from former National Security Advisor Gen. Michael Flynn suggesting that the U.S. needs a Myanmar-like military coup, to Tucker Carlson recently claiming on Memorial Day that the military can’t be counted on to protect the U.S. — implying that armed Americans may have to take matters into their own hands. The first two elements of the terrorist ideology, a noble cause and the justification of violence, have already gained traction.
Trump’s claim that he will be “reinstated” rounds out the narrative structure. If his followers stand up for their noble cause, and take violent action in service of it, they will see the return of their rightful ruler to the White House. The fact that this won’t actually happen is beside the point: It’s also unlikely that terrorists will be able to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate or an all-white racial paradise in the U.S., but that doesn’t stop people from fighting for either of those goals. What matters is that people believe that it is possible. In fact, the very disappointment of that desperate hope, as we saw on January 6, is what increases the likelihood of violence.
What is emerging is a domestic terrorist ideology, one that is unique mainly in that it is being endorsed and promoted by members of Congress. Narratives that build on the Big Lie, like Trump’s impending “reinstatement,” need to be analyzed not only for their veracity, but as deliberate tactics in a larger strategy of encouraging its adherents to take violent action. Yes, these claims are ridiculous. Yes, they are without legal merit. Yes, they are a grift. And yes, they are very, very dangerous.