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Extremism Researcher On Prevalence Of Militia Groups In The Pandemic

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Yesterday the FBI announced it had exposed a plot to kidnap Michigan's Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Thirteen men with ties to armed anti-government groups are facing charges related to that alleged plot. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told NPR that this story is, quote, "an American problem."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DANA NESSEL: These are groups in multiple states, multiple jurisdictions that have been operating and really taking advantage of the unrest in American society right now. I think they're taking advantage of the COVID epidemic, the Black Lives Matter unrest. And they're using it to recruit and to formulate plots.

CORNISH: Here to help us understand the prevalence of anti-government militia groups is Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor at American University. She runs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab.

Welcome to the program.

CYNTHIA MILLER-IDRISS: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Now, just a few years ago, we were talking a lot about the alt-right. Now we're talking about right-wing extremism - right? - much further along. Are we actually seeing more of these groups, or is it a different kind of group that we're seeing?

MILLER-IDRISS: We're seeing more and different kinds. So it's important to understand these as part of a spectrum that is very fragmented. But we are seeing more recruitment, especially under the pandemic conditions, and a broader range of groups, including new ones.

CORNISH: Can we talk about this angle of the pandemic? I've been hearing it a lot. Lots of us are stuck at home. Lots of us are not joining militia groups. So why do people who do the work you do think there's a connection?

MILLER-IDRISS: Well, they're forming new social media groups and putting ideas out there that people latch onto. But then all of the conditions that create what we call vulnerabilities are there as well, which means, you know, increasing anxiety, lack of control over one's life, isolation and lack of belonging to other people makes people a little bit vulnerable to calls to act heroically or engage with meaning and purpose in some way. Obviously, the vast majority of people do not join militias who experience those conditions. But we are seeing increasing participation in conspiracy theories, increasing mobilization around militias and across the whole spectrum.

CORNISH: There's another thing people are bringing up. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said that these groups are taking advantage of all the upheaval going on right now. She mentions the pandemic but also the racial justice protests. Does this ring true to you?

MILLER-IDRISS: Absolutely. I think of it as three waves of the militia mobilization. It started with Richmond, the protests in January around the Second Amendment protests where you had, I think, 22,000 people come out and then the shelter-in-place orders and the protests at state capitols and then co-opting, I should say, the peaceful protests around the Black Lives Matter and racial injustice. So where you had groups...

CORNISH: But co-opting in what way? What are they saying?

MILLER-IDRISS: So we had militia and vigilante groups showing up who were saying they're protecting the police or law enforcement, and then you have groups showing up who want to spark a race war or want to create further chaos or harm protesters. So they're - the groups are not always aligned with their own objectives. And so you can't think of it as one unified group but as clusters of small groups that sometimes are at odds with each other.

CORNISH: The final factor that we've been hearing a lot about is the president himself using racist language on Twitter and in person. He's also repeatedly been rebuked for not saying enough to condemn white supremacist actions. Does his rhetoric figure into the growth of these groups? Is there actually evidence of that so far?

MILLER-IDRISS: There's evidence, generally speaking, in the research that the incendiary words of elected officials leads to greater violence against vulnerable populations. And what we have seen in the U.S. is that there is a perception on the part of far-right extremist groups that they have been legitimized. So, you know, even if it's not intentional, that's the way it's received.

CORNISH: The Michigan attorney general told us that this is, quote, "an American problem." I know you study this globally, but what is distinctly American about this moment?

MILLER-IDRISS: If there's anything American about this moment, is that it's so easy for people to get the kinds of weapons they need to enact the kind of violence that they're planning. I mean, that is uniquely American compared to what we face in terms of threats in other parts of the world.

CORNISH: After this very striking series of arrests in Michigan, what are you going to be looking for, studying, watching over the next few days?

MILLER-IDRISS: In the short term, I think everyone I know in this field is concerned about the potential for violence around the election. And in light of the fact that we've had record-breaking firearm sales over the summer and ammunition sales, I think we're in a very toxic moment with a kind of tinderbox effect for potential spontaneous violence.

CORNISH: That's Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociologist at American University. Her new book out this month is called "Hate In The Homeland: The New Global Far Right."

Thank you for your time.

MILLER-IDRISS: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.