Commentary

Authoritarianism & the American Response: 2017 Forecast

by Christopher Milburn

The threats facing the United States in 2017 largely stem from the challenge and response cycle set in motion by the global rise of authoritarianism and violent fascism. Authoritarian leaders frequently promise to restore national pride and return people to their lost golden age: a mythical world in which life was thought to be better for the particular group. Scapegoating quickly follows, and violence is rarely far behind.

Christopher Milburn headshotFascism – the harshest brand of authoritarianism usually defined as “ruling by the rod” – takes many ideological forms. Whether religious, political, ethnic, territorial, or usually a combination of these, fascist ideologies seek to carve stark divisions between groups and harshly punish those who are labeled “outsiders.” Leaders seeking to mobilize groups to action often utilize violent, divisive rhetoric to inspire in-group pride and provoke action.

Stability & Conflict

The year 2016 has seen a global increase of authoritarianism and fascism. This social phenomenon is, in part, a response to unprecedented globalization that has placed groups into closer contact than ever before. Groups of all types have felt threatened and uncertain, and authoritarianism offers to preserve or restore existing structures for the stability of the group. Globalization and web-based social media have positioned cultures and subcultures of all kinds into types of interactions that were formerly unimaginable.

The year 2017 is likely to see an increase in global authoritarian behavior as groups seek to reverse the effects of globalization and regain honor, resources, and salient identities. Widespread authoritarianism and fascism are very likely to increase group conflict and violence, and homeland security challenges are certain to arise from this dynamic environment of inflamed violent conflict. Two specific current manifestations of authoritarianism pose continued homeland security challenges for the United States in 2017: the continued advance of a violent Islamist global insurgency and the American move toward authoritarianism. These two elements are firmly linked in a challenge and response cycle, and present significant implications for homeland security in a number of ways.

Handcuffs and gavel

©iStock.com/Violetastock

 

Violent Islamist Insurgency

The Islamic State (IS) remains at the forefront as the current, most prominent patron group of apocalyptic violent Islamism. Originating from a brutal rebranded al-Qaida faction in Iraq, IS arose out of the civil war in Syria, and came into view of the American public in 2014. It quickly identified the United States and its allies as enemies, and has consistently threatened western nations and religions its leaders consider apostates. IS’s brand of fascism identifies enemies of all religions and nationalities – including most forms of Islam – and its brutality toward adversaries is ruthless. IS members are experts at amplifying their symbolic violence through strategic communication, and the group continues to pose a threat as a global insurgency.

Military advances against IS will be important, but conventional warfare is not likely to be sufficient in containing the group. IS is driven by a strong and compelling narrative that remains mostly unchallenged, and the group is skilled in adapting to its circumstances. IS members are particularly effective storytellers who frame their existence squarely within a robust apocalyptic description of world events. In this framework, the group anticipates military challenges and can manage even significant military defeats. Although its media production has dropped somewhat in the past few months, security practitioners should anticipate IS’s continued use of a profound strategic communication web to adjust its direction and inspire loyalty from its devotees.

The IS threat to the U.S. homeland currently lies in the ability to inspire loosely affiliated individuals within the United States who identify with IS as a religious authority to commit terrorist acts in the name of their ideology. Due in large part to their effective internet-based communication tradecraft, their violence is able to reach deep into the United States in ways unlike any other group so far. This is likely to continue to pose a threat to the United States, even if IS must adapt as its capabilities diminish.

Although the percentage of Muslims who participate in ideologically motivated violence is relatively miniscule, certain violent fascist Islamist ideologies continue to flourish. Violent Islamist leaders have painted a picture of an America that is at war with all Muslims, and U.S. actions are framed as such by some of these ideologues in the Middle East. Efforts to marginalize or exclude Muslims from the United States would only confirm this assertion. As the U.S. president-elect has already made this proposal, the emergence of American authoritarianism is a development that could significantly increase tensions between the United States and the worldwide Muslim community.

American Authoritarianism

The election of Donald Trump to the office of president of the United States could prove to have significant national security implications. Trump campaigned on promises of overhauling a corrupt political system, isolating the United States from its political and trade allies, and restoring America to some former greatness that has been lost. Along the way, he insulted and alienated his opponents to the delight of his staunchest supporters.

President-elect Trump’s actions and demeanor have been as erratic and unpredictable as his policy platforms, and he exhibits a pattern of volatile reaction when he is personally offended. If tempered once in office, these patterns could amount to nothing more than hollow campaign rhetoric. But nothing in his history suggests that he will become more stable once he holds the highest political office in the United States. This unpredictability, combined with his blatant ethnic and religious scapegoating, presents a potentially volatile recipe for the U.S. homeland.

Promises of banning Muslims and erecting a border wall are symbolically divisive promises that appeal to a segment of mostly white supporters who feel threatened by social change that they believe is caused by immigrants. His supporters are expecting him to act in office just as he promised he would on the campaign trail. If he attempts to make good on these promises as president, the American identity would be significantly altered both at home and abroad. The response to such action from those who feel threatened by subsequent challenges could be significant – ranging from low-intensity demonstrations that may erupt into violence to more structured violent opposition. Both increased attacks on law enforcement and civil disorder events are perhaps the most likely expressions of this type of response. To date in 2016, the number of law enforcement officers killed in ambush-style attacks is at a 10-year high of 20 deaths. Although there is no comprehensive analysis on the ideological motives driving this trend, an authoritarian social environment is likely to result in more of this type of violent response.

Foreign terrorist groups are particularly responsive to challenges of divisive rhetoric, as well, so Trump’s unpredictability may potentially provoke violent responses from Islamists. The IS argues that the United States is at war with all of Islam, and Trump’s words about Muslims only serve as evidence that this is true. In addition, IS has also called for attacks on U.S. law enforcement. In this situation, IS seeks to not only launch its own brand of violence within U.S. borders, but it also attempts to exploit divisions already creating conflict between Americans. An unpredictable president is not likely to quell this conflict.

The possibility for violence from right-wing extremists also exists under a Trump presidency. Trump’s rhetoric has been embraced by white supremacists within the U.S. homeland. If he fails to implement such ideas, or if he backs down from his hardline stances, he faces the potential for a significant backlash from betrayed right-wing nationalists. Violence and unrest in this case could very likely be directed either toward representatives of the U.S. government (out of a sense of betrayal) or at minorities (out of anger or fear).

Conversely, actual implementation of policies such as a religious ban could legitimize white supremacist ideals in the eyes of the violent right wing. A president suggesting that religious practitioners from the Middle East should be registered or banned from entering the United States could be taken as implicit inspiration to dehumanize and harm that group within the United States. The days after Trump’s election have seen an increase in racially motivated violence, and more of this type of violence is a distinct likelihood. In either case, Trump’s themes of scapegoating and isolationism have placed the United States in a precarious security position in which increased violence of some kind is likely.

Ultimately, Trump’s election to office represents both the United States’ willing participation in the global splintering of authoritarianism as well as a response – based in fear and anger – to threats perceived by many Americans. Rhetoric that legitimizes white American nationalism plays into multiple narratives including those of white supremacists, disenfranchised domestic minorities, certain foreign sovereign nations, and violent apocalyptic Islamists. This is likely to significantly inflame tensions between many groups both within the homeland and around the globe.

What to Expect

Security practitioners should anticipate a social climate of heightened tensions and an amplified violent challenge and response cycle in 2017. Social structures continue to unravel, mistrust in social and political establishments continues to climb, and the globe is bristling with reactionary authoritarians at the helms of their various sovereign nations. The year 2017 will most likely see the continued – if not even a punctuated – increase in domestic civil unrest and terrorist acts within the United States. Effective homeland security measures will depend on accurate analysis of global events, careful monitoring of extremist rhetoric – particularly from white nationalists, Islamist extremists, and disillusioned domestic groups – and a clear understanding of the effects of U.S. actions both at home and abroad.

Disclaimer: This forecast is based on research conducted on symbolic violence and the nature of mass movements, as well as an assessment of current social conditions as viewed in the analytical framework of Social Identity Theory.

Christopher Milburn is a fire captain in Long Beach, California, where he has served as a public information officer and terrorism liaison officer. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security with an M.A. in Security Studies, and has a B.A. in Communications. His terrorism research has focused on strategic communication, information operations, social identity, culture and religion, and symbolic warfare.