Far-right extremist violence and American presidents: The pattern isn't what you'd think

From Oklahoma City to the Capitol, right-wing extremist violence is a part of America's political landscape

Published January 30, 2021 12:00PM (EST)

Oklahoma City police officers salute 19 April during a moment of silence at a memorial service held on the first anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building as they face the fence surrounding the bomb site. In the background are buildings destroyed in the blast that killed 168 adults and children. (CHRIS WILKINS/AFP via Getty Images)
Oklahoma City police officers salute 19 April during a moment of silence at a memorial service held on the first anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building as they face the fence surrounding the bomb site. In the background are buildings destroyed in the blast that killed 168 adults and children. (CHRIS WILKINS/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump's term in office ended much as it began, with an ideologically motivated murder committed during a far-right rally that devolved into violence. The Jan. 6 Capitol riots and official warnings about future anti-government violence across the nation once again focused the media and public's attention on deadly violence committed by American far-right extremists. Few details are publicly available, but it is known that Officer Brian Sicknick of the Capitol Police died from injuries sustained during the riots and several other people lost their lives during the mayhem. Black Capitol Police officers were chased and attacked by a mob who yelled racial slurs after they made it inside the building. 

However unprecedented the nature of the Capitol riots, deadly violence perpetrated by far-right extremists and the conspiracies and ideologies underlying this violence are anything but new in the United States. We know this because for the last 15 years we have collected and analyzed data on this type of violence from the Extremist Crime Database (ECDB). An open-source database, the ECDB includes information on ideologically and non-ideologically motivated crimes committed by far-right, left-wing and jihadi extremists, completed acts as well as failed and foiled plots. These data enable us to present findings on ideologically motivated far-right extremist murders since the early 1990s, spanning the seven terms of the last four U.S. presidents. 

Since the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton, a minimum of 500 people have been murdered by far-right extremists. This number drops to 332 when the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, which killed 168 people, is excluded — a statistical outlier that skews the results and hides underlying patterns in the victimization data. The most common victims of extreme far-right murders remain racial, ethnic, social and religious minorities, while the second most common victims are government actors, including law enforcement. This is unsurprising as, even though some far-right rhetoric exudes support for police, the actions of far-right extremists offer the greatest ideological threat against the lives of agents within the criminal justice system. Unlike other more common forms of murder in the U.S., murders committed by far-right extremists are more likely to entail expressive, symbolic attacks against strangers. While firearms are the most common type of weapon used, members of the far right are also historically more likely to rely on knives, blunt objects and bodily weapons when they kill compared to other types of murder.

The far-right violence under President Trump is currently front of mind, but our data demonstrate that far-right extremists have perpetrated ideologically motivated murders every year of Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama's presidential terms as well. Far-right extremist violence has been a persistent, yet dynamic threat to homeland security. The influence of movement leaders and the prominence of groups and ideological nuances shift over time, but the underlying tenets of white supremacy, anti-governmentalism and conspiratorial thinking have endured along with the continued threat of fatal violence against the public and government agents like Officer Sicknick. 

Bill Clinton assumed office in 1993, five months after the federal siege on Ruby Ridge, Idaho, resulted in the death of a deputy U.S. marshal by a far-rightist, and the deaths of his son and wife by law enforcement. That same year, the federal siege of the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, fueled anti-government angst and New World Order conspiracy theories among movement sympathizers. These events stoked Second Amendment conspiracies and the resurgence of the paramilitary militia movement

In part as a response to this perceived government overstep, Army veteran Timothy McVeigh and his accomplices bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children, on the second anniversary of the Waco siege. Like many far-right extremists since the 1995 bombing, McVeigh saw himself as a true patriot at war with a tyrannical government. He hoped others would follow in his steps and take up arms. The bombing, however, drastically impacted public perception and involvement in the militia movement as federal law enforcement tamped down on violent extremism. These groups quickly lost members and the movement waned. One of the final acts of fatal far-right violence during President Clinton's first term was the bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta by lone actor and serial bomber Eric Rudolph.

Clinton's second term led up to the new millennium and related Y2K fears and conspiracies. It was during this period that the highest number of far-right extremist murders captured by the ECDB occurred, with a total of 44 incidents resulting in 68 deaths. This deadly far-right violence took multiple forms; anti-government attacks, hate-motivated murders, such as the heinous death of James Byrd Jr. in Texas, and anti-abortion violence. Skinheads and neo-Nazis beating to death those without stable housing, the Aryan Brotherhood murdering Black inmates in prison, survivalists and anti-government extremists shooting law enforcement officers, white supremacists murdering individuals in biracial relationships, a gay couple shot to death at their home by anti-Semitic and homophobic brothers, an obstetrician assassinated by a sniper while standing in his kitchen. Although some were high-profile crimes, many of these murders occurred with little to no national media attention.

President Bush's first term in office saw a steep decline in far-right murders, with only 24 incidents and 35 deaths. One study, also relying on ECDB data, found that the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent passing of the Patriot Act resulted in a significant decrease in the frequency of far-right extremist murders in the United States. The 9/11 attacks, however, did inspire a surge in anti-Muslim violence, including a murder spree by a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. The nation also witnessed a mass shooting perpetrated by a white supremacist who killed six co-workers at an ethics and diversity class he was ordered to attend after threatening and using racist slurs against Black co-workers.

Far-right violence continued to decline, albeit slightly, during President Bush's second term, with 28 murder victims killed in 22 incidents. However, this slight reduction was only in anti-government violence, as white supremacist-motivated murders remained stable. More than 25% of the murderers targeted Hispanic and immigrant victims. One such incident was the stabbing of an Ecuadorian immigrant at the end of a spree of anti-Hispanic attacks carried out by a group of teens in Long Island, New York. 

In hindsight, this increase in anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic/Latinx violence is not surprising, since immigration rhetoric became increasingly negative after 9/11 as the discourse frequently characterized immigration as a criminal threat. In fact, the Minutemen Movement, an anti-immigrant group of militia members, organized during this period and patrolled the border between the United States and Mexico. Members of a similar group were tried and convicted for the murder of a Latino man and his 9-year-old daughter only five months into President Obama's first term.

Even before his inauguration, Obama's post-election period was met with an unprecedented increase in hate crimes. During his first four years in office, there was an increase to 28 incidents resulting in 52 people killed by ideologically motivated far-right extremists. Such violence was part of an overall backlash against the United States' first Black president. Evidence supporting this backlash was found in increasing anti-government sentiment with a massive increase in the number of patriot and militia groups during Obama's first term, surpassing the height of the militia movement leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing. 

High-profile ideologically motivated murders included an attack at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the mass shooting at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the assassination of two police officers in Arkansas by "sovereign citizens," and the death of a government employee after a man flew a small plane into an IRS building in Texas during a suicide attack.

Despite a decline in both incidents and fatalities, with 46 victims over 21 incidents, Obama's second term witnessed high-profile mass murders, including the Isla Vista killings in 2014 and the 2015 Charleston church shooting. The Isla Vista killings demonstrated the intersection of white supremacist and misogynistic beliefs and preceded an increasing number of anti-female and anti-feminist far-right attacks targeting women, such as 2015 shootings at a screening of the movie "Trainwreck" in Louisiana and at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. 

The massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, spurred activism to remove Confederate symbols of white supremacy throughout the United States, triggering a reactionary response among far-right extremists. During the 2016 presidential race, Trump supporters frequently displayed the Confederate flags at his campaign and other pro-Trump rallies. As president, Trump spoke approvingly of Confederate flags and monuments and during the Jan. 6 riot an insurrectionist marched through the U.S. Capitol with a Confederate flag.

Trump came to office amid the growing visibility of far-right extremist activity in the U.S. During his first year in office, the "Unite the Right" rally unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the murder of one counterprotester who was run down by an apparent white supremacist driving a car. While Trump's term saw a slight increase from Obama's second term, to 25 fatal far-right incidents, there was a higher than average number of fatalities with 51 victims. 

The white supremacist mass shootings at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue and the El Paso Walmart were particularly lethal, killing 11 and 23 people, respectively. In Trump's final year in office, far-right extremists were particularly violent against law enforcement agents. In addition to the death of Officer Sicknick, individuals associated with the "Boogaloo boys" murdered a federal security officer and a Santa Cruz County, California, sheriff's sergeant, and an anti-feminist far-right extremist targeted a judge, but instead murdered her son. Another unique feature of Trump's presidency was his failure to unequivocally and consistently denounce both the ideology and the actions of far-right extremists. Dangerous rhetoric that earlier this month drew a straight line from a rally at the White House to a riot and insurrection at the Capitol. Regardless of differences in their policies and politics, neither Clinton, Bush nor Obama supported, either explicitly or implicitly, domestic terrorism or extremist violence.

The future of far-right extremist murders

Across the last three decades, the number of far-right ideologically motivated murders has ebbed and flowed, although the number of deadly incidents has never reached the height of Clinton's presidency. One troubling pattern observed in our data is that while the frequency of incidents did not spike during Trump's presidency, incidents have increasingly involved fewer co-offenders and higher death tolls. If this trend continues, the law enforcement and intelligence community under President Joe Biden will be challenged with preventing deadly attacks committed by lone actors seeking to conduct mass fatality events. 

As processes of radicalization toward extremist violence play out on an expanding number of social media platforms, where dehumanizing conspiracies and dangerous ideas can be shared and discussed in a vacuum with little oversight, we fear that plots to commit such attacks will continue, and possibly increase even after Inauguration Day. In addition, there has been a trend toward the mainstreaming of extremism, including the widespread acceptance of the "birther" conspiracy theory as well as other right-wing allegations, such as those against Obama, specifically, but also against Democrats and the U.S. government more generally. More Americans are also being exposed to far-right extremist ideas as they engage in mainstream spaces, like athletic activities, online gaming platforms and college campuses.

The Jan. 6 Capitol riots and the ongoing reports of continued threats of violence have ensured that media, politicians and the public have become hyper-aware of the dangers of extreme far-right violence in America over the last few weeks. However, when Timothy McVeigh detonated the bomb that murdered 168 Americans, the devastating impact of anti-government, conspiratorial thinking also came into sharp focus. So too was the focus on the horrific impact of white supremacist ideology after the murders that occured at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

The threat of far-right extremism has been identified and reported on by homeland security analysts time and again, as well as other data collection efforts. In fact, a recent Department of Homeland Security report prophetically warned that "campaign-associated mass gatherings" might become "flashpoints for potential violence." The FBI office in Norfolk, Virginia, also issued an internal report the day before the insurrection, noting online discussions "indicating calls for violence in response to 'unlawful lockdowns' to begin on 6 January 2021 in Washington. D.C.

Unfortunately, even as companies attempt to regulate extremist content on their platforms, with no unified federal or state efforts to combat extremist ideologies and deradicalize those already involved in the movement, these fatal acts of violence will continue. After the militia movement collapsed in the mid-1990s, those who were radicalized did not disappear, nor did they no longer support white supremacy or oppose the government. Evident in the ECDB data is the unfortunate reality that these individuals continued to murder in the name of an extreme ideology at a rate similar, if not slightly higher, after the bombing in Oklahoma and during Bill Clinton's second term. 

Similarly, Biden and his national security team should expect that both members and sympathizers of groups or ideologies such as the Proud Boys, Boogaloo boys, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, QAnon adherents, Atomwaffen members, Incels, the alt-right and others of a similar ilk will continue to be a heightened threat to both the public and the government. Over the last four years they have been radicalized and empowered, and have shown they are willing to resort to violence to defend their extremist ideologies. Fortunately, Biden has already signaled an understanding of how dangerous these ideologies are by requesting an assessment of the threat

Understanding the nature and magnitude of the threat is only the first step, however; it is also imperative that resources are committed to deradicalizing those who are already ideological extremists and preventing others from following them down the rabbit hole. Only sustained political will can accomplish this, which requires a continued focus on far-right extremism by the public and the media. Anything less will continue us on the pathway we have been on for decades, with murders of the American public by far-right extremists.



By William Parkin

William Parkin is an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Seattle University and co-investigator for the U.S. Extremist Crime Database.

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By Jeff Gruenewald

Jeff Gruenewald is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology & Criminology and director of the Terrorism Research Center at the University of Arkansas. He serves as principal investigator for the American Terrorism Study, Bias Homicide Database, and co-investigator for the U.S. Extremist Crime Database.

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By Colleen Mills

Colleen Mills is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Penn State University, Abington College, and co-investigator for the U.S. Extremist Crime Database.

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