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Why fringe movements now include middle-class Americans with jobs and families

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In the weeks after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, many Americans had hoped that the worst was behind us. President Joe Biden put voice to that hope in his inaugural address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear, of unity, not division, of light, not darkness.

MARTINEZ: But the past 12 months have not been a time of unity. In fact, many who monitor extremist activity worry that the country is in a much more dangerous place now than it was a year ago. NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism. Odette, these warnings that the U.S. may be at a much more dangerous place now than a year ago, who's saying that? And what do they mean?

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Well, A, I'm hearing concern from both democracy experts and people who've studied conflicts in places where ideologically driven violence has taken root. And one of the most troubling developments they raise is that in the last 12 months, the number of Americans, particularly on the right, who feel violence may be necessary to settle political differences has grown. And we're not just talking about the traditional model of extremists that the U.S. is accustomed to dealing with. We're, you know, not talking about neo-Nazis, skinheads or anti-government militias anymore. We're talking about largely middle-class Americans with jobs, with families, who are starting to sympathize with views that have in the past been considered on the fringe. Here's how Robert Pape of the University of Chicago put it.

ROBERT PAPE: We need to realize that this isn't just something to hand off to law enforcement and think, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Just, you know, the FBI - this is just an FBI sort of problem. No, this is an all-hands-on-deck problem here. And that's why democracy is under challenge.

MARTINEZ: Democracy under challenge. Odette, how did we get here?

YOUSEF: You know, it's interesting, A, because immediately after January 6 last year, the movement kind of went underground, you know? We saw former President Trump kicked off Twitter. Some online spaces for the far right, like Parler, disappeared. Things kind of went quiet. But over the year, things changed, you know? We started to see far-right actors organize more offline and decentralize their activity to more local settings, like school board meetings, you know, where they latched onto issues like racially inclusive education or vaccine mandates. Mary McCord of Georgetown University worked with the Atlantic Council to track this evolution. And she saw how that grassroots approach filtered up.

MARY MCCORD: To me, one of the most alarming developments of 2021 since the insurrection has been the effort, especially among influencers and politicians, to normalize or mainstream conspiracy theories, most predominantly election denial, and to also normalize in mainstream political, ideologically driven violence.

YOUSEF: And so what's really taken root, A, in the last year is a profound shift in American culture and politics.

MARTINEZ: And, Odette, extremism is your reporting focus. Does this feel like something new to you, something we haven't seen before? Or, you know, is it now just mainstream?

YOUSEF: You know, this blurring of what's extreme versus what's mainstream is something that comes up in, like, every interview I do, A.

MARTINEZ: (Laughter) Yeah.

YOUSEF: And a few months ago, I remember speaking with an anti-fascist researcher who told me that she's stopped doing her work because it's no longer as simple as researching neo-Nazis and white nationalists in her neighborhood, you know? She honestly didn't know what to do about suburban moms who seemed to have been radicalized over issues like kids wearing masks at school. And so figuring this out as a nation, A, will take more than the traditional approach of looking to law enforcement. It's just not clear now what that's going to look like.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Odette Yousef. Thanks a lot.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.