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Conservative radicalizers are well-coiffed, well-paid — and increasingly dangerous

The language of a dangerous lunatic fringe is creeping closer to the mainstream.
Image: Images of Joe DiGenova, Sidney Powell, Ted Cruz and Doug Collins with a yellow overlay and red and yellow blocks darting across.
Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

In the space of about a week, the dangerous language of a lunatic fringe leapt closer to mainstream madness. We were reminded that radicalized rhetoric — the kind that leads to violence — can be spewed by people dressed in a suit and tie, or in leopard print and heels.

We saw dangerous dialogue launch from the lips of people with advanced degrees such as Juris Doctorate and Master of Divinity. Those radicalized professionals held, or still hold, impressive titles like U.S. attorney, appellate section chief, U.S. senator, congressman, and lieutenant colonel and chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. This was a week that further confirmed how radicalized we’ve become as a nation and how much closer we are to the moment when treacherous talk turns into violent reality.

When we add religion and eternal damnation into the mix to demonize those with different politics, we’re sliding into extremist territory.

On Monday, Nov. 30, former U.S. Attorney Joe DiGenova, a prominent conspiracist on President Donald Trump’s election loss legal team, publicly called for a former federal official to be “taken out at dawn and shot,” and suggested that the person be “drawn and quartered” — a particularly barbaric form of torture and execution.

DiGenova’s violent ideations were aired on radio on Newsmax’s "Howie Carr Show." To whom was DiGenova directing his homicidal wrath, and for what unthinkable conduct? None other than Chris Krebs, recently terminated by Trump for simply leading our government’s election security efforts, and for daring to counter Trump’s narrative that the 2020 election was rife with fraud.

A practicing attorney calling for the murder of an election security champion who advocates for fact over fiction and defends our democracy, is dangerous enough. But when another like-minded professional adds religion and eternal damnation into the mix to demonize those with different politics than you, we’re sliding into extremist territory. And when the person behind that volatile wrath is, for example, a preacher and congressman, he can start sounding more like a radically violent leader ranting against unbelieving infidels than, say, the U.S. Air Force reserve chaplain that he is.

These well-coiffed and well-paid radicalizers might not fully grasp that their words can become a call to arms.

If we were to rearrange the titles and names, these calls to violence sound increasingly like those coming from the terrorist organizations that these very same officials and former officials validly view as a threat.

While educated and professionally trained, these well-coiffed and well-paid radicalizers might not fully grasp that their words can become a call to arms, something readily recognized by those with extensive experience in counterterrorism. Americans have for years consumed coverage of radicalized terrorist cells in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. But few are drawing the connection that many of our own prominent professionals are starting to sound, to those abroad who recruit, radicalize and raise up violent actors. Not nearly as blatantly violent, perhaps — but it’s becoming easier to imagine how rhetoric aimed at the demonization of others could get us there.

Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a global security research group, advised, “The reason a kid like Kyle Rittenhouse would go grab a gun and join a local militia is the same reason why somebody would be lured to a jihadi group.”

Clarke, who’s closely familiar with right-wing and anti-government extremism groups like the "Boogaloo Bois," said, “It’s identity, it’s grievances they have that are being exploited and magnified,” continuing: “And there’s this constant call to get off the couch and get off your ass and go do something. Like, ‘You be the guy that goes and defends whatever.’ Groups are different, the ideologies are different, but a lot of the messaging and the narrative are the same.”

On Nov. 28, Rep. Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican, attacked a Democratic Senate candidate in the state, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, by insisting that "there is no such thing as a pro-choice pastor." Collins turned his dialogue into demonization by claiming that Warnock’s status as a Christian pro-life advocate was a “lie from the pit of hell.”

This form of negative politics that devolves into dangerous radicalization is what the British political scientist Roger Eatwell has called “cumulative extremism.” As detailed by Anne Applebaum in an Oct. 30 article in The Atlantic, Eatwell believes that “people tend to become violent, or to sympathize with violence, if they feel an existential threat.” They also become more extreme, he said, when they feel their political opponents are not just wrong, but evil —“almost the devil.”

Yet, DiGenova and Collins weren’t the only professionals taking us down the perilous route to potential violence. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Sidney Powell, now a full-time spinner of election fraud fantasies, was a guest on a Nov. 21 Newsmax show. On that program, Powell used the subtle language of divine dimensions regarding her work to undermine election results when she asserted that the president’s lawyers would file a lawsuit of “biblical” proportions. The suit would allege, without evidence, that some election officials were embroiled in a pay-to-play scheme with a prominent manufacturer of voting software.

It was also Powell who used the phrase “release the kraken” to refer to the conspiracy theories she would use to avenge the loss of Trump and defeat the powers of perceived injustice and evil responsible for President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

The phrase comes from the film "Clash of the Titans," wherein Zeus, king of the gods, barks the order to "Release the kraken!" Whether intended or not, Powell’s invoking of a creature from Norse mythology, believed to be controlled by gods who release it to vanquish threats, further feeds the radicalized ideology by painting those who don’t accept Trump’s false claims as enemies.

On Tuesday, Powell’s radical extremism took a less subtle turn as she gained a troubling new ally already associated with inspiring ideologically based violence: the longtime administrator of the message board 8kun, internet home of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Powell filed an affidavit from Ron Watkins, the son of 8kun’s owner, Jim Watkins, in a Georgia lawsuit alleging that Dominion Voting Systems machines used in the election had been corrupted as part of a sprawling voter-fraud conspiracy. As described by The Washington Post, “Powell has claimed that a diabolical scheme backed by global communists had invisibly shifted votes with help from a mysterious computer algorithm pioneered by the long-dead Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez — a wild story debunked by fact-checkers as a ‘fantasy parade’ and devoid of proof.”

Yet another degreed professional, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a Harvard Law School alum, threw his hat into the radicalization ring with a tweet implying that some unnamed enemy was going to cancel his Thanksgiving because of recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to limit holiday travel. His message came in the form of a "war on Thanksgiving" meme featuring a turkey with the words "come and take it" — a phrase usually reserved to incite and rally those who fear their Second Amendment gun rights are in jeopardy. While Cruz implied that he might be willing to risk his life and others’ for green bean casserole, his state was tallying 1 million cases of Covid-19.

As radical rhetoric emanates from the educated elite, it becomes part of popular idiom, and the increased potential for violence over election results is no longer hypothetical. The threat is real. On Tuesday, Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling harshly admonished Trump and Georgia’s senators for their role in inciting threats against that state’s election staff. Previously, we saw reports that the FBI had opened investigations into threats against Georgia election officials.

Many Americans are attempting to find comfort in a self-delusion that domestic, politically based or ideological violence was a mere anomaly associated with mental instability, troubled youth or fringe belief systems. But make no mistake, violent rhetoric and dangerous ideology isn’t a trait of the “unwashed masses.” It’s perpetuated by the elite and powerful. The tragic repercussions of that high-level radicalization, however, will hurt us all.