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Domestic Extremism Expert On Potential Threats To Presidential Inauguration


The National Mall was largely empty of spectators today, blanketed instead by a colorful field of flags. But even as everyday Americans were absent from this year's inauguration, the capital swelled with 25,000 National Guard troops there. They're aimed at preventing a repeat of the violence we saw two weeks ago. Historian Kathleen Belew studies extremism and paramilitary and white power groups. She joins me now.


KATHLEEN BELEW: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So I think I speak for a lot of people in saying many of us were really uneasy, bracing for God knows what, which happily has not happened today. Was there any visible presence of extremist groups around the Capitol today that you were able to keep track of?

BELEW: You know, I'm a historian, so I don't do the work of monitoring. But I think the general consensus among the people that do is that we were tremendously lucky and that resources were used quite effectively to deal with the security risk today. I think that part of what we learned on January 6 is that, you know, the Department of Homeland Security has long defined white power and similar militant right nationalism as the most significant domestic terror threat to the homeland. And I think today we really see the coming together of the institutional and public response that's needed to forestall that problem.

Now, the thing that people need to remember, though, is that this is a groundswell of activism that has been part of the underbelly of our politics since the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is decades if not generations old. It's not something that was created by President Trump, nor was it ever really in his command. So the change of administration, I think, is an opportunity. But it would be a mistake to think that the momentum that led to January 6 has simply dissolved with the inauguration of President Biden.

KELLY: So based on your studies, the white power groups, paramilitary groups, the far-right groups that were out in force on January 6 - they will remain a force to be reckoned with for a while.

BELEW: Absolutely. And so part of the reason that we didn't see violence today is that groups online were communicating, telling each other to stay away because they believed it would be an opportunity for the federal government to arrest a lot of their people. But we also saw after January 6 a big recruitment effort on various Web platforms to reach the less radicalized contingencies that were there on the 6. So in other words, in the storming of the Capitol, we saw (inaudible)...

KELLY: Uh-oh, Kathleen Belew. Let's see if we...

BELEW: Activists - that's what...

KELLY: There you are.

BELEW: ...We're talking about as the most radicalized and extreme group. Oh, sorry. Are you there?

KELLY: I am here. I think maybe there's a call coming in. Please carry on.

BELEW: Hello?

KELLY: Yep. Hi, we've got you. If you can hear us, please carry on.

BELEW: Oh, my goodness. OK, yes. So three major strands in this groundswell - one is sort of garden variety keep America - make America great again, stop-the-steal Trump fans.


BELEW: Another is a very radicalized group of QAnon adherents but radicalized only over the last short term. And then there's this third strand, which is a long lead-up of people who have been radicalized over a much longer stretch of time and who have paramilitary infrastructure tactics and training to deploy. And that last group is the most violent in a lot of ways and the most dangerous to our democracy and its institutions. And it is trying to radicalize among those other contingents.

KELLY: The answer to this may vary among those different strands you just described, but do you see any signs of these groups wrestling with doubt at this moment; wrestling with how their conspiracy theories can coexist with President Trump lost the election and if you didn't believe it before, he's now left the White House and left Washington?

BELEW: Yes, absolutely. I think it's a big precipice, especially for people in QAnon who looked to today as sort of the moment when their concerns would be resolved. And that has not happened for them. I think a lot of people are feeling disillusioned and angry. I think, you know, as much as this is a new phenomenon because of QAnon, this is also a moment with some clear historical parallels. The last time that this strand of our national political underbelly went radical was precisely when they felt they no longer had inroads into mainstream politics.

KELLY: Right.

BELEW: And it was the beginning of a very violent moment, so we worry about that today.

KELLY: All right. Kathleen Belew, thank you.

BELEW: Thank you very much.

KELLY: She's an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF J-WALK'S "FRENCH LETTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.