For the past four years, Donald Trump has been playing two roles: one as president, and the other as the rallying point for a coalition of theocrats, internet fantasists, white supremacists, and various other authoritarians who are in no way committed to peaceful transitions of power. Wednesday’s insurrection at the United States Capitol made Trump’s latter role all too clear.
Before he incited the deadly attack, Trump still might have had a future in politics. Even after losing his reelection bid, Trump had been well positioned to launch his own media brand, maintain his spell over other Republicans, and make life hard for his Democratic successor, Joe Biden. But Trump’s role in the violent insurrection—which was intended to overturn the 2020 election and literally drove members of Congress into hiding—could and should turn him into an outcast. He’s been banned from Twitter. Many Republicans are distancing themselves. Some of his Fox News proxies are expressing shock at his actions. Trump even lost Bill O’Reilly and the PGA of America.
As the defeated president’s critics implore Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, and as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threatens another impeachment, the president’s defenders are calling for mercy and unity. But the history of counterterrorism suggests that letting Trump off easily is exactly the wrong strategy. It will only encourage further extremism by his most fervent supporters.
“When the leadership promoting extremism is broken, it ends. If there are still opportunities to rebuild or recraft a strategy, it will give recruits hope,” Farah Pandith, the author of How We Win, a book about defeating extremism, told me. “You need to make it impossible for the group to get oxygen again.”
The decision of what to call the insurrectionists at the Capitol is politically fraught, but it surely fits my definition of domestic terrorism. People do not bring zip-tie handcuffs to the Capitol because they only want to exercise their First Amendment rights. No one who carries the parts for a makeshift gallows can be counted on to stick to peaceful protest. The insurrectionists had the same intention as other terrorist groups throughout history: to exert influence over the government by violently intimidating public officials and average citizens.
The only difference today is that the charismatic leader who inspired the insurrection is the leader of the government itself.
Trump, who characterized racist rioters in Charlottesville, Virginia, as “very fine people” and last week’s insurrectionists as “very special,” hasn’t provided only rhetorical support for extremists. He has also provided tactical support by choosing times and places where they will convene; by amplifying their hashtags and preferred influencers through his social-media accounts; and by bringing along speakers, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, who give a veneer of institutional respectability to fringe ideas.
Trump has gotten away with all of this by never quite acknowledging what he was doing. He is a master of a technique that I have described as stochastic terrorism—the incitement of random but utterly predictable acts of violence for political gain. He portrays himself as a victim and rallies his troops to fight for him, but does so in a way that never directly exposes his responsibility. Fight, he tells them, to protect his political standing. And that is what some of them did on January 6.
Viewing Trump’s insurrection through a counterterrorism lens unlocks some insights about how to deradicalize his most violent supporters. Successful efforts to fight terrorism begin at the top. An ideology may survive and linger, but to curtail a terror threat requires what counterterrorism experts call “leadership decapitation.” (The meaning is figurative.) Society is more likely to heal when an extremist group’s ideological leader is isolated and damaged in the eyes of his supporters.
Keeping Trump in office until January 20 won’t assuage the supporters who falsely believe that the election was stolen from him, but removing him from office a week early would emphasize that he is losing. Recruitment is easier for a winning team. As the Islamic State and al-Qaeda both discovered after their apexes, getting people to take up arms is harder when the cause is in decline.
Trump can still muddy the waters by trying to pardon himself or by declaring himself a candidate for president in 2024. Yet his capacity to gain new supporters is diminished. In the past week, he has been discredited in a host of ways.
Trump’s insistence that, despite all evidence, he won the election helped Democrats win both Georgia seats. Not even his followers can depend on him: Under pressure, he essentially conceded the election on Thursday, which meant either that he is unreliable or that he was lying to them the whole time. He has limited access to effective communication forums, most notably Twitter and Facebook. The platforms’ decision to suspend his accounts was controversial, but deplatforming is a successful counterterrorism technique that, although it may galvanize diehards, impedes a movement leader’s ability to reach new members. The MAGA-world leadership team is in disarray; Pence plans to attend Biden’s inauguration. In welcoming Pence to the event—“I’d be honored to have him there,” the president-elect said—Biden is replicating a common divide-and-conquer counterterrorism strategy that amplifies distrust and leads to paranoia among those who remain inside an extremist group. Companies such as American Express are pulling support for members of Congress who went along with Trump’s effort to block the certification of the electoral vote.
All the while, law-enforcement agencies have been identifying and making very public arrests of people who forced their way into the Capitol and were pictured on surveillance video or social media. Those mugging for Instagram may have believed that they were cosplaying a revolution and that Trump would protect them, but would-be recruits to Trump’s movements will be more aware of the potential legal consequences of committing violence in his name.
As ridiculous as Trump’s troops might have looked, we now know that dismissing them as a “JV team,” as President Barack Obama once described ISIS, would be a mistake. The attack was real and did not entirely surprise those, including the FBI, who monitored Trump’s ever more urgent efforts to enlist extremist supporters in overturning the election.
During his political career, Trump has given comfort to and conferred logistical coherence upon a coalition that will not die without him—but also will not thrive. The United States is a divided nation, but only a tiny fraction of Trump’s more than 74 million voters showed up in Washington, D.C., eager to fight. The way to unite this country is to isolate acts of violence—and a leader who incites it—from legitimate expression. Trump was a north star for a certain kind of radical. Americans will be safer the more that star loses its shine.