Extremism and Victimhood in the U.S. Context

by R. Bennett Furlow

Political extremism is not a new phenomenon. From the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s to the Weather Underground of the 1960s, political extremism has been a present force on both the political right and left. This study looks at four modern day extremist groups, two from the right and two from the left, and examines their use of rhetoric and narrative. A comparison is also made between these groups and the Islamist groups that the Center for Strategic Communication has been studying for the past three years.

The written and visual rhetoric of these groups shows how they create an image of themselves (in a heroic light) and their opponents (in a villainous light). The idea of victimhood is central to the way these groups form their image of themselves and their enemies. They all use victimhood to justify their actions. In the end all of these groups, regardless of their political affiliation, employ the same techniques to sway their audience and more importantly, justify their own actions and beliefs.

Getting someone to reject deeply held beliefs is a near impossible task. The recommendations of this paper instead focus on the contested population, those who have expressed interest in but not yet fully committed to an extremist ideology. Strategic communication should be targeted at those groups to show how peaceful protest can be effective, challenge the extremists’ perception of victimhood, and challenge the freedom fighter narrative on which they depend.

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