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Part 1/2 – U.S. Domestic Political Stability and Security: A Strategic Estimate for 2024 and Beyond

Right Wing And Left Wing Factions Clash In Portland
Far-right extremists and anti-fascists confront one another at a rally on Aug. 8, 2021, in Portland, Oregon. The two groups clashed near a religious gathering in downtown Portland for the second day in a row without a police response. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

This is Part 1 of a 2-part report. Find the 2nd part here

Executive Summary 

In April 2009, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a report accurately forecasting the resurgence of violent far-right extremist activity during the Obama administration.i This two-part analysis expands upon that report, covering both ends of the conventional left-right political spectrum and including violent threats and nonviolent political threats to U.S. democratic norms, institutions, and procedural foundations. Although it maintains a future-oriented outlook,ii this publication takes a generally short-term, 12-month focus. It does not offer policy recommendations because its scope is assessment and forecasting. 

The four overarching themes contributing to the U.S. domestic political and security environment are:  

  • Challenges to democratic governance 
  • Sociopolitical trends and events 
  • Sociopolitical movements and ideologies 
  • External shocks, or “wild card” variables  

This publication’s central conclusion – derived from its analysis of environmental dynamics and actor behaviors – is that the United States is at a heightened state of vulnerability due to erosion of its democratic foundations as well as greater likelihood of political violence. 

Additional key judgments, flowing from this central conclusion, summarize the analysis and findings of this futures assessment: 

  • Of the two political milieus, this analysis assesses the biggest threat to democratic governance comes from the far right. This is due to the steady infiltration of far-right beliefs – including explicit and coded antisemitism, racism, religious nationalism, and xenophobia/nativism – and actors into mainstream right-wing political discourse and political machinery. 
  • The mainstreaming of far-right ideas and narratives has also provided permission structures that have inspired individuals into extreme acts of violence, including the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.  
  • Far-left actors pose a smaller, but nontrivial threat to liberal democratic norms and governance. Compared with their far-right counterparts, they have had far less influence on policy and lawmaking. Their involvement in nonstate violence is also quantitatively and qualitatively not commensurate with their far-right counterparts.  
  • Regardless of this year’s presidential electoral outcome, increased mobilization by extremist actors, including ones seeking to enact violence, is expected
  • Electoral interference is expected to manifest in one of at least one of four ways: mis/disinformation influencing voter behavior, including turnout; election deniers within local and state election offices (effectively an insider threat); harassment and threats to election officials and election offices; and frivolous administrative, legislative, and legal actions to suppress voter access. 
  • The threat of election interference overwhelmingly emanates from far-right actors. In particular are those who believe the false idea that Donald Trump is the real winner of the 2020 elections, not Joseph Biden. 
  • Lawmakers and legislative bodies across the country face substantial harassment and threats. The risk of harassment, threats, and violence is especially elevated at local and state levels, due to lower levels of physical security, greater accessibility, and their attractiveness as politically symbolic targets. The greatest risks will be to state legislatures, particularly ones that allow firearms on the premises. 
  • While members of the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Capitol complex continue to be attractive targets, the chance that another Jan. 6-style attack could be successfully staged there is judged to be low. This is due to greater intelligence awareness of threats as well as enhanced physical security in and around the premises. 
  • Outside of malicious electoral officials, the most devastating potential insider threat to governing bodies and the voting process are far-right sheriffs, influenced by so-called “Constitutional Sheriff” ideology and election denialism. This judgment is based on their openly stated willingness to effectively interfere in election processes, as well as their access and proximity to critical voting infrastructure. Moreover, because many sheriff’s departments engage in policing duties, the presence of extremist insiders endangers organizational reputation, as well as the fair, impartial, and effective provision of public safety. 
  • Far-right extremists within non-sheriff police departments and military services also pose substantial insider threats. While malicious actors within these entities threaten public safety and national security, they do not present potential harm to democratic procedural foundations the way far-right sheriffs do. 
  • Already high levels of political polarization will deepen over the next 12 months
  • Deepening political polarization is predicted to evolve in two ways: between outgroups (right-wing and left-wing actors mobilizing against each other) and within left-wing and right-wing milieus. Growing discontent over Biden’s policies in relation to the Israel-Hamas conflict has led to significant rifts on the wider political left, including cases of harassment, threats, and violence in the most extreme cases. Among right-wing actors, candidates and political figures who are perceived to be too “moderate” or compromising on key issues of interest are expected to be targeted with harassment, threats, vandalism, and violence in the most extreme cases. 
  • Actors on the wider political left and political right, including those on their fringes, are divided by several social wedge issues. For those on the left, key issues include the growing gap between rich and poor, climate change, gender/reproductive rights, police reform, and racial disparities in socioeconomic outcomes. For those on the right, key issues include systematic electoral fraud, tightening border security, opposition to “critical race theory” (CRT) curricula in K-12 schools and universities, the teaching of LGBTQ+ content in K-12 schools, abortion, and workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies. 
  • Both far-left and far-right actors are also motivated by the desire to mobilize against each other. This includes both rhetoric and real-world activities that often involve competing political assemblies, threats, and street violence. 
  • Discontent directed at law enforcement practices and powers is a significant wedge issue that has grown over at least the past 10 years. For actors on the right, including the far-right, moral outrage has been largely expressed at federal law enforcement for investigations into alleged crimes committed by Trump. For actors on the left, including the far left, moral outrage has been largely expressed at state and local police agencies over concerns about excessive and lethal force, particularly against members of racial/ethnic minority communities. 
  • A subset of far-right and far-left actors have demonstrated a willingness to engage in homicidal action against police and other law enforcement officials. While most far-left violence has typically been directed at property rather than people, a consistent exception is fatal targeting of police officers. Far-right actors, as of late, have threatened and violently targeted agents perceived to be carrying out political persecution against Trump. Recent legal developments, such as Trump’s conviction in a New York State court, suggest target sets will expand to the state level in certain jurisdictions. 
  • The proliferation of false information and conspiracy theories are playing important roles in both mainstream and extremist discourse. Contrary to popular belief, the main effect of this proliferation is reinforcing existing beliefs and mobilizing individuals rather than persuading nonbelievers. Three conspiracy theories, all on the wider political right, are judged to be the most influential over the next 12 months: “Stop the Steal” (election denialism), “Great Replacement” (leftists and others allowing mass migration to engineer a political takeover of America), and QAnon (the U.S. government is secretly controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles). 
  • The far left does not have any salient conspiracy theories commensurate with the scale, volume of content, and level of mainstream support as found on the far right. However, factors such as targeting by hostile foreign states, the current Israel-Hamas conflict, and the existence of largely unregulated platforms like TikTok present potential, but hitherto unrealized, vectors for mis/disinformation on the wider political left. 
  • This analysis judges domestic far-right actors, particularly those motivated by election denialist beliefs, to be the most active and potentially damaging actors weaponizing false information against America, rather than state actors and far-leftists. This is due to the political influence of Trump, as well as election denialist supporters with access to critical voting infrastructure. 
  • Despite alarm surrounding synthetically produced audiovisual content using artificial intelligence (AI), called “deepfakes,” their use is likely to be limited to highly targeted mis/disinformation campaigns. “Cheapfakes,” which do not involve the use of AI, are more likely to be used over the next 12 months because they are easier to produce and can be just as deceptively persuasive as deepfakes. 
  • Hostile foreign states like Russia and China will engage in disinformation campaigns with intent to influence the 2024 election outcome. They are judged to likely favor Trump’s candidacy given their geopolitical interest in areas such as Ukraine and Taiwan and will direct their influence operation campaigns accordingly. 
  • The 2024 election season will exacerbate challenges posed by political polarization, divergent responses to social wedge issues, and the presence of conspiracy theories and mis/disinformation in the public square. Competition motivates politicians, including leading presidential candidates, to engage in bombastic rhetoric that focuses less on policy and more on scoring political points. Thus, social tensions are expected to be inflamed for at least the next 12 months. 
  • Trump and the “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) movement’s influence in political discourse and policymaking present a significant challenge to democratic governance. Whether intentional or not, Trump’s rhetoric significantly facilitated the introduction of far-right ideas into wider mainstream conservatism. He and his associated movement symbolize the transformation of large segments of mainstream conservatism into right-wing populism with strong illiberal and authoritarian undercurrents. 
  • Trump’s potential legal and political outcomes affect not only the political landscape, but also public safety. Any legal outcomes that effectively suppress Trump’s ability to run for office are potential triggers for domestic terrorist acts. Further, if Trump is reelected, more fear, anger, and elation will motivate both far-left and far-right domestic violent extremists to engage in continued violent mobilization and countermobilization into 2028. 
  • Religious actors will play a highly influential role in the next 12 months. Christian nationalists constitute a sizeable part of the wider political right’s base and larger American electorate. Although mostly driven by Whites, Christian nationalism also has a sizeable racial/ethnic minority component that will be central to the MAGA movement’s public framing and outreach to minority communities. Christian nationalism also can mobilize individuals into violence. 
  • Although given comparatively less attention, left-wing religious actors also play influential roles in U.S. politics. Their influence is currently not at the same level on the wider political left as Christian nationalists are on the wider political right. However, religious actors are expected to gain influence within the wider political left over the next 12 months due to their ability to mobilize diverse communities and serve as a counternarrative to the religious appeals made by Christian nationalists.  
  • Issues of gender and sexuality have also become politically salient in at least the past seven years and mobilized millions of Americans, including those on its political fringes. These issues include support for or opposition to “Critical Race Theory” in K-12 schools, DEI in the workplace, and access to abortion.  
  • The heated rhetoric surrounding gender and sexuality, including demonization and dehumanization of women and LGBTQ+ minorities, will fuel armed mobilization, harassment, threats, and violence, particularly on the far right. In reaction, far-leftists are expected to continue doxxing, counterprotesting, and armed countermobilizations. 
  • While the Israel-Hamas war has motivated actors across the political spectrum, far-left actors are most energized and mobilized by the conflict. In some more extreme cases, it has also led to cases of harassment, vandalism, threats, and acts of violence directed at a variety of targets, including elected officials. 
  • The greatest threats against people are directed at Jews and individuals who are – or perceived to be — of Middle Eastern background or Muslim. Hate crimes and other acts of political violence are expected to continue rising as long as the armed conflict in Gaza continues. 
  • The war in Ukraine, meanwhile, has mobilized segments of the violent far right. While the threat of U.S. citizens with far-right beliefs participating in the conflict, then returning to the United States and carrying out attacks has not yet materialized, there is some evidence to suggest that far-right extremists are attempting to learn from lethal innovations developed on the battlefield.  
  • 3D printing will impact public safety over the 12 months, particularly as a way for far-right extremists to manufacture firearms and firearm parts. In general, the manufacturing of 3D-printed weapons is favored by far-right extremists, but there is some anecdotal evidence that far-leftists are also starting to embrace this technology. 
  • Domestic extremists have slowly adopted UAS (uncrewed air system) technology and used it in limited circumstances. In the short term, drones will most likely be employed for surveillance and propaganda dissemination purposes. However, it is more likely to influence other aspects of operational tradecraft in the long term. 
  • AI has many potential malicious uses for extremist actors. The two most likely uses over the next 12 months are scaling up disruption campaigns by far-right election denialists and the rapid dissemination of propaganda and disinformation online. 

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