On Saturday, an 18-year-old man traveled from Conklin, New York, to Buffalo, where he shot and killed 10 Black people at a grocery store. The following day, a Chinese-born Las Vegas man traveled to an Orange County, California, church to kill Taiwanese people. For Americans watching two ethnically motivated attacks in one weekend, it was hard to avoid the sensation that a problem that had been slowly gathering for years was quickly spiraling out of control.
To find out, I spoke with Elizabeth Neumann, a former Department of Homeland Security official under former President Donald Trump. Previously, she served on the Homeland Security Council under George W. Bush. Neumann left DHS in April 2020 and is currently chief strategy officer at Moonshot, a company that develops new technology and methodologies to combat online harms, including radicalization. And she says, yes, there are more radicalized people than ever before, and there are reasons for it we need to pay more attention to.
“It’s kind of like a weather warning,” she said. “What extremist researchers are saying is, ‘The conditions are ripe for violence,’ because of all of these factors are at play in a volatile environment.”
Among those factors: Increasing globalization creates uncertainty that makes people everywhere more vulnerable to hateful arguments and the solutions presented by those arguments. Politicians and public figures, particularly on the right in the United States, play a key role, too. Even if they are motivated by getting more viewers or winning elections, Neumann says, “They know what they’re doing. They’re choosing to ignore it, or they think they can get away with it.”
We also touched on solutions. The fact that there are solutions, and there appear to have been solutions that would have worked in the Buffalo shooter’s case, makes her hopeful, she said.
“But on the other hand,” she said, “it makes me very sad that there weren’t resources in place to be able to run those interventions in this case.”
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Katelyn Fossett: Would you consider the Buffalo shooter a Christian extremist?
Elizabeth Neumann: According to his manifesto — all the caveats apply: He’s presenting to the world what he wants the world to see, so until the investigation is done, I don’t know that we have a fully accurate picture. But what he mentioned in the manifesto was that he is not a Christian. And he clarified that what he meant was that he did not believe there was a need for salvation; he did not believe in salvation by faith; and he doesn’t believe in an afterlife. Even the phrase “salvation by faith” tells me he’s been exposed to Christian teaching, because that’s almost a direct quote out of the New Testament.
But then he goes on and says he agrees with Christian values. And that’s the piece that’s fascinating for those who are studying Christian nationalism. There are people today who walk into the voting booth, and when they are asked what their religious affiliation is, they will say Christian, not because they have put their faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, but because culturally, that is who they spend time with and that’s what they’re most comfortable with. It’s more an identity label and less an actual religion or faith. There are aspects of Christian nationalism where the people who are Christian nationalist might not even consider themselves Christian, like this guy, but strongly want the country to maintain its association with those values. This guy’s primary thrust was an ethnonationalist viewpoint that the United States belongs to white people and white Europeans, and there is an evil conspiracy coordinated by the Jews to get rid of white people through a combination of low birth rates and having immigrants come in and have higher birth rates.
There are lots of strains in this conspiracy theory that can go in a lot of different directions, but his main point was that we are going to lose the white race and America should be white; and he’s fighting back to save his culture, and he sees his culture as inherently Christian or having Christian values. So that’s getting close to Christian nationalism in that a Christian nationalist also has a belief that America was founded as a Christian nation, but there’s a bit more religion [in Christian nationalism]. Strong Christian nationalists will tell you that in order for America to maintain its blessing from God, we must be a moral nation. We are no longer a moral nation; we need to fight back and preserve morality; we need to institute morals into our laws, otherwise the Lord is going to remove his blessing and we will no longer be a Christian nation.
There are variations on Christian nationalism. It’s not like somebody is the owner of the ideology and says, “No, no, it’s only one thing.” You could walk into one church and go like, “Oh, this is Christian nationalist.” And then you could walk into a country club where they’re not talking about religious things at all, and it can also seem Christian nationalist. It’s more about the cultural identity of Christian values being forced into our lives, and the motive might be a little different. In this case, the guy is thinking of it through a very cultural lens — an ethnonationalist viewpoint of “I want to preserve white culture, and white culture is inherently Christian,” in his mind. Perhaps another person who is a Christian nationalist — it might not at all, at least on its face, have anything to do with race, and it’s just, “I just wanted God’s blessing on my country, and we need to force Christian morals on the country.”
Fossett: It seems like these extremist ideologies are melding together. Is that something you’re observing with some of these ideologies, which appear to be increasingly motivating attacks like these?
Neumann: There is a recognized phenomenon within the past five years or so of an extremist or attacker picking or choosing their ideology across things that might seem to contradict one another. The FBI calls it “salad-bar ideology.” You know, “I want a little bit of eco-fascism, I want a little bit of racism, I’m also anti-Semitic.” And sometimes there are carve-outs for why this one thing is OK, but this one thing isn’t. It’s very much like choose-your-own-extremist-ideology. It’s increasingly narrowed down, like everything that is marketed to us now — you can get very particular about the way you want something, and the internet has allowed us to personalize the extremist ideology. So that is a very real thing that we have noticed in increasing levels over the past five or six years.
The other piece of your question is about how and why motivations for these killings are changing. Eleven years ago, you have the attacker in Norway who killed 77 kids basically in the name of replacement theory ideology. He was the modern instantiation of the conspiracy theory that has been around in some form or fashion for decades — or even centuries or millennia, because it all comes back to being anti-Semitic.
From that moment in 2011, we start to see a series of attacks globally — Christchurch being one of the biggest ones. This is not just the U.S. and Europe; this is all over the world, where white people are saying “We’re better,” and they’re pushing back on what they see as an encroachment on the white way of life. One of the factors to this seeming to have caught wind is some very real demographic changes. We’re increasingly globalized, we’re increasingly transnational, and immigration from the global south to the global north has increased dramatically over the past 10 years and is expected to continue to increase. There are very real factors, and we also have institutions that are not well-equipped to adjust to these very fast changes that we’re all experiencing.
There are very real demographic changes; there are very real technological changes and jobs getting shipped overseas. And that creates opportunity for grievance — real grievance. If you lose your job because a factory overseas can do it cheaper, that hurts. That hurts your self-confidence and your sense of well-being, and it creates uncertainty. Uncertainty [about this upheaval] is one of those key factors that researchers have found common among people who join extremist movements. When you have uncertainty, you are open to being told the reasons for your crises and uncertainties and solutions for those uncertainties that involve violence toward the person who is scapegoated for your problems. Today, in 2022, we’re seeing much more of it. It’s not surprising because there has just been a lot of change.
If you bring it back to the U.S., and take some of the societal changes out of it and look at the Christian community, they have gone through — on one end of the spectrum, we had George W. Bush as president, and then, by 2015, gay marriage is legalized, and they start to see people owning businesses getting taken to court for their refusal to provide services for a gay wedding. And very quickly, you get to narratives around, “They’re criminalizing Christianity.” I remember personally hearing sermons like, “In my lifetime, I as a pastor am likely to be jailed. Your children might not be able to hear an orthodox teaching of the Bible.” This fear really set in that the Christian experience that most have had their entire life is not something that their grandchildren are going to enjoy. I hear that all the time when I go home: that the world is changing so fast … that creates a lot of fear, and that fear, in an election year, is used to get votes and raise money. And for some, it gets used to suggest that violence might be necessary. So much so that, flash forward to polls in late 2021, that found that — depending on the poll — 30-40 percent of white evangelicals believe they might need to take up arms to defend the country they love.
[They think], “The government has failed. I need to go restore liberty.” Of course, one of the motivations behind January 6 is a wrong belief in the election being stolen, and they thought that [the insurrection] was the right thing to do to save your country.
When you have such rapid change, and you have uncertainty, and you have monetization factors like political candidates and media magnets that make money off fear, you’re creating the soup, the toxic soup, that makes people vulnerable. And then it doesn’t take much for a threat actor to come in and cultivate extremist thoughts and move people to actual hostile action. And maybe that’s not terrorism; maybe it’s harassing threats at a school board meeting. That’s still a hostile action. That’s still, according to [terrorism researcher] J.M. Berger’s definition of extremism, which is any time an in-group believes an out-group poses a threat to you or to the in-group’s success or survival. And they think that hostile action is necessary. Hostile action can be bullying, it can be intimidation, it can be hate crimes. It can be terrorism. It can be war. There’s the whole spectrum of it. But the moment that you’re intimidating and bullying, or crossing into a hate crime realm, that’s still extremism.
Not everybody takes that next step, commits an act of violence and actually harms people. But it’s a path. And even with as much research as we have and what we understand about attackers and people that get radicalized and become extremist, it’s still impossible to predict if you have a pool of 100 people that meet that extremist definition, which one of them is going to go actually commit the attack? We don’t know.
So any time you have a large pool of people that have been radicalized — and I would argue that today we have a lot more in the country than we’ve ever had before — it makes it extremely difficult to know who you need to actually have your eyes on because they’re the one that is going to commit the attack. There are just too many.
Fossett: What role have politicians played in the Buffalo shotting and other attacks like it?
Neumann: So it is fairly clear from the Buffalo attacker’s manifesto — again, we don’t know the full investigation yet — he does not seem to have been radicalized through mainstream mechanisms. So I want to make sure that caveat is there before I say the this next piece.
That said, we have a whole host of people who are routinely spending time discussing and being angry about and talking in coded language — whether they actually understand the code or not — around ideas that for a long time were on the fringe and would not have been discussed in the mainstream. Very common phrase used among extremist researchers is “The extreme has gone mainstream.” It is just kind of normal these days to hear in conservative Republican circles this idea of, “Well, they’re trying to bring in the immigrants to replace the conservatives, the Republicans, the real Americans. They’re trying to make them all Democrat voters.” And so there’s a part of that that’s like: OK, so you’re making an assertion that if you bring 100 people in that are immigrants, that you think 55 percent of them are going to be Democrats over the 45 percent that might be Republicans. Maybe you’re genuinely just trying to talk about the ability for you to maintain political power. Maybe that’s all you mean. But there are other voices that go the next step and start demonizing the immigrant. They use language that makes the immigrants seem less than human, including comparing them to rodents or animals or saying they’re dirty or less than human. And anytime you start seeing that kind of language, it really alarms extremist researchers, because that’s an important step before somebody commits violence.
Human beings are created not to kill one another. In order to get your mind to a place where you’re OK with killing somebody, you have to make them less than human in your mind. And when you start having voices making those arguments for you on TV, and politicians, the impact it has on the conversation and the ideas that are circulating in conservative and Republican circles is it’s starting to change people’s minds about certain people and demographic groups. That happens even if the motives of those politicians and the people on TV are making money or getting viewers. Maybe they don’t actually believe it. I think that’s in large the case for television guys.
And it’s not just racially based. It’s also about “those people on the coasts,” and “They don’t understand us. They’re extreme.” So it’s anytime you’re is saying, “I’m this way and those other people don’t get me; those other people are evil.”
And when you’re talking about a country of 330 million, yeah, most people are not going to go commit an act of violence; it’s a small percentage. But a small percentage is a lot of people. It’s a lot of violence.
So I think the concern of the last five to seven years is rapid change, great uncertainty, voices in leadership — including at one point the president of the United States — dehumanizing their opponents and bringing into the mainstream political dialogue conversations or phrases or ideas that had in the past been shunned as hateful, as racist, as conspiracy-laden and not true. Now they’re welcomed and talked about, and that’s creating the circumstances from which the violence can occur. It’s kind of like a weather warning. The conditions are ripe for a tornado or for a hurricane to form. What extremist researchers are saying is, “The conditions are ripe for violence,” because of all of these factors are at play in a volatile environment. And we just went through Covid — talk about the height of height of uncertainty and fear. That was a really scary time for a lot of people. They lost jobs. They lost loved ones. All of those are known contributors for creating uncertainty and making people more susceptible to extremist thoughts.
There are more radicalized people right now, and there are a lot of reasons for it, but certainly leadership on the right is complicit. At this point, they know what they’re doing. They’re choosing to ignore it, or they think they can get away with it. Especially after 2019, when you have the president's campaign slogan end up in a terrorist manifesto and it’s plastered all over the New York Times a couple of days later … You might not want to believe it. You might not want to believe that evil people might be inspired by politicians, but it’s just the height of irresponsibility for you to have not been aware of it. And so those that are continuing it, I think they have a lot of accountability for some of the deaths that we’ve seen.
Fossett: What do you think politicians should do when something like this happens? Especially Republican politicians who want to make sure they’re not encouraging this?
Neumann: I loved Liz Cheney’s statement that she put out calling on Republicans and conservatives to denounce white supremacy and to denounce replacement theory. It’s one thing for somebody on the left to do that, or for people that like myself who are constantly trying to warn about this. At some point, people are like, “Yeah, yeah, you said this before.” It really would be quite something if you had House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy come out and say, “I should've done this earlier, but I really realize how damaging this kind of language can be. And it was never my intent. But I own the fact that I am the leader of the Republican Party, and there are members in our ranks that are dabbling in … and some of them are hanging out at white nationalist rallies. And we’re going to take this seriously and we’re going to hold our members accountable for making sure that they do not promote hate. Violence is not the way that we solve our disagreements. We can disagree with one another and still treat one another like human beings.”
Something along those lines: acknowledging that you haven’t done enough to this point and vehemently condemning white supremacy, white nationalism, racism, hate crimes, all of that. And condemning not just the attacker, but the ideology behind it. And then committing to holding their party members accountable.
That would be different than what we usually see, which is, you know, “This is a horrific act,” and “We condemn the act.” Of course, everybody condemns the act. But do you condemn the ideas behind the act? Do you condemn the fact that [Fox News host] Tucker Carlson has been talking about this and did a special on this idea of replacement theory, and that is creating the fear factor that is driving people to go look deeper? It’s an on-ramp to being radicalized. That doesn’t mean that Carlson did the radicalization himself, but it’s irresponsible for him to create the conditions that lead people to go and search for these dark channels of the internet where they become radicalized.
I think you can be a conservative without having to cater to white supremacists and white nationalists and those conspiracy theories.
Now we’ve had several attacks. Language coming out of the political right is showing up in those manifestos. And you’ve got to denounce it and you have to denounce it hard, over and over and over again. It would be really powerful if they could do that.
Fossett: Given your expertise and research, and looking at the Buffalo attacker’s background, where do you think are the hinge points in his story where someone could have intervened and stopped this?
Neumann: We’re starting to see more about the attacker’s interactions with law enforcement. There were signs of disturbing behavior in the last year. It does seem like there were probably points along his journey that where intervention could have worked, and he could have been off-ramped and this could have been avoided. That makes me hopeful that maybe we can do that before the next attack happens, but on the other hand, it makes me very sad that there weren’t resources in place to be able to run those interventions in this case.
We have some really strong evidence about why and how people radicalize and what can be done at various stages on those journeys to both build resilience in people that are vulnerable and and that are on radicalization pathways. When I was at DHS, we were studying this. We actually asked Rand to do a study for us. They came back with a number of recommendations that we adopted. We were able to secure funding, which is kind of like one of the bright spots in the Trump administration in the story of otherwise ignoring domestic terrorism. And it was largely due to three secretaries who were committed to trying to address domestic terrorism, even if the White House didn’t care. We created what is now called the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships. We put people in the field to start building out prevention capability, restarted a grant program, increased its funding, and we went from $3 million to $30 million [in funding]. So that’s the good news.
The Biden administration came in and improved the concept, in part because it was based on a pilot from the Obama years. It had just been updated based on the latest information and latest evidence. And they wrote their domestic terrorism strategy, which is great. And then they haven’t funded it. It’s stayed flat. So we’re currently spending $30 million on prevention. That's non-law-enforcement prevention.
Back in 2016 and 2017, there were three or four different think tanks that were looking at prevention funding. And the recommendations range from, on one end, that the U.S. should be spending $150 million to $250 million a year. One recommendation was all the way up to $1 billion a year for both international and domestic prevention programs. So before we had January 6, before Covid, before the conspiracy theories around elections, we’re seeing recommendations to spend $250 million to $1 billion on prevention. Now, I would say we have an even bigger problem, and we’re still spending $30 million.
I do think we could be doing a lot more. We can design prevention programs that come alongside vulnerable individuals and people that are in radicalization pathways and intervene with them. We can do it offline. We can do it online. I work for Moonshot, which is a company that does online interventions to try to meet people where they are. They’re finding the radicalizing material and trying to either move them to safer content online or move them to offline psychosocial support. Because what we found is that sometimes the people searching for the most harmful content online are very open to empathic messages that meet the underlying need that is driving them. They tend to be angry. They tend to be lonely. They tend to be frustrated. And if you approach them with, “Hey, would you like to talk to somebody?” we actually end up with quite a few people who were searching for violent extremist content who are willing to go and talk to somebody.
So there’s evidence that this works. It’s just not scaled to the pattern that we have. I have hope, but I really need Washington, D.C. to do what it should do, which is authorize things, push the money out and then get out of the way and let the local communities build these capabilities out.
Because we do need to have the resources for parents and schoolteachers and coaches and loved ones to be able to call when they see somebody going down a dark path. They don’t want to call 911. And even if law enforcement shows up, law enforcement can't do something with somebody who’s just ideating or spouting off hate messages. They’re protected under the First Amendment; they can have their hateful ideas. That doesn’t mean they don’t need help. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t safe. And we need to be able to offer an alternative to families and loved ones so that they don’t have to endure these attacks anymore.