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Motivations for Domestic Right-Wing Terrorism in the United States

Motivations for Domestic Right-Wing Terrorism in the United States

Photo credit: Andrew Aliferis

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Piazza, J.A. (2017). The determinants of domestic right-wing terrorism in the USA: Economic grievance, societal change and political resentment. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 34(1), 52-80.

Talking Points

  • In the U.S., domestic right-wing terrorism is most clearly related to the following factors:
    • Higher abortion rates
    • Higher levels of female participation in the workforce
    • A Democratic president
  • Changes in gender relations may be profoundly threatening to certain individuals, resulting in their use of terrorist tactics to attempt to re-assert control.
  • Symbolic targets and threats to identity privilege are more important to motivating right-wing terrorism than objections to policy or more straightforward material or economic factors.


The word “terrorism” conjures particular images and assumptions these days in the U.S. With the focus on so-called “Islamic” extremism, similar acts of violence carried out domestically—by people with names that do not appear to originate in the Muslim world—often do not even register as “terrorism.” There were, however, 2,362 incidents of domestic terrorism in the U.S. between 1970 and 2011. The author is particularly interested in domestic right-wing terrorism, which is set apart from other forms of domestic terrorism by the “extremist right-wing political ideologies” that motivate it: “extreme nationalism, racism and white supremacy”; “Christian religious radicalism”; and/or “radical anti-government beliefs.” This article seeks to identify the factors most associated with the occurrence of this particular kind of terrorism in the U.S.

Drawing on past research, the author examines three categories of possible motivating factors for domestic right-wing terrorism: economic grievances, societal changes (notably, the perceived loss of white male privilege), and political/”big government” resentment. With the first, the thinking is that major structural changes in the economy, especially the loss of industrial and agricultural jobs, can create economic grievances that fuel support for extreme, right-wing ideologies and possibly terrorism. Second, scholars suggest that a shift towards greater recognition and power for women and ethnic/racial/religious minorities has challenged the more traditional dominance of white (Christian) males in U.S. society, leading to increased participation in extremist right-wing groups. Finally, there is a dominant strain in right-wing rhetoric about the tyranny of “big government” and a common sentiment of political alienation among right-wing extremists who believe that government must be “taken back,” in a sense. This political resentment could play out in two different ways: the presence of Democrats in office (as well as left-wing legislation like gun control or higher taxes) might correlate with increased right-wing terrorism out of anger or retaliation, or the presence of Republicans in office might increase rightwing terrorism due to perceived tolerance or unspoken encouragement. These reflections result in several hypotheses:

Economic grievances: States in the U.S. with “high levels of poverty” (Hypothesis 1), “declining industrial employment” (Hypothesis 2), and/or “declining numbers of individual farms” (Hypothesis 3) are considered “more likely to experience right-wing terrorism.”

Societal changes/decline in white male privilege: States in the U.S. with “larger non-white populations” (Hypothesis 4), “higher rates of abortion” (Hypothesis 5), and/or “higher rates of female participation in the labor force” (Hypothesis 6) are “more likely to experience right-wing terrorism.”

“Big government”/political resentment: An increase in Federal Tax Rates (Hypothesis 7), Democratic control of a state’s legislature (Hypothesis 8a), Republican control of a state’s legislature (Hypothesis 8b), a Democratic president (Hypothesis 9a), and/or a Republican president (Hypothesis 9b) will correlate with “more right-wing terrorism.”

The author uses statistical analysis to determine what, if any, relationship there is between the proposed economic, societal, and political variables and the number of domestic right-wing terrorist attacks. Utilizing the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, the author found that, of the 2,362 domestic terrorist attacks perpetrated between 1970 and 2011, almost one quarter (578) can be designated as “right-wing.”

The research findings show some support for societal change (especially a perceived decline in white male privilege) and political resentment motivating domestic right-wing terrorism but do not show any support for economic grievances playing a role. In particular, higher rates of abortion, higher levels of female participation in the labor force, and Democratic control of the presidency were the most significant factors related to increased right-wing terrorism, providing support for Hypotheses 5, 6, and 9a. These findings suggest that domestic right-wing terrorism is motivated more by challenges to identity and power, and by easily identifiable, high-profile symbolic adversaries (like a Democratic president), than by economic restructuring, job loss, or resentment over left-leaning policies. Also, despite recent attention given to anti-immigrant/white-nationalist rhetoric, upsetting traditional gender power relations proved to be more central to the turn to right-wing terrorism than an increase in non-white/ Anglo populations.

Terrorism: The threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious o[r] social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation. (University of Maryland START Center Global Terrorism Database)

*Note that this is one of many definitions of terrorism, and there is substantial debate on the term’s definition. Points of contention include whether terrorism can only be enacted by non-state actors or can also be enacted by state actors and whether it only involves violence that intentionally targets civilians (as opposed to combatants). Wider definitions that do not include these limits could also inadvertently apply to state military violence that similarly aims to achieve political goals through coercion. The broader issue here is that the “terrorism” label has an overwhelmingly negative connotation and therefore is often adopted to describe violence with which one disagrees but not violence one sees as necessary, even if the means used in the two instances are strikingly similar (hence the saying, “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter”).

Contemporary Relevance

In the wake of Trump’s election, there has been genuine surprise and much debate in liberal circles about how so many people could have voted for him. One view that has gained prominence, against views that all Trump voters are simply racist or sexist, is that large segments of the U.S. population have been left behind by economic restructuring and globalization and that Democrats have not taken the concerns of these constituents seriously enough. This research downplays the role of such economic factors in motivating right-wing extremist violence—which of course is very different from simple support of a right-wing political agenda or candidate. It is worth keeping in mind that different factors may very well motivate the two: support for right-wing terrorism versus support for a right-wing agenda— and that we should not just care about people’s grievances when or because they may motivate violence.

Practical Implications

There are no immediately clear policy implications of these research findings. On the one hand, the research suggests that policies to alleviate poverty, create jobs, and redistribute wealth—though good for other reasons—may not in fact prevent the adoption of violent right-wing strategies. On the other hand, returning to more “traditional” gender roles or keeping Democrats out of the White House are not desirable or realistic courses of action. Instead, this research raises more fundamental questions about the grievances that motivate violence and to what extent “we” should validate and/or address all such grievances—or whether it is acceptable to make a judgment about which grievances are legitimate, and should be addressed, and which are/should not. While perhaps we can understand that losing certain forms of power or privilege is difficult for the individuals experiencing it, that loss may actually be in the service of justice if it means that those who have long been disempowered or marginalized—women, for instance— are now able to shape their own lives.

Perhaps the most important practical implication of the research is the need for education and long-term cultural change with regards to gender norms—but also for empathy for those of us who may be holding on to gender (or racial) privilege in the context of socioeconomic marginalization, while remaining firm with regards to the justice of gender, racial, and socioeconomic equality. One key way to do all of these things at once is for activists to highlight the commonalities between different forms of oppression to create understanding and alliances between seemingly adversarial groups. Creating the “beloved community” is a fraught and messy enterprise, but the bottom line is that inclusion and a sense of belonging for all of us, regardless of political persuasion, will ultimately make us all safer, as well as our communities more just.

Keywords: Extremism, political violence, right-wing terrorism, USA

The above analysis is from Volume 2, Issue 2, of the Peace Science Digest.

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