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Ex-National Security Officials Warn Of Mass Radicalization

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The writer Jonah Goldberg gave a warning on today's program. Goldberg was talking about the way so many Republicans signed on to a spurious lawsuit rejected by the Supreme Court, which proposed to do away with democracy and keep Donald Trump president. Goldberg said many of his fellow Republicans think lying about the election is, quote, "a game." But by feeding disinformation to supporters who have guns, Republicans may trigger violence. Former national security officials from both parties share similar concerns. They fear mass radicalization and warn it will not end with a new administration. NPR's Hannah Allam reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARY MCCORD: Thanks so much, Mike and...

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: As the Zoom conference begins, little squares pop up with the faces of former national security officials, people who played senior roles in federal government under both Republican and Democratic presidents. They say, hello, smile, then Mary McCord gets right down to business.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCORD: How do we address this going forward, this apparent radicalization of such a large segment of the population?

ALLAM: McCord is a veteran Justice Department prosecutor. She used to oversee terrorism cases. Now she's one of many former officials who warn about the conservative drift into conspiracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stop the steal. Stop the steal. Stop the steal.

ALLAM: Just look at the lockdown protests, or Stop the Steal movement, she says. Ordinary conservatives who are fired up by disinformation now march alongside heavily armed extremists. McCord says the line between mainstream and fringe is vanishing. What we're witnessing, she and other analysts say, is a mass radicalization.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCORD: This tent that used to be sort of far-right extremists has gotten a lot broader. To me, as a former counterterrorism official, that's a radicalization process.

ELIZABETH NEUMANN: Thank you for bringing this up. This is, like, the thing that I lie awake at night wondering about, and I look forward to other solutions 'cause I feel like I'm...

ALLAM: That's Elizabeth Neumann. She was a Homeland Security official who served until last spring. She talks about the conservative media world as a portal to another reality, one where the election was stolen, the pandemic isn't a big deal and Democrats aren't just political opponents but dangerous enemies. Neumann says she has relatives who've gone down that rabbit hole.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEUMANN: For me personally, I am wrestling with how do I help people that have - unbeknownst to them, they've become radicalized in their thought. They hold views that they didn't hold 10 years ago. I have argued that unless we help them break the deception, we cannot operate with 30% of the country holding the extreme views that they do.

ALLAM: Eventually, the talk turns to solutions - public awareness campaigns, enlisting faith leaders. But for any of this to work, they say, it has to start at the top.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KORI SCHAKE: Leadership really matters.

ALLAM: That's Kori Schake. She served in the Departments of State and Defense, as well as at the National Security Council.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHAKE: It really matters that the president of the United States is an arsonist of radicalization, and it will really help when that's no longer the case.

ALLAM: As with most of these discussions, the Zoom panel is heavy on diagnosis, light on prescription. There are no quick fixes. McCord acknowledges how dire it all feels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCORD: We try to turn upbeat here - right? - but there's a lot that's just very, very troublesome right now about where we're at.

ARIE KRUGLANSKI: It's part of this polarization that is tearing our country, our society asunder.

ALLAM: Arie Kruglanski is a University of Maryland professor who's known for his trailblazing research on extremists. He spent years interviewing militants around the world. I ask him for his take on what the former officials were saying about the prospect of mass radicalization. He says history shows how quickly it can happen.

KRUGLANSKI: Every large political movement started, at one point, as a small fringe minority. And when it catches on, it can engulf the whole society. So, you know, the danger is there.

ALLAM: Kruglanski says right now, the U.S. political climate has all the right ingredients.

KRUGLANSKI: We don't trust the government. We don't trust the Congress. We don't trust the Supreme Court. We don't trust now the science. We don't trust medicine. We don't trust the media for sure. So who do we trust? Well, we trust our tribe. We trust the conspiracy theories that tell us what we want to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: The Democrat Party is no longer an American Party.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Unintelligible).

GREENE: They're the party of socialism.

CHRISTINA BOBB: They keep playing pretend, calling Joe Biden president-elect and ignoring the fact that there's a very real possibility Donald Trump will win in court.

GRANT STINCHFIELD: These data analyses suggest that in contrast to most people's assumptions, the number of deaths by COVID-19 is not alarming.

ALLAM: Those messages are on a propaganda loop, delivered to millions of Americans who reject Joe Biden as the legitimately elected next president. Instead, they stay cocooned in their own media bubble, their own social networks and, ultimately, their own truth. Hannah Allam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.