The 'Right-Wing Extremism' Report and Europeanization

Numerous commentators have noted the extreme flimsiness of the DHS “rightwing-extremism” report. How seriously, after all, can one take a report on the ostensible threat of violent “right-wing extremism” that begins by admitting that it has no “specific information” to support the conclusion that the threat in question even exists? The alleged “resurgence” of “right-wing extremism” announced in the title turns out to be a matter of pure speculation, based on factors whose actual effects on “extreme” right-wing “radicalization and recruitment” are not substantiated with a single piece of concrete evidence. As Michelle Malkin has pointed out, in marked contrast to earlier DHS reports on, for instance, radical environmentalist groups, the “right-wing extremism” report fails even to name any ostensibly “right-wing extremist” groups.

But perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the DHS “right-wing extremist” report is the very use of the expression “right-wing extremism.” There is very little tradition of using this broad-brush designation to discuss American political movements. A search of the last twenty years of the New York Times archives, for example, turns up 57 uses of the expression “right-wing extremism.” (There is one additional use of the unhyphenated version -- “rightwing extremism” -- employed by the DHS.) Of these 57 uses, however, some 37 refer to European developments, with roughly half the total referring specifically to Germany (and over half to either Germany or Austria). There are only a handful of examples, averaging out to less than one per year, of the term appearing in the Times to refer to American developments. Those examples, moreover, are for the most part obviously politicized and hyperbolic -- as, for instance, when Vice President Al Gore in October 1995 accused the Republican-controlled congress of being “right-wing [and] extremist.”

A search of government records turns up a similar paucity of the expression in official American political discourse. Here again, when the expression does appear, it is typically employed to refer to European and, above all, German political phenomena. (See here, for instance, in the entry on Germany in the State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report.) Here again, when the expression is used to refer to American political phenomena, it is typically employed in an obviously politicized and hyperbolic manner to refer to mainstream Republicans -- as, for instance, when Bernie Sanders, America’s only self-described “socialist” senator, linked “right-wing extremism” and the Bush administration. There is some scattered evidence of law enforcement officials occasionally using the term.

If the expression “right-wing extremism” is uncommon in American political discourse, however, its German equivalent -- Rechtsextremismus -- is a standard element of German political discourse. A search of the electronic archives of Germany’s paper of record, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), turns up over 2000 articles in which the term is used in just the last 16 years. A search of just the last year of the FAZ archives turns up 121 articles: more than twice the number found in the New York Times in the last twenty years. The German domestic intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution [Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz], includes detailed information on “right-wing extremist” movements and detailed statistics on “right-wing extremist” violence in each of its yearly reports. The section specifically devoted to the analysis of “right-wing extremist” movements in the last available report (covering 2007) is over 80 pages long -- this as compared to the scanty seven pages of would-be analysis in the DHS report. The Verfassungsschutz report also includes a section on “left-wing extremism” [Linksextremismus] of about the same length.

Could the DHS “analysts” be copying or -- perhaps, more exactly, in light of the glaring lack of professionalism their work displays -- aping the practices of their German colleagues? It would seem so. The only even somewhat specific supporting reference in the DHS report is to a study conducted by the German Institute for Economic Research. “According to a 2007 study from the German Institute for Economic Research, there appears to be a strong association between a parent’s unemployment status and the formation of right-wing extremist beliefs in their children,” the authors tell us -- as if the German finding ought somehow to be relevant to American “extremism.” In keeping with the general shoddiness of the report, the authors do not provide any more precise bibliographical information about the cited study.