The Psychology of Domestic Terrorists: Eliminationism


We live in a soup of extremist attitudes. 

The FBI uncovered and derailed a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The ideas held by the militia group planning the crime are not unusual in these divisive times, nor in Michigan which has a history of militia-type extremist groups.  But there is a longer history to notice.

I grew up with the radio on most of the time, tuned into a university radio station with educational shows on the arts, public affairs, cooking, gardening. The shows expanded imagination, for example, providing insights about foreign lands and people from those lands—building empathy and understanding. It was an introduction to a type of cosmopolitanism welcoming Otherness.

Winner of the William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association in 2015

But what happens if the radio listened to builds prejudices instead of taking them down? What if the shows you hear make you suspicious towards the Other instead of welcoming? What if the shows make you feel threatened by difference and even superior to the Other? Unfortunately, millions of people listen to radio that has these effects.

John F. Kennedy noted right-wing radio’s effects in the 1960s and used federal powers to curtail it (never to be forgotten by right-wing hosts); but after President Reagan dismantled the Fairness Doctrine (requiring alternative views to be presented on the same program), conservative radio took off and provides most radio entertainment in “red” America(Matzko, 2020).

David Neiwert (2009, 2017) describes the decades-long history of how talking points from the extreme right infiltrated mainstream conservatism via the whitewashing of talk radio, specifically, conservative radio. Hosts like Rush Limbaugh, who were considered to be bona fide conservatives, brought in cleaned-up extremist ideas (e.g., “feminazis”) and made them sound conservative. A key feature of right-wing radio is to scapegoat and demonize “enemies.”

After several decades of extremist view seepage into the discourse of conservative-credentialed pundits, extremist ideas are now central to Republican discourse. For example, David Duke, infamous former Klu Klux Klan leader, noted that the Republican Party’s platform in 1996 was very similar to his 1988 platform when he ran for president: antigay, antiimmigrant, antiabortion, antiwelfare, anti-affirmative action. Neiwert explains how this took place.

Right-wing extremism represents a “conservatism movement” in the USA, distinguishable from conservatism per se, which is about conserving tradition and making change slowly and carefully. The conservatism movement focuses on threat and exclusion, demonizing and dehumanizing those who don’t follow the party line. It manipulates the emotions and perceptions of listeners/viewers who are lured in with entertaining stories and susceptible to threat cues (recall that this susceptibility is often shaped by early life stress, contra the evolved nest, which undermines healthy development of the stress response system; Lupien et al., 2009).

The focus on hating those outside the sanctioned fold, even as infotainment, enables harmful action when the opportunity arises. As philosopher Iris Murdoch (2001) pointed out, if one routinely imagines harming someone perceived to be a threat just by their very existence, when the enabling situation arises it is much easier to take the harmful action because it has been imagined so many times. Neiwert writes that “small acts of meanness” (e.g., through words or shunning) can become pervasive and can turn into large acts. He notes:

[Incidents such as] nesting personal encounters, the ugliness at campaign rallies, the violent acts of “lone wolf” gunmen—are anything but rare….what motivates this kind of talk and behavior is called eliminationism: a politics and a culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas in favor of the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through suppression, exile, and ejection, or extermination.

Rhetorically, eliminationism takes on certain distinctive shapes. It always depicts its opposition as beyond the pale, the embodiment of evil itself, unfit for participation in their vision of society, and thus worthy of elimination. It often further depicts its designated Enemy as vermin (especially rats and cockroaches or diseases, and disease-like cancers on the body politic. A close corollary—but not as nakedly eliminationist—is the claim that opponents are traitors or criminals and that they pose a threat to our national security.” (p. 11)

In Neiwert’s account, the two key characteristics that distinguish eliminationist rhetoric from other political discourse is the focus on an enemy within the society, which targets whole groups of people as “vermin,” “animals, “monsters,” and the advocacy of eliminating those people through civil or violent means. In the USA, eliminationists hate the idea of an inclusive America.

In 2009, Neiwert argued that movement conservatism was not fascism –which would be openly revolutionary, dictatorial, reliant on intimidation and violence. However, he perceived “para-fascism” because although they threatened with bluster, movement conservatives lacked “the visceral, paranoid anger that animates so many actual fascists. They try to talk and walk like a fascist, but underneath, they lack the street violence and thuggery, the actual eliminationist enterprise that is the true fascist’s hallmark” (p. 27). Neiwert credited these distinctions for a situation then that was not irretrievable, remarking: “It is by small steps of meanness and viciousness that we lose our humanity” (p. 28). Eliminationism gives permission for people to act out their violence toward condoned targets. (One has to wonder if, with the plot to kidnap, try and possibly execute Governor Whitmer, we have moved past para-fascism.)

History of Eliminationism in the “New World”

Eliminationism in the broad sense was brought to the Americas by the European invaders. Nature was perceived as dead and dumb to be dominated and subdued for human ends (contrary to the Indigenous perspective that Nature is full of other-than-human persons to be respected and partnered with) (Merchant, 2003). Over time, America’s paradise of old growth forests across much of the continent, billions of birds flying around in droves, rivers full of otters and salmon was decimated to look a lot like the European landscape left behind; as we see today with hardly any of the original richness left (Narvaez et al. 2019; Sale, 1990; Turner, 1994). Even today US officials and citizens think nothing of killing animals they consider pests rather than partners.

When the Europeans arrived, Native peoples of the world were considered subhuman so killing them, as Columbus and the Spanish did, was not a sin until a papal edict declared that they were human and could be converted to Christianity; if they did not comply (with conversion rituals they did not understand), then they could justifiably be killed as infidels (McPherson & Rabb, 2011).

The culture brought to the Americas by White Europeans was characterized by superiority to and distrust of non-European and nature’s entities. In fact, they brought most of the “dangerous ideas” that are associated with conflict and violence: superiority, distrust, vulnerability, helplessness, injustice (Eidelson & Eidelson, 2000). Fear of vulnerability and helplessness was countered with control (instead of hospitality) towards Nature and non-Europeans. The European sense of superiority leads to a sense of injustice if their superior position is not maintained. Enslaving Africans added to the certainty of White-European superiority. Thus, there are deep roots of white supremacy in the country. In fact, Southern culture, rooted in slavery and oligarchic plantation society, is considered by some to have won the civil war as exclusionary attitudes and practices and misshapen historical accounts have pervaded the whole country (Richardson, 2020).

Growth or Fixed Orientation to Life?

Eliminationism is stuck in rigid categorization—fixed, black-and-white thinking. In right-wing radio world, instead of encouraging growing compassion (and a growth mindset; Dweck, 2006), individuals are encouraged to perceive the world in fixed categories—in both themselves and others (a factor related to less achievement and creativity, ibid). This, of course, tends to encourage shutting down openness to change or difference, a characteristic of authoritarianism (Stenner, 2009). In fact, a growth orientation improves flexibility and perspective taking, signals of intelligence (Piaget, 1952).

Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: First-Nation Know-How for Global Flourishing: Edited by Darcia Narvaez, PhD

The major religions of the world traditionally considered spiritual growth to be necessary aspect of a religious life (Western Christianity mostly dropped the growth aspect and made religion an identity rather than a following of daily practices toward self-transformation; Wilber, 2006). Part of spiritual growth was decreasing egoism and increasing compassion towards others. Historically and traditionally, hospitality towards the stranger and the needy are part of the nature of a religiously driven good life (Marty, 2005, 2010).

Fundamentalist ideologies are crisis-oriented movements that flourish when the followers are convinced that their way of life is under threat (Almond et al., 1995). It subverts the individual to group needs, a group always headed by a male leader whose instincts are considered superior to reason or expertise.  A form of “stranger danger” becomes pervasive, and “dangerous ideas” flourish: superiority, distrust, vulnerability, helplessness and a sense of injustice or victimization (Eidelson & Eidelson, 2000) as well as conspiracies (Neiwert, 2009). Because the drives toward fundamentalism and authoritarianism are emotional and mostly subconscious, fact-based counter evidence is taken as just more evidence for the truth of a conspiracy (see QAnon).   In a black-and-white world, people feel unsafe and disconnected from the Other, with a pervasive sense of dread. A neo-Darwinian struggle (competitive survival of the fittest) is assumed necessary. Self-protectionism becomes predominant in one’s moral life (Narvaez, 2014).

The Draw of a Key Basic Need: Belonging

A sense of belonging is a key component of human flourishing. Babies feel like they belong to the community when their needs are met quickly, keeping them in a growth state (Narvaez, 2014). Harsh treatment puts them in a self-protective state which can become a trait (Milburn & Conrad, 2016). A welcoming social climate– the hospitality provided even to strangers that most traditional societies practiced– helps children and adults feel welcome and better able to be themselves (Marty, 2005). But there is a huge gap between western ideas of belonging and the approach in traditional societies. In Indigenous societies, a sense of belonging to the natural world and the universe is fundamental. Vision quests form a regular part of child development in Native American communities. One learns to trust oneself to the guidance the universe provides. This requires the society to trust the universe also, to allow the (presumably well raised) individual to follow their muses (spirit guides). Non-interference in the life course of the child is fundamental. A broader and deeper sense of belonging helps alleviate the temptations to feel superior, vulnerable, helpless, or distrustful, which are known to foster harmful behavior. Instead, one learns to practice openness to the guidance from the other than human.

When people are raised outside of a sense of belonging (e.g., basic needs not met as a child through the evolved nest) they will keep searching for reassurance and likely take up a version that inflates the underfed insecure ego, one that emphasizes their superiority, much like the conservatism movement has done for Americans who feel abandoned by family and community.

Taking up Self-Direction

As those who study intuition development understand, one’s intuitions and worldview are shaped by the environments one experiences (Hogarth, 2001). To have control over what intuitions you develop, you must choose relationships and environments carefully, as Aristotle noted. Whatever is repeated in the environments where you spend time—either in words, role models or experiences—is shaping what you think is true about the world. To move away from places and people that inflate your ego and give you dangerous ideas, you must select and build discourses and social environments that encourage openness and practical skilled receptivity (Marty, 2010). As major religions’ spiritual practices advise, as soon as your ego starts to get inflated, take action to move away from that idea and return to a sense of relational connection and humility. Sometimes a revamping of neurobiological capacities to self-calm is required (Mines, 2020; Narvaez, 2014).


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