Inoculating Against the Wrong Attitudes
Kurt Braddock is a thirty-something smart researcher and professor in the communications department of American University who has expanded upon the seventy-year old proposition that people can be conditioned to ignore extremist propaganda This concept, called inoculation theory, begins with the understanding that terrorist recruitment narratives can be persuasive, but that small, injected counternarratives acting like antivirals can turn mindsets away from those same influences.
Braddock has been paid handsomely by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention to explore its utility in preventing ideological violence, with a research grant award of more than half million dollars. His early research, to include his debut book, Weaponized Words, is balanced in its examination of all poisoned ideologies peddled by both the radical left and right and written without the political buzzwords and pretentious jargon exclusive to faculty lounges.
For progressive Democrats, however, hate inoculation is just what the doctor ordered. The theory is a cliché for cultural Marxists, wispy enough around the edges to embrace the idea that all Trump supporters have been radicalized and need to be turned away from their inconvenient political truths. It was only a matter of time before the leftist pedagogy infecting higher education would lower political blinders over inoculation research methodology and outcomes.
In an article posted on its homepage, NBC News has already rushed forward to whet appetites over the possibility of inoculating against violent extremism. Not all extremism, mind you, just the variety that is the latter-day sobriquet for white supremacy, which since January 6 has become a noose for social media to tighten around the neck of Trump supporters and conservatives en masse. Accompanied by photographs of a “pro-Trump mob” waving Don’t Tread on Me flags inside the Capitol building, the article gushes over Biden’s plans to turn DHS into an offensive line against those who might carry out Capitol-like insurgencies.
The pre-planned uprising on January 6 has given the left a tailor-made excuse to reset public opinion on what is and what is not violent extremism. In its opening salvo, the Biden administration has ordered DHS to fund research that will offer the means and method to “take actions to prevent violence before it occurs.”
Soon after the presidential election, Braddock seemed to get the message and took a turn to illiberality. In a Conversation piece published a week before the second Senate impeachment trial, he huffed and puffed to lay a low case against Donald Trump, favoring his conviction while admitting the murkiness between words and actions.
Offering comment on the Capitol riots to the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle, he used Charlottesville as hindsight, parroting a Democrat talking point that “Trump’s failure to forcefully reject white supremacists and his espousing of extremist ideology served as a powerful recruiting tool for the far-right movement, whose members took it as tacit approval.”
In a late January podcast, Braddock told his audience that his research would now take a singular focus on the far right, using data and claims from DHS that it poses the greatest domestic threat to the country. His data bears resemblance to a 2020 DHS report asserting that since 2018 white supremacist extremists, most acting as gun-toting lone wolves, carried out half of all attacks, resulting in three-quarters of all fatalities. He levels blame on rhetoric from Donald Trump and his family. Gullible listeners would get the impression that a Svengali ran amok at 1600 Pennsylvania, his brutish supporters swooning and inspired to sticks and stones.
In a more recent videotaped interview, Braddock waxes on about the Boogaloo Boys, Oath Keepers, and Ku Klux Klan, all groups that should rightfully be condemned and prosecuted for their violence. Once again, he descended to the straw man argument, accusing Trump of stochastic terrorism and asserting that the Proud Boys act as his personal army, if not for the entire Republican party.
Prompted to talk about Antifa, Braddock pulls on the kid gloves, giving them a pass as a social movement, downplaying their destruction of property, and constructing a false equivalence between the violent attacks committed by Antifa and right-wing chat found on small-fry message boards such as Parler. Nor was his disposition rattled by the inflammatory language of congressional Democrats, media commentators, and entertainment personalities who have condoned and advocated street anarchy with repeated calls for acts of violence against a seated president. An interview in better hands would have had Braddock explain whether the sheltered downtown residents and burned-out or boarded-up business owners in America’s cities feared white supremacists over Antifa street thugs.
In today’s political trench warfare, the term far-right and its ideological parameters have been unreasonably stretched to fit a Democrat narrative. Contemporary definitions include mainstream Republican values such as populism, nationalism, and flag-waving, as well as philosophical and religious objections to unchecked immigration and abortion. Liberal elites view Trumpism as a political variant of the far-right, a blanket under which can be found sexism, racism, and white privilege that embraces anti-intellectuals, conspiracy theorists, and ill-defined malcontents. There is no wiggle room between the political right, a category into which conservatism fits, and the far-right, formerly a set of fringe beliefs reserved for neo-Nazis, supremacist hate groups, sovereign citizens, and the like.
If Braddock plays to these latter-day stereotypes, he will likely harm many innocents for their constitutionally-protected political and religious views. With the assistance of Google, he has already proposed a real-world experiment to identify a region of the United States where online searches about right-wing groups appears to dominate, plumb for Americans believed most susceptible to extremism, and then bombard those individuals with videotaped inoculation messages to alter their views. By what means Braddock will select his study participants, whether an ethical review of the methodology has been conducted, and if DHS is bankrolling the study is not known; however, he is self-assured that altering certain opinions could have national implications.
Therein lies the minefield for abridging constitutional freedoms; to the victor goes the spoils of Braddock’s research. Despite the inviolate nature of science and mathematics, our recent history with COVID, climate alarmism, and a statistically absurd election outcome highlight its manipulation for political purposes. When science and politics intertwine, science is always bent to the advantage of those who hold the levers of power.
Attitudinal inoculation is red meat for any political party with an axe to grind and puts dynamite in the hands of the twenty- and thirty-something White House policy wonks. It fills the bill at a time when political gain comes at the expense of free speech and assembly. It can also be used to divert attention away from left-wing ideologies and groups that heel to the dog whistle of the Democrat party.
Braddock has to be careful that he does not become the useful tool of one political party hell-bent on eliminating its competition. Personal political opinions can create observer bias in study outcomes and should have no standing in taxpayer-funded research. Inoculation messages as a therapy for far left- or far-right violent extremism merits attention but should not be used to tip the scales of opposing political views. Braddock would himself benefit from an injection of antibodies against the type of political horseplay that will exploit his research to turn Americans against Americans.