From Reconstruction to the Day of the Rope: The Evolution and Persistence of Assassination as a Tool for White Supremacist Terror

Executive Summary

Domestic violent extremists, specifically white supremacist extremists, have long plotted against

U.S. democracy. As the United States experiences a period of heightened animosity toward elected officials and other political leaders, the history of WSE assassination — and the context in which these attacks have occurred — suggests a stark outlook for the future landscape of violent extremism. The confluence of a rhetorical environment that glorifies political violence and a growing consensus that violence will deliver preferred political outcomes suggest the threat of assassination will remain an ongoing concern.

This paper argues that existing scholarly criteria for sustained terrorist campaigns — particularly, the importance of a belief in the efficacy of violence, the resonance of a violent movement’s belief with a wider audience, and the influence of ideological leadership — help to explain the persistent use of assassination as a tactic of white supremacist terrorism. Over time, the increasing salience of one factor may help mitigate another’s decline and contribute to the tactic’s continued use in an evolving environment.

Tracing WSE political assassination threats in the U.S. from the 19th century through present day, the author emphasizes that:

  • While assassinations hold a small proportion of WSE plots and the threat landscape, they tend to be disproportionately influential acts of terror and generate an outsized impact.
  • The threat of assassination continues to grow and is supported by the historied, persistent use of political violence by domestic extremists within the U.S. 
  • The spread and normalization of violent rhetoric against elected officials and public officials has become increasingly visible within WSE movements. The blurry extremist landscape further challenges policy makers and government officials' ability to  counter this growing threat.