Prevalence of Veteran Support for Extremist Groups and Extremist Beliefs

Results from a Nationally Representative Survey of the U.S. Veteran Community

by Todd C. Helmus, Ryan Andrew Brown, Rajeev Ramchand

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Research Questions

  1. Do U.S. military veterans support such extremist groups as Antifa, the Proud Boys, Black nationalists, and White supremacists?
  2. Do veterans endorse beliefs associated with extremist groups, such as QAnon and the Great Replacement theory?
  3. Do veterans support political violence in support of such groups and beliefs?

Policymakers and researchers are increasingly concerned that the U.S. veteran community is at increased risk of radicalization to violent extremism. Although subsequently revised downward, early reports suggested that as many as one in five Capitol Hill attackers was currently or had previously been affiliated with the U.S. military. Extremist groups actively target military members and veterans for recruitment targets because of their training and operational, logistic, and leadership skills. The unique and often lonely experience of leaving the military has been hypothesized to make veterans susceptible to such recruitment.

To help address these concerns, the authors conducted a nationally representative survey of veterans to examine the prevalence of support for specific extremist groups and ideologies, including support for political violence. The authors compared their results with those from surveys of the general population. Among other findings, the veteran community, as a whole, did not manifest higher support than the general population. Interestingly, the majority of those who supported political violence were not also supporters of specific groups.

Key Findings

  • The authors conducted a representative survey of nearly 1,000 veterans in the United States to assess the prevalence of support for violent extremist groups and causes.
  • There was no evidence to support the notion that the veteran community, as a whole, manifests higher rates of support for violent extremist groups or extremist beliefs than the American public.
  • Support for extremist groups — including white supremacism, Proud Boys, black nationalism, and Antifa — ranged from 1 percent (White supremacists) to 5.5 percent (Antifa) and was generally lower than rates derived from previous representative surveys of the general population.
  • The authors also examined support for political violence, QAnon, and the Great Replacement theory. While support for QAnon (13.5 percent) appeared relatively low compared with general surveys, support for political violence (17.7 percent) and the racist Great Replacement theory (28.8 percent) appeared similar to that of the general population.
  • A majority of veterans who expressed support for extremist groups did not endorse political violence. While this may be comforting, it also suggests that the majority of those who supported political violence (18 percent of the total sample) may also be vulnerable to recruitment for new or emerging extremist groups.
  • Veterans of the Marine Corps expressed the highest support for extremist groups and beliefs among the different branches of service.

Funding for this research was made possible by a generous gift from Daniel J. Epstein through the Epstein Family Foundation and the Pritzker Military Foundation. The research was conducted by the RAND Epstein Family Veterans Policy Research Institute within RAND Education and Labor and the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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