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Border rhetoric could inspire acts of violence, extremist experts say

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Extremism experts are deeply alarmed about the words that some politicians are using when talking about migrants and the southern border. They say last week's anti-immigrant truck convoys and rallies showed how language that originated with extremists has made it to the heart of the Republican Party. NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef has been looking into this. Hey, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

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SHAPIRO: Let's start with those border convoys and rallies. What happened?

YOUSEF: Right. So you'll remember, Ari, that Texas Governor Greg Abbott is in a kind of standoff with the Biden administration where he's trying to control access to a part of the border. So these convoys were to support him and to draw further attention to the migrant situation at the border. These activists were calling themselves God's army. And they planned truck routes to end in California, Arizona and Texas. They rallied on Saturday in those locations, and by all accounts, it was a pretty small turnout. But what's notable, Ari, is who showed up. In attendance, we had some Proud Boys, some members of white nationalist fight clubs and groups that have engaged in illegal border vigilantism. And this is a component of the far right, Ari, that has mostly stayed away from large gatherings since January 6.

SHAPIRO: So these groups have been pretty quiet for a few years, and now they're resurfacing. Why now, and why for this issue?

YOUSEF: Well, extremists are opportunists. You know, they have a long history of anti-immigrant conspiracy theories. So now that some GOP officials are framing, you know, what should be a policy dispute about immigration in a way that hate movements have long claimed, you know, they're there for it - you know, specifically this kind of language that echoes to a long-standing conspiracy theory called the Great Replacement. This is a narrative that posits, without basis, that a kind of shadowy elite is deliberately bringing in immigrants to replace white people or to drown out Republican voters. You know, and those supposedly puppet masters are sometimes Jews. Sometimes they're Democrats, allegedly, you know, behind this conspiracy. You know, regardless of the details, Ari, what we've been seeing in recent years is that even elected Republicans have come to embrace some version of this narrative, you know, even House Speaker Mike Johnson. And we're seeing terms like invasion or invaders used to describe immigrants.

SHAPIRO: And can you trace this dehumanizing language to events in the real world that have grown out of it?

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YOUSEF: Yes. You know, the Great Replacement conspiracy theory has inspired some really terrible acts of violence, and not just against immigrants, but against all kinds of Americans. Here's Heidi Beirich. She's with the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.

HEIDI BEIRICH: This is the idea that directly influenced the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooter, the El Paso Walmart shooter, the Buffalo supermarket shooter. It is the font of terrorism around the world.

YOUSEF: And interestingly, Ari, you know, in recent months, some extremist groups have very explicitly recruited and organized their members to commit violence to target migrants because they sense that the environment right now is more permissive. And, in fact, earlier this week, the FBI arrested a Tennessee man who they claim was planning to kill migrants at the border.

SHAPIRO: This is an election year, and GOP front-runner Donald Trump has often encouraged fringe groups. Are we going to see extremist elements show up more consistently in alliance with the Republican Party?

YOUSEF: You know, we're not hearing loud voices right now within the GOP disavowing this kind of language or these narratives that originated with extremists. So, you know, that's often interpreted, Ari, in extremist circles as an invitation.

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SHAPIRO: NPR's Odette Yousef. Thank you.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.