This is the text of my presentation as part of the June 22nd panel, “Mapping Online Extremism and the Far Right” (Reactionary Digital Politics series). I have added some links and a short postscript.
I want to give a few quick, general comments about recent developments in the U.S. far right—both during the Trump presidency and in the months since Donald Trump left the White House. But before I do that I want to say just a little about my analytic framework. When I use the term “U.S. far right,” I’m talking about a set of movements defined by two things. First, these movements embrace human inequality as something natural or desirable or inevitable. Second, they reject the legitimacy of the existing U.S. political system. This definition is not intended for all times and places, but specifically for understanding the far right in the United States in this historical period.
This definition of the far right does a couple of things. First, it emphasizes that the far right encompasses multiple ideologies, because different branches of the far right focus on promoting different forms of inequality. White nationalists, for example, focus on race, and promoting a system where people of color are not just subordinated, but more or less completely excluded. But other far right currents don’t address race explicitly, or don’t focus on race at all, because they put other forms of inequality at the center of their politics. The theocratic Christian right is concerned with enforcing gender inequality first and foremost. The Patriot movement includes both white supremacist and theocratic influences, but its unifying theme, I would argue, is about enforcing inequality based on individual property rights. In talking about the far right, it’s important that we examine the full range of its ideological currents and the political roles that they play, rather than focus only on racial politics or only on explicit white supremacism.
My definition of the far right also emphasizes that its movements have a contradictory relationship with the established order in the United States. On the one hand, they are about reinforcing and intensifying the systems of social hierarchy and dominance that have always been at the heart of U.S. society. On the other hand, far rightists want to bring about dramatic political and social change, because they believe that the existing political system has failed to protect traditional systems of power and privilege. Far rightists believe that sinister elites are actively working with—or orchestrating—movements to overturn traditional hierarchies, and therefore these elites must be overthrown and the political system must be radically overhauled.
Donald Trump’s political rise had a dramatic effect on the U.S. far right. As presidential candidate and as president, Trump developed a symbiotic relationship with far right forces unlike any previous president. The specifics of this relationship evolved over time. In 2016, the alt-right played a significant role in boosting Trump’s candidacy through skillful online activism. In return, the Trump campaign helped the alt-right get a lot more visibility and recognition and public validation than it would have achieved on its own. In 2020, Patriot movement groups, Proud Boys, and other far rightists carried out a wave of physical attacks, including murder, against Black Lives Matter protesters. That violence symbiotically complemented Trump’s fear-mongering and vilification of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Trump served as a rallying figure, someone who could bring together diverse and competing far right currents—although some far rightists never supported him or came to regard him as a sellout or a traitor. Even more important, Trump made the barrier between the far right and mainstream politics much more permeable than it had been before. Far right ideas flowed into the mainstream—and to some extent became state policy—while people shifted from mainstream politics into far right politics. These effects increased dramatically over the past year, as Trump increasingly called into question the legitimacy of the electoral process, and sought to undermine that process so that he could stay in power.
After November 3rd, Trump’s false and baseless claim that the presidential election had been stolen was embraced by tens of millions of people. Tens of millions of mainstream Trump supporters rejected the validity of the voting process, which is the foundation for the whole U.S. political system, and thus aligned themselves with far right politics—at least temporarily. That shift powered the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was a broad-based attempt to overturn the results of the election by force. And the January 6th attack, in turn, helped to galvanize the far right and sharpen battle lines.
Since Donald Trump left the White House, the U.S. far right has entered a period of regrouping, assessing the new situation, and developing strategies to address it. Some far right forces have experienced a crisis: for example, some local Proud Boys chapters split from the national organization when it was revealed that Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio had worked as a police informer, and many QAnon supporters had a crisis of faith when their movement’s predictions that Trump would miraculously stay in office failed to come true. Other far right groups have thrived, such as Ammon Bundy’s People’s Rights organization, a rising force within the Patriot movement, which has done skillful grassroots organizing around fears of COVID-19 public health measures encroaching on freedom.
Perennial disagreements about political strategy are reasserting themselves. Some factions, such as the Groypers, a white nationalist group led by Nick Fuentes, are trying to build a far right presence within the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Others are sharpening their opposition to the state and some, notably the boogaloo bois, have carried out killings and other violent attacks against police. But we are also seeing new convergences between different far right currents, such as growing ties between the Patriot movement and the New Apostolic Reformation, a large and powerful theocratic network within the Christian right.
Part of the context for these developments is how the two major parties are dealing with the aftermath of Trump’s presidency. Trump remains hugely popular within the Republican Party, which helps create openings for those far rightists, such as the Groypers and New Apostolic Reformation, who want to subvert the party from within and replace business-oriented conservatism with their own supremacist ideologies. Whether this pushes the Republican Party into direct conflict with the political system or co-opts far rightists into renewed loyalty to that system, the results could be highly dangerous.
The dynamics with the Democratic Party are different. President Biden and his allies, with support from the security agencies, are promoting a struggle against so-called domestic extremists on both the right and the left—a framework that falsely equates fascists and anti-fascists, racists and anti-racists. This centrist framework fuels the growth of the repressive state apparatus, which inevitably comes down harder against oppressed communities and the left than it does against the right. In this context, some far rightists—notably the boogaloo movement—are trying to form alliances with leftists against the state, while other far rightists dismiss the left as adjuncts of the Democratic Party, and present themselves as the only opponents of state repression and the only real advocates of meaningful change. So there is a continuing need for community-based initiatives that combat the far right while rejecting state repression, and that work to dismantle the systems of oppression and exploitation that far right politics grow out of.
Postscript: January 6—far right victory or defeat?
Recently someone asked me, did I think the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol was a victory or a defeat for the far right? There’s a straightforward case for seeing it as a defeat. In strictest terms, the attack failed to achieve its objective of overturning Biden’s presidential victory. Since then, the crackdown against participants has been significant—over 400 people arrested and charged—and rising fear of federal agents and informers has taken its toll on some major groups. And since January 6, the far right has been relatively quiet, mounting no dramatic actions or big rallies. So fears that Trump’s ouster would quickly spark a big upsurge in rightist violence have not been borne out.
In spite of all that, I still think the Capitol attack represented more of a win than a loss for the far right. Depending on how the question is asked, somewhere between a fifth and a third of Republicans surveyed a month ago view the attack favorably. That’s fewer than the 45 percent of Republicans who supported the assault immediately after it happened, but it’s still millions of people endorsing a direct physical attack on the core workings of the U.S. government.
Beyond that, a political action like the storming of the Capitol offers participants a sense of empowerment that has nothing to do with polls or achieving objectives: We took over the Capitol. We shut Congress down completely for hours. We made the lawmakers run and hide while we sat at their desks. And we did all that with minimal organization. Imagine what we could do if we really got our act together. It’s a feeling of possibility that people remember—a feeling that, for some, can solidify commitment and help carry them through the hardships of facing federal charges. That kind of impact is hard to measure, but it’s something that should be familiar to some folks on the left. There’s no reason we should discount its importance for our opponents on the right.