There had been some hope that the threat of far-right violence that marked Donald Trump’s presidency would decline after Joe Biden became president and promised to deal with white nationalist groups. Once Biden took office, the thinking went, Trump’s movement would have been proven to be a failure, while Trump himself would no longer have the world’s most powerful bully pulpit. That would deflate the nativist street movement that acted as part of his base.
The radical ideologies and claims that motivate the often-violent behavior at the edges of the right have gained millions of adherents through conspiracy-peddling.
Instead, this sense of loss, government crackdowns, removal from social media platforms and difficulties presented by anti-fascist activism could make these groups more militant — and potentially dangerous. In a recent Department of Homeland Security memo, officials tried to “sound the alarm” about right-wing violence that false claims of election-tampering could be stoking. The department is communicating with security agencies in major urban areas, it said, calling our current period a “heightened terrorism-related threat environment.”
That’s partly because the radical ideologies and claims that motivate the often-violent behavior at the edges of the right have gained millions of adherents through conspiracy-peddling. And they now collectively believe that the political process is tainted, thereby undermining the legitimacy of working through it.
This pattern of mainstreaming hate, gathering more adherents, experiencing disillusion when the political system doesn’t deliver and in turn resorting to greater violence has repeated throughout modern U.S. history. And it suggests this could be the most volatile period for right-wing violence in recent memory.
Since fascism and white nationalism are generally intolerable to the broader American public, groups that espouse these ideologies have traditionally had to link up with slightly more moderate counterparts to make them appear politically acceptable. This gives the far right access to a much larger piece of the population and the particular language and affiliations through which those people experience their politics.
The third-generation Ku Klux Klan from the 1950s had the White Citizens’ Councils. White nationalism in the 1980s often cozied up to Republicans through the paleoconservative movement. In recent years, the openly fascist alt-right found their allies in what has been called the alt-light, typified by loud internet personalities such as Gavin McInnes and Milo Yiannopoulos who took on many of the issues and style of the alt-right but have not publicly embraced white nationalism.
Eventually, however, the far right generally gets abandoned by their allies in the conservative movement, who, once attention gets drawn to their unsavory bedfellows, would usually rather preserve their careers than advance a race war. This marginalization, furthered by anti-fascist activists and their own ineptitude, leads to a period of decline in which they realize their attempts at gaining power through a social movement infrastructure have failed. This becomes their most dangerous moment, where seemingly impulsive acts of violence escalate.
For example, the “white power” movement of the 1980s specifically responded to the three decades of loss the far right endured from the 1950s to 1970s, where they were defeated on issues including segregation, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and civil rights legislation. By the 1980s, they determined the government was so hopeless at advancing their white nationalist goals, even as demographic change was accelerating, that they had to become explicitly revolutionary and see the state as their enemy as well. This led to “lone wolf” attacks, paramilitary groups and racist skinhead gangs.
“The collapse of far-right organizations seems like a victory, and often it is, but when movements start to disintegrate, militants lose control [of] their frustration and become more volatile, leading to phases of intensified, aggressive political violence,” said Alexander Reid Ross, a fellow with the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.
Two similar things have happened recently in the U.S. Some formal white nationalist and far-right organizations have fallen apart, and groups like the Proud Boys are collapsing amid criminal charges. Militant formations like the Patriot Front, meanwhile, are being forced off the streets by protesters. At the same time, the more diffuse far right that had coalesced around Trump and were radicalized on that movement’s rhetoric have one fewer ally in power.
“There's a feeling among activists of becoming unleashed from the hierarchy and available to be guided by their fantasies of destruction rather than a party line or organizational goal,” Ross said. “The long-term approach of steady, goal-achieving gain is replaced by purely ideological motivations, which are often realized in the capacity of grandiose attacks like bombings.”
So we are now living through an era where the collapse of these above-ground alt-right activist groups are giving way to terror networks like Atomwaffen Division and The Base. Their goal is not to make gains on critical issues, but to push society over a cliff so they can engage in race war unimpeded.
While these are ultra-fringe forces, the possibility for violence is expanded because of how widespread and successful the recruitment process is among a broader swath of the society — in part, because adherents were drawn to the message of a threat akin to the apocalypse should they fail to get involved. When that motivational energy to act in the face of certain doom has nowhere to go, it often gets channeled into almost nihilistic acts of violence.
If we want to end the violence of the far right, then we have to intervene before groups can get to the point of mass radicalization.
In one memorable eruption in 2018, after the more hardcore elements in the alt-right began to abandon Trump as a solution to their racial rage, Robert Bowers decided to head into the Tree of Life synagogue and now stands accused of killing 11 people (he has pled not guilty). Bowers no longer believed the political system would adequately carry out his racial revenge fantasy and so he was going to explode into an act of bloodthirsty antisemitism on his own.
This type of violence may play as a reaction to their failure, but the seeds were planted much earlier as these movements were granted legitimacy and a safe space to grow. If we want to end the violence of the far right, then we have to intervene before groups can get to the point of mass radicalization. Today we are dealing with the consequences of allowing the radical fringe to percolate, and many of us who have been targeted are terrified about what comes next.