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Assessing the threat from America’s far right

Weaponised Words. By Kurt Braddock.Cambridge University Press; 302 pages; $29.99 and £22.99.

Oath Keepers. By Sam Jackson.Columbia University Press; 240 pages; $35 and £27.

Hate in the Homeland. By Cynthia Miller-Idriss.Princeton University Press; 272 pages; $29.95 and £25.

American Zealots. By Arie Perliger.Columbia University Press; 232 pages; $28 and £22.

HOW SERIOUSLY should anyone take Stewart Rhodes and men like him? Speaking online soon after America’s presidential election, he said phalanxes of his armed comrades were waiting outside Washington. Should Donald Trump be ousted, they were ready for a “bloody fight”.

Mr Rhodes is fond of threatening language. In 2016 his group predicted widespread voter fraud followed by “catastrophic consequences”. It has urged its members, who include ex-soldiers, to help patrol the Mexican border to deter and harass would-be immigrants.

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In his study of the Oath Keepers, as this outfit is known, Sam Jackson of the University at Albany estimates that some 5,000 people may have signed up, while many more sympathise. These folk anticipate a second American revolution and claim violence is legitimate to resist what they call tyranny. In the landscape of America’s far right they fit into the category of patriot or militia groups, defined by their hostility to government (other than Mr Trump’s). In the typography used by analysts, the other categories, which usually command more attention, are outright racists and nativists, who oppose foreign influences and religions other than Christianity.

Mr Jackson’s is one of several new books to warn that America’s far right is now more active than at any time since the early 1990s. The Department of Homeland Security agrees, and in testimony to Congress this autumn the FBI’s director, Christopher Wray, called the far right—and white supremacists in particular—America’s gravest domestic-terror threat. Last year, when 48 people were killed in 16 attacks, was their most lethal in a generation. A previous bout of such violence eased only after an anti-government fanatic, Timothy McVeigh, bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.

Fractious politics, anger over lockdowns and Mr Trump’s nudging encouragement of groups such as the Proud Boys have made 2020 worrying, too. The mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests provided cover for both armed vigilantes and a few “accelerationists”, who hope assaults on police will spur a civil war. The FBI reports that amid demonstrations in Minneapolis following the death of George Floyd, a member of the Boogaloo Bois, a far-right group, used an AK-47 to shoot up a police station, which he then helped burn down. The “Boog flags are in the air”, he bragged. The same man received money from a fellow Boogalooer who, at roughly the same time, shot dead a policeman in California.

Such co-ordination is relatively—and thankfully—rare. As Arie Perliger of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, says, a big weakness of right-wing extremists has been that they are fragmented into many organisations, or act entirely alone, in what amounts to a “leaderless resistance”. In “American Zealots”, a history of far-right violence over 150 years, Mr Perliger finds that solitary attackers have usually been less deadly than those who conspire and act in concert. That helps explain why, despite having perhaps 12m adherents or sympathisers in America in total, their overall impact has been limited.

There are grim exceptions, however, such as the white supremacist who murdered 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, or the fanatic who killed 23 shoppers in El Paso the following year. Technology, such as ever-more destructive weapons, is altering the calculus. And as in the case of the Oath Keepers—who dislike Muslims and foreigners as well as government—even without formal co-ordination, ideas (and sometimes personnel) are shared across the far-right spectrum.

Among groups whose avowed focus lies elsewhere, for instance, racism still tends to be a factor. Perpetrators typically express unease about social change, often raging against people of a different race or, sometimes, a different religion or sexuality. Almost all are white men, often poor and badly educated. Whereas the South was historically the epicentre of these crimes, they now happen wherever sizeable numbers of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians live. (Tellingly, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters and other anti-government groups were founded as Barack Obama became president.)

From meat to murder

Like demographic anxieties, other factors are perennial yet especially acute at the moment. Kathleen Belew of the University of Chicago has traced how militia groups grow when soldiers return home. The Ku Klux Klan flourished after previous wars, she notes. Deploying large numbers of troops to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere over two decades has contributed to an uptick in violent activity now. Ms Belew suggests America is “heading to an uphill peak” in far-right ructions.

Rhetoric matters, too, especially as it spreads online. In “Weaponised Words”, Kurt Braddock of American University traces how the language of extremists attracts recruits. But, he says, the words of politicians may be just as dangerous. Mr Braddock warns that Mr Trump and his allies have stirred up talk of resistance to a “deep state”; he was dismayed when Steve Bannon, the president’s former adviser, talked on Twitter about decapitating Mr Wray. Some fantasists act on such words. In October the FBI arrested a group in Michigan who spent months planning to kidnap (and maybe kill) its governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and others. They may have been encouraged by Mr Trump’s disparagements of her and his call to “liberate” the state.

Similarly, in “Hate in the Homeland” Cynthia Miller-Idriss describes how ideas once limited to extremist circles, such as that of a “demographic replacement”—whereby American citizens will be overrun—are now promoted by mainstream figures such as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham of Fox News. She concentrates on the estimated 75,000 active white supremacists who comprise the most threatening strain of the far right. They often have international links, illustrated by some 17,000 Westerners who went to fight in the conflict in Ukraine. Most eagerly share conspiracy theories, especially the anti-Semitic kind that, for example, vilify George Soros, a financier.

Ms Miller-Idriss is most interested in how newcomers are drawn in, including through white-power music or mixed martial arts, notably the “Confederation of Volkisch Fight Clubs”. Some are swayed by a lobby that promotes meat-eating and claims the left “want to take away your hamburgers”. Some teenage boys relish dark humour and internet memes, often involving the Nazis (“baking pizzas” is a preferred euphemism for the Holocaust). The sharing of taboo material is, for many, the start of a path towards extremism.

She is struck by the neatly pressed trousers and white polo shirts of young men who marched in Charlottesville in 2017, chanting “Jews will not replace us”. Others, whom she calls “Nipsters”, or Nazi hipsters, sell and wear expensive clothes embroidered with white-supremacist and other symbols. Such “hate clothing”, Ms Miller-Idriss says, makes the movement more palatable and appealing than did the skinheads and neo-Nazis of the past.

The real threat from the far right, her research suggests, is not that groups such as the Oath Keepers will launch large-scale political violence, let alone a new civil war. The bigger worry is the “mainstreaming of extremism”: the spread of hateful and violent attitudes so that ever-more people share and promote them.

This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline "Fear and loathing"

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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2020/12/12/assessing-the-threat-from-americas-far-right
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