Explaining Contemporary Extreme Right Mobilization in the U.S.

By Nella Van Dyke

On the weekend of August 11, 2017, right-wing extremists, or what many call the Alt-Right, gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the pending removal of a statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee from a city park.  Many were shocked to see images of the protest on Friday, with Neo-Nazis and other extreme right supporters carrying torches en masse, in one of the largest extreme right protest events in recent history, and were horrified when participants in the protest on Saturday murdered a counter-demonstrator and injured dozens more.  President Trump suggested that both sides were to blame for the violence, generating an outpouring of dismay and arguments that he was “Giving the right a boost,” and sanctioning the violence.  However, while many may have been surprised by the protest, those of us who study the extreme right were not.  And, while President Trump’s support for the Alt-Right does enable them, their mobilization started long before he became a candidate for President.  I argue here that social movement scholarship on extreme right mobilization predicts this contemporary mobilization.  Particularly relevant are theories regarding the mobilizing effect of economic and political threat, including power devaluation theory, as well as scholarship on political and discursive opportunities.The United States and other Western nations have long histories of racism and racial violence.  Racist ideologies and inequalities were present in the nation since before its founding, and they persist.  However, against this backdrop, there is nonetheless variation over time in levels of extreme right mobilization and collective action.  Data from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks extremist mobilization, demonstrate that extreme right mobilization has been increasing steadily since President Barack Obama took office.  Between 2008 and 2010, the number of extreme right organizations in the United States increased by 71%, from 1248 groups in 2008 to 2145 at the organized movement’s peak in 2010 (Southern Poverty Law Center 2009, 2011).  The movement has grown dramatically online as well, with Stormfront, the major hate forum, adding 25,000 new members every year during the Obama administration, to over 300,000 members in 2015 (Southern Poverty Law Center 2016). Scholarship on extreme right groups, including the Klan, militia groups, and white supremacist action in both the United States and Europe, is helpful in explaining this variation.

Social movement theories of economic and political threat and power devaluation help explain the dramatic increase in extreme right mobilization during the Obama administration years.  Both political actors and the counter-movements, with which they may be associated, sometimes inspire reactive mobilization because they present a threat to the groups’ interests (Almeida 2003; Meyer 2004; Meyer and Staggenborg 1996; Van Dyke and Soule 2002; Van Dyke 2003).  McVeigh (1999; 2009) demonstrates that power devaluation, whereby a group perceives a loss of economic, political, and cultural power, inspired the Klan to mobilize in the 1920s.  Other scholarship also demonstrates that economic downturns and political threats, such as political adversaries, or increasing numbers of women or African Americans in political office, have inspired right-wing mobilizations in the past.  For example, colleagues and I demonstrate that women’s political gains and economic downturns in farming and manufacturing helped inspired the emergence of the largely male militia movement in the mid-1990s (Van Dyke and Soule 2002), and that economic downturn and gains by African Americans in state legislators help explain the wave of black church arsons that occurred earlier that decade (Soule and Van Dyke 1999).  Finally, consistent with the idea that counter-movements can present threats which inspire mobilization, Boutcher and colleagues (Boutcher, Jenkins, and Van Dyke 2017) show that white supremacists in the United States from 1948-98 mobilized in response to levels of civil rights collective action.  Thus, the Great Recession of 2008-12, Obama’s Presidency, and the newly energized civil rights movement (Black Lives Matter), likely played a role in the growth of the extreme right during this time period, as groups enjoying some level of privilege faced (perceived) threats from others and economic grievances.

Although the extreme right has been inspired to mobilize by economic grievances and political threats over the past decade, there is no question that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency represents a major cultural and political opportunity for their movement.  Political opportunity theory (McAdam 1999; Tarrow 2011; Tilly 1978) argues that groups will mobilize when they enjoy access to the institutional political system, with elite allies, divided elites, and/or a lack of repression.  For example, the US Civil Rights Movement mobilized in the 1950s and 60s after perceiving increased support from allies within the judiciary, the White House, and Congress (McAdam 1999).  With the Trump administration in the White House, the extreme right enjoys a high level of political opportunity.  News outlets have documented the administration’s many ties to and support for the Alt-Right.  The extreme right also enjoys significant discursive opportunities or access to cultural institutions including the media (Ferree et al. 2002; Koopmans 2004).  Fox News and other right-wing media outlets provide significant access to extreme and alt right groups and viewpoints (Fetner and King 2014), and the President and his administration, who are sympathetic to the extreme right, have significant access to all major media outlets.

Both political and discursive opportunities can inspire higher levels of movement activity.  Koopmans and Olzak (2004), for example, demonstrate that levels of extreme right violence went higher in Germany after their actions received visible media attention and a mixed response from other actors in the media.  Evidence demonstrates a direct link between Trump’s election and a response from the far right:  in the first month after his election, over 1000 hate crimes occurred in the US (Southern Poverty Law Center 2017), with over a third of the incidents directly referencing either Trump or “Make America Great Again.”  The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the reaction to Trump’s victory by the right as “ecstatic” (Southern Poverty Law Center 2017).  The extreme right in the United States enjoys the highest levels of both political and discursive opportunities that it has enjoyed in years.  Predictions we can derive from this research should be disturbing to those concerned about extreme right violence in the US.

In sum, the extreme right mobilization we see in the United States has been building for years, likely in response to political threats, including gains on the part of African Americans and civil rights mobilization, and economic grievances.  The political and discursive opportunities provided by the Trump administration and right-wing media are bringing them into view.  At the same time, we see a massive mobilization on the left, which, although not a subject of this post, is also predicted by social movement research, and holds some promise for progressives.

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