Simultaneous Battlefields: Containing Threats from Far-Right Extremists and Institutional Conservatives

BY Megan Brooker

The insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 highlighted the urgency of contending with the far-right forces emboldened by former President Trump. Beyond pressuring Democrats to follow through on progressive promises, the left must also fight simultaneous battles of containment aimed at suppressing both the threat of direct violence posed by far-right extremists and that of indirect violence levied by institutional conservatives via policies that disproportionately harm marginalized communities.

Trump’s presidency ushered in a resurgence of far-right ideology and mobilization. Old and new extremist groups alike intensified their public presence following his 2016 election. The political signals Trump sent through his racist and xenophobic rhetoric, his authoritarian tendencies, and his incitement of violence all assured the far-right they were welcome within the Republican Party. Memorably, when asked at a presidential debate to disavow white supremacist groups, Trump instead directed the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Through Trump, far-right extremists gained both faith in the political system and access to it. As Rory McVeigh’s power devaluation theory suggests, the loss of that political power following the 2020 election (combined with ongoing fears of losing economic and social status) may further radicalize the far-right.

One unifying characteristic of the newest wave of far-right extremist groups is their penchant for violence. A defunct website for the Proud Boys details escalating tiers of membership achieved through violence: first enduring a beating from fellow group mates then moving up in rank by engaging in physical fights or being arrested for the cause. The Canadian government recently designated the Proud Boys a terrorist organization. The Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia organization which recruits current and former members of the military and law enforcement, operate in “Community Preparedness Teams” trained in weapons use and patrolling techniques. It’s unsurprising, then, that a significant number of those charged with serious offenses(e.g., conspiracy) in connection with the Capitol attacks have been affiliated with these groups.

So, what comes next? Retreat from the streets doesn’t necessarily translate into movement decline. The sweeping law enforcement response to the Capitol attack, with hundreds of pending criminal cases, may deter some from future engagement. Congressional inquiries into law enforcement failures on January 6th and the rise of domestic terrorism hint toward a stronger federal crackdown on far-right organizing. But, government repression often produces a backlash effect, especially amongst those most committed to the cause. Lacking political opportunity and faced with new repressive threats, extremists may escalate their tactics – increasing the likelihood of future violence.

While most domestic terrorist attacks during the Obama administration were carried out by “lone wolves,” increased coordination among far-right extremist groups today raises concerns about more organized acts of violence. FBI intelligence suggests pre-planning in advance of January 6th, with members of the Proud Boys identifying themselves through fluorescent orange tape and arriving in full tactical gear. During the insurrection, pods of Proud Boys and Oath Keepers worked together to overcome police lines and break into the Capitol Building.

Without Trump as a unifying figurehead, fracturing among the far-right is likely. Nonetheless, small groups of fringe extremists continue to pose a danger to the nation and local communities alike. The Kansas City chapter of the Proud Boys has been linked to at least six Capitol arrests. With chapters nationwide, the localized threat of such groups shouldn’t be underestimated. Proud Boys rallies in Portland, Oregon last year prompted Governor Brown to declare a state of emergency following prior violent clashes. Six anti-government extremists were charged in December 2020 with conspiring to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitmer. In the days leading up to President Biden’s inauguration, demonstrations at state capitol buildings across the nation prompted widespread security concerns due to the expected presence of armed extremists.

Multiple centers of power in the US political structure provide an array of potential targets for far-right extremists. With institutional access cut off and increased repression at the national level, more covert and localized action is likely. While extremist groups have (justifiably) been booted from many mainstream social media sites, their transition to fringe networking apps makes them more difficult to monitor and contain. Decentralized organizational structures also make it harder to predict when and where violence might occur.

Though the prospects of violence from far-right extremists should rightly concern both scholars and the public alike, we must also pay attention to the threat posed by institutional conservatives. While David S. Meyer suggests that widening divides between the far-right and institutional conservatives may make it easier to contain extremist violence in the days ahead, Joshua Bloom astutely points out that many power players have been “happy to go along for the ride” alongside Trump and the extremism he cultivated. In an effort to bolster their own political ambitions, Republicans including Senators Cruz and Hawley have openly played to Trump’s extremist base by challenging the certification of election results and offering encouragement to Capitol demonstrators – actions that have led to ethics complaints and calls for their resignation. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was recently stripped of her committee assignments due to her support for extremist conspiracy theories and calls for violence against Democratic lawmakers. Most Republicans, however, have been unwilling to censure former President Trump or their colleagues in Congress. Donald Trump may have turned up the dial on far-right extremism, but institutional conservatives have opted not to turn it down.

Democratic control of the Presidency, Senate, and House limits the far-right’s political power at the national level (at least temporarily), but institutional conservatives still pose an immediate risk at the state and local levels of government. Narratives of victimhood and conspiracy theories are prompting new waves of regressive policy in state legislatures. Georgia Republicans are among those exploiting baseless claims of election fraud as rationale for new voter suppression efforts restricting absentee voting and eliminating automatic voter registration, policies that disproportionately harm people of color. Legislation that criminalizes protest targeting the fossil fuel industry, crafted by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), is under review in four states and has already passed in 14 states. Anti-LGBTQ bills, particularly those targeting trans youth, are rampant this legislative cycle with 16 states considering legislation that prohibits providing healthcare to transgender youth and 24 states considering legislation that would exclude trans youth from athletics. Undoubtedly, regressive policy on other issues is also underway and the polarized political climate increases the probability that such bills will pass in Republican-controlled state legislatures. Trump’s conservative judicial appointees, including three to the Supreme Court and 30% of the nation’s appeals court judges, are likely to uphold such laws.

The Democratic Party’s electoral victories in 2020 no doubt reduce the political opportunity available to violent extremists and institutional conservatives alike. Nonetheless, continued vigilance is necessary as these ongoing threats are redirected to the state and local level. While progressives must exert continued pressure on Biden and the Democrats to install the social justice policies they’ve promised, they must not overlook the battles of containment that must still be fought to prevent direct and indirect harm in the years ahead. Republicans who’ve shirked their party and called for bipartisanship must also remain targets of protest, as they hold the greatest potential to lead the battle to expel extremists from their party.

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