Throughout a year defined by the global pandemic, racial inequality movements and political polarisation, the US has been in the spotlight as the epicentre of social upheaval and amplification of far-right extremism.
Far-right extremism is not a new phenomenon. However, it has been given a renewed voice and expanded its influence and impact in 2020. The far-right encompasses a wide range of ideologies, including white supremacy, ultra-nationalism and xenophobia and it is also known by many names, including ‘right-wing extremism’. However, across the many facets of its nebulous nature, it has found a new level of amplification this year due to global events. While this amplification has echoes around the word, the US has often been at the centre of the conversation.
Resisting the Pandemic Response
The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent government measures to contain the virus have given the far-right a new voice and platform. Far-right extremist sentiment has quickly adapted to this crisis, repurposing existing narratives to feed the environment of conspiracy and suspicion which has emerged through the pandemic. This flow of extremist content online, coupled with the increased amount of time people are spending on the internet due to lockdowns, has allowed extreme right-wing content to seep further and further into the mainstream. For example, as social media coverage of conspiracy theories has increased so has their presence in mainstream media. Even when fact-checking, media coverage can amplify the impact of conspiracies.
However, far-right operations have not been limited to the virtual world. Anti-lockdown protests have taken place globally, often hosting an underlying array of anti-government, racial and other extremist narratives. In the US this has been particularly prominent, with these protests largely targeting states with Democrat or more liberal governors who impose stricter pandemic responses. There have also been surges in gun sales across the US and even armed individuals or groups staking out or storming government buildings, apparently in an effort to intimidate and coerce government officials into changing policies. This culminated in October with the foiled plot of a far-right self-proclaimed militia group to kidnap Michigan’s governor Gretchen Whitmer and potentially also Virginia’s governor Ralph Northram.
Beyond the immediate danger of plots and other threats of armed violence, there is a quieter but perhaps more sinister threat running beneath the surface. These types of groups often seek to appeal to and recruit from police and military circles. Many consider themselves as militias, allowed under the Second Amendment of US constitution, even though the phrase ‘well regulated Militia’ refers to forces controlled by state governors (for example, the National Guard). Often local police and law enforcement, such as the Michigan sheriff who defended the group planning to kidnap the governor, are unsure of their authority or unwilling to denounce these groups – potentially giving them further reach and ability to influence the political process. In the US, the FBI has flagged this issue, concerned about investigations being jeopardised and trust in police undermined. However, this is a global phenomenon. For example, a fresh debate has begun in Germany regarding extreme far-right infiltration of security forces.
Standing Against Social Inequality Movements
The US has also featured prominently this year with social upheaval around racism in policing. Protests, largely occurring under the banner of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, swept across the country. The death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in May sparked months of protests, which subsequently spread to other countries. This tragic event and multiple similar cases highlight the systemic racism which exists not only in the American social fabric, but in most societies. Protests over racial inequality have drawn a response from the far-right, with violent exchanges linked to extremist actors resulting in injuries and deaths.
There is also a wider unification around the cause they see as protection from the extreme left. For example, in the case of the 17-year-old white male in Kenosha, Wisconsin who shot and killed two people, his action was framed as protection against BLM protestors. Far-right groups framing their armed presence in terms of patriotic support of law enforcement presents a significant threat of vigilantism or further undermining of public trust in police. This cause has also been taken up in Britain, with some far-right groups, such as Patriotic Alternative, emerging with a much more overtly racist agenda than other British groups.
In the US, the environment since the pandemic and protests began has highlighted and potentially intensified levels of racism in everyday life, with almost half of black and Asian Americans reporting increased discrimination.
Undermining US Elections and Democratic Process
Ultimately, over the course of his presidency, but especially throughout the last year and his re-election campaign, President Donald Trump has encouraged the extreme far-right to operate. He has repeatedly called them into the spotlight. This has included falsely exaggerating the danger from leftist armed militias, often labelled as Antifa, during the BLM protests. Also, he has increasingly undermined faith in the fairness of the US voting system, encouraging far-right extremist groups to deploy to defend the election process. This culminated with him referring by name to a far-right group, the Proud Boys, and instructing them to ‘stand back and stand by’ in a nationally televised presidential debate.
This apparent support for his extreme far-right followers resulted in widespread fears over election violence. On the road and in person, convoys of Trump supporters actively sought to intimidate voters on multiple occasions and threats were made to election officials and even some polling stations. Shops boarded windows and stores removed guns and ammunition from the shelves in anticipation of election violence.
Although the breakout of mass post-election violence did not happen, the pervasive fear generated by the electoral campaign fed into the broader debate about the alleged ‘decay’ in Western democracy, something never before associated with the US. Trump’s continuing resistance to the election results and his slow acceptance of the transition process is damaging to the democratic system of a country once seen as a leader of the free world.
Recognising the Threat
While the individuals and groups involved in extreme far-right responses to the array of global events this year seem disparate, they are in fact well established and connected across the same structure of ideological perspectives and a network of loosely affiliated organisations. Their porous and less structured relationships increase the threat they present, in some ways, over the more traditional terrorist group organisations – due to the disaggregated nature of the threat, making it harder to track and predict. Also, because they are adept at understanding and infiltrating existing democratic structures, such as law enforcement and political processes, they have a greater capacity to subvert liberal democracy.
The extreme polarisation of politics and democratic process is not limited to the US. Across the Western world, in a process which has gained momentum in 2020, the lines between mainstream far-right politics and right-wing extremism are increasingly blurred, due largely to greater acceptance of extreme rhetoric, conspiracy and misinformation. There is a concerning trend of far-right extremism taking a tighter hold on mainstream politics and wider society, and the ripple effects of this are undoubtedly going to continue and expand for the foreseeable future.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Jessica White
Senior Research Fellow
Terrorism and Conflict