A researcher of far-right activity discusses the forces behind the pro-Trump mob at the Capitol and the challenges ahead for combating a growing fascist movement.
What forces were behind yesterday’s events at the Capitol? Who were the main players, what do they represent, how was it all planned?
Yesterday we saw neo-Nazis, confederate apologists, Three Percenters and other militias, America First Groypers, QAnon media figures, local conservative media personalities, Christian nationalists, the Proud Boys, and other Trump supporters converge on the Capitol. Many of them consider themselves to be part of a modern Patriot Movement, as reflected in the memes they posted in the days working up to the 6th. These memes framed the day of the event as a moment of reckoning, often by referencing the American Revolution and, more nebulously, “the oncoming storm.” Together these represent the dominant factions on the American right, which are likely to take part in future insurrections across the United States.
The Reopen America protests that took place last spring were a point of convergence for far-right movements, conspiracy-driven ideology, and the Constitutional Sheriffs movement. The Facebook groups that were used to plan those Reopen America protests later gave birth to another form of digital organizing which we saw at play both yesterday and on election day: Stop the Steal groups. For example, across Indiana and southern Illinois we saw county-based Stop the Steal groups coalesce with Trump Train event-planning groups and the Proud Boys. This convergence provided the structure and organization necessary to carry out a nationwide car caravan to DC to mobilize Donald Trump’s supporters. In fact, many of those who attended tagged each other on public Facebook posts. While Facebook was a space for coordination, Parler (a social media app) offered a platform to market events for January 6 and to discuss plans to carry weapons to DC and to other state capitals. With the structure and marketing in place, websites like TheDonald.win conferred a feeling of official sanction on yesterday’s attempted coup. This site was created in the wake of the ban on r/TheDonald, a subreddit for Trump supporters that predictably got banned because of violent hate speech and fascist trolls. Functioning as reddit for the far right, TheDonald.win circulated the conspiracy theories about a “stolen election” and QAnon propaganda that mobilized Trump’s core base of supporters. All of these sites carried a single narrative in common: Donald Trump was calling on his supporters to rally to his cause on January 6 in DC.
In the lead-up to yesterday some antifascist organizers attempted to raise the alarm. Can you talk some about that?
What you saw yesterday happened in spite of a massive undertaking by antifascist and antiracist activists across the United States to prevent violence. This involved weeks of data collection for doxxing, reaching out to organizations on the ground in our communities that would be impacted by right-wing violence, contacting local businesses and government officials in DC to warn them about the possibility of a far-right occupation, and threat assessments to gauge the level of turnout for militant right events in cities across the US.
At the regional level, we received dozens of tips from community organizations in the Midwest concerned by the increase in white supremacist flyering in the weeks leading up to yesterday’s attempted coup. From this information, we assessed what our local far right networks looked like, what their weaknesses were and made contact with other groups in our region who were noticing similar trends. To disrupt fascist activity in local spaces and make the participants and their intentions hyper-visible, we strategically released information in the days leading up to January 6. This is an example of how community-based, grassroots information networks coupled with antifascist research can help keep people safe at both local and national levels.
These actions likely mitigated the violence to a certain extent, particularly with the shutdown of Harry’s Bar, the famed Proud Boys hangout in DC. This began with doxxes during the last week of December. The Proud Boys have a bevy of new members since the former president told them to “stand back and stand by.” To give you an idea here: Indiana had one working chapter of the Proud Boys last year, now it has three. One is in Indianapolis, one in Fort Wayne, and a fledgling chapter in Richmond, some members of which have close ties to GOP politics in Vigo County. Researchers across multiple states worked around the clock, and they successfully identified Proud Boys who had been hiding in plain sight in their communities. The doxxes roll on. And Proud Boys will continue to lose their jobs.
A lot of us called everyone we knew in DC to let them know how bad it was going to get. Just as an example: flyers found in Midwest Stop the Steal and Trump Train Facebook groups indicated the plan for January 6 was going to be something like an occupation. They were telling their members to bring camping equipment, food, and waste disposal supplies, etc. Yet others bragged about the Proud Boys running “security” for their events. Other group chats within websites like MyMilitia and Parler suggested that members of the militant right were planning to bring long guns into DC.
We now know for a fact from photos that some of the putschists brought handguns into downtown DC. Our researchers called up the DC mayor’s office hoping to bring that to their attention, but they hung up on us before we could get a word in edgewise. Calls to hotels and restaurants fared better; workers sounded like they wanted their employers to hear how serious this was. The message was clear: what we were seeing indicated that the far right was going to storm the city and occupy space. But the response, in many cases, was the same thing we’ve seen when informing locals about neo-Nazi recruitment—a shrug and a “it’ll never happen here.” Journalist Talia Jane summed it up best: “This crowd probably wouldn’t have been so big if all the hotels decided to choose safety over money.”
The election of Joe Biden obviously did not undermine the confidence of the burgeoning fascist movement. In some ways the events of yesterday were a rehearsal and an organizing opportunity for their side. How are the far right thinking about the Biden presidency? What is their perspective?
The image of Biden differs based on what groups you’re looking at. Most of what I’ve seen from right-wing networks about Biden accuses him of being a pedophile—as right-wing conspiracy podcaster and political candidate Blake Monroe claimed on his podcast RedPill1776. In alt-right spheres Biden’s leadership is seen as laughable, per the moniker “sleepy Joe.” They believe their work will continue during his presidency and do not feel that he is a threat to white nationalism nor to their aim to create an America First party. The more extremist views come from QAnon, for whom Biden is a reptilian tool of the devil.
In Biden’s speech he appealed to the “sense of order” and the stability and decency of the American state. Do you think Biden at all enables the far right with his overtures?
Biden’s anodyne appeals to stability and order may seem calming, but they are designed to protect civil society values, not fight against American fascism. His appeals to “order” and a mythological American past free from white supremacist violence speak to this issue directly. Biden’s rhetoric hinges on the phrase “this isn’t who we are.” Some have commented that this is a contradiction. The problem is that it’s actually very consistent with the back-and-forth between state power and armed vigilantes that has protected white racial domination throughout US history. In this way, Biden’s rhetoric is neither progressive nor antithetical to violent far-right extremism. This “hands across the aisle” strategy ostensibly designed to make things “go back to normal” is just appeasement in an expensive suit. At this point, gestures to bipartisanship are not just ill-advised, they’re negligent given that many Trump allies like Matt Gaetz have actively contributed to the mainstreaming of white nationalism. Just the night after the coup, Gaetz claimed that some of the rioters were not Trump supporters but members “of the terrorist group antifa” dressed in sheep’s clothing, which is a complete fabrication. Rebuilding alliances with a radicalized GOP is complicity with fascism, and it will lead to more far-right violence down the road.
Why do you think the police were so hands-off? How much of this is due to any sympathies with the movement among the frontline officers?
As numerous studies have shown, policing cultures in the United States are irredeemably violent. Police destroyed water and medical supplies at protests in Asheville. They stood by yesterday as Trump supporters stole equipment from AP journalists and fashioned nooses out of camera wires. They beat and maimed journalists covering the George Floyd rebellions. Yet today’s response by the Capitol police was muted at best. And it took three hours for the National Guard to be summoned. As Joy Ann Reid remarked yesterday, “White Americans aren’t afraid of the cops. White Americans are never afraid of the cops even when they’re committing an insurrection.” The most vicious state violence is reserved for those who flout the racialized, gendered, and class-based order, often solely through their existence. But if you’re a white man, the police might just move the metal barricades aside so you and your Treason Caucus buddies can storm and loot the Capitol building.
Since 2016, the US has seen an emerging coalition of militant right-wing groups from the Groypers, to the Proud Boys, to militias, to neo-Nazis, all laying the groundwork for an emergent fascist third party. Many of their members in the Midwest are also active-duty service members, EMTs, and members of the police. These organizations were designed as the tools of a white-supremacist state that relied on slave patrols and strike breakers to police its racial and class hierarchies. Theirs is not a failure to properly vet their candidates. It’s by design, and part of a policing culture that prizes authoritarian masculinity, socializes officers through racist and sexist work cultures, and protects abusers. Given this, it should come as little surprise that the police have stood back and stood by as white supremacist mobs flooded US streets. They’ve granted violent neo-fascist groups leeway while gassing, beating, shooting, and maiming activists and journalists, all in the name of “following orders.”
What do you expect to happen on Inauguration Day?
Under the cover of yesterday’s failed DC coup, dozens of right-wing extremist groups mounted insurrections across the US to varying degrees of success. One of our research branches also located evidence that a group terming themselves Patriot Action for America planned a militia insurrection for the days leading up to the inauguration which would have required them to gather en masse and surround government buildings to disrupt their workings. Their site has since been taken down. But others, particularly far-right aligned 501c3s and Stop the Steal Facebook groups, are organizing events for the days between the 17th and the 20th.
A radicalized far right poses a threat to the president-elect, his cabinet, and their transition teams. During the tenure of Donald Trump we have had bombings, shootings, stabbings, militia assaults, the plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, vehicular attacks on pedestrians, and an uncontrolled pandemic. Yesterday’s attempted coup included a shooting, a foiled bomb plot at both the RNC and DNC, and a potential data breach if rumors about some of the perpetrators gaining access to officials’ computers are to be believed. The US is extremely unstable at present and is likely to remain so for Biden’s tenure as president. Given that the militant right was allowed to storm the Capitol building, our researchers believe this may inspire attacks on the executive branch that will cause further instability.
What should we expect from the far right going forward, and what kind of movement do we need to build?
The far right is primed for war. And not the kind of civil war that Americans have been conditioned to see through the folksy prism of Ken Burns documentaries, Star Wars Rebel Alliance analogies, or the bombast of Marvel movies. This will be a long and drawn-out fifth column insurgency. To be very frank, we should expect more stochastic terrorism, more targeting of political figures for harassment and violence by the far right, and yet more political candidates who will seek to appeal to a Trumpist base beyond this presidency.
There are also some crucial problems with the way we treat violent extremism. We need new paradigms that will allow us to study and address the very real issue of those who commit acts of violence as a result of being radicalized by conspiracy theories online. Given the emerging details about the Nashville bombing and some of the vehicular attacks this summer, we are seeing people who are radicalized in conspiracy networks but are not necessarily affiliated with extremist organizations commit violent acts. We need new language to talk about this. Addressing these forms of violence will be a difficult task and one with different requirements than tackling white nationalist organizations with more concrete structures and cells. I highly recommend that those seeking to understand the complexities of this issue should follow Sarah Hightower (@nezumi_ningen) on twitter.
In terms of community-level organizing, if we want to push US politics toward the left we need a multifaceted approach. To begin, we need to amplify and support local independent journalists doing investigative reporting. Over the past year they’ve needed body armor, better cameras, bail, and bill payments. Media titans like Gannett simply don’t provide good coverage of these events and frame their stories through the lens of both-sideism. With many journalists on the front lines this year, our research team has gained a far more nuanced picture of the movements and activities of far-right groups than we’ve had previously.
And this gets at something else desperately needed in this moment. The election of a new president does not mean the far right is going away, so we must build a sustained campaign against fascism. A diversity of tactics is required to push the US toward the left. Biden will seek to apply a centrist approach to the problem of American racist fascism that focuses on diversity rhetoric, civility politics, and the first amendment as a sanction for hate speech.
We must hold Biden accountable by demanding the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore and strengthen the protections stripped from the VRA three years ago. Together, we must work to put an end to qualified immunity that has prevented so many violent police from facing justice in the court system. We cannot depend on politicians who break bread with fascists to crush American fascism. Community solidarity, collective work, and direct action will get us through the next four years. On this, Talia Lavin writes, “Dismantling the rise of fascism is best not left to lone vigilantes, nor to the punitive mechanisms of the state, but to people working together to stamp out hate wherever it arises.”
No Space for Hate (NSFH) Research Division is a collective of activists, scholars, students, and data analysts who monitor the activities of white supremacists in the United States. At present, their work involves collecting, analyzing, and publishing information about how white supremacist organizations in the Midwest are making inroads into American politics.