Last December, an armed, 28-year-old North Carolina man stormed into a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor called Comet Ping-Pong, bent on investigating the stories he’d heard about it being part of a child sex-slavery ring closely tied to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. Before it was over, Edgar Welch had fired a shot that harmed no one, but terrified restaurant customers and staff alike.
“The intel on this wasn’t 100%,” Welch sheepishly conceded later.
That may have been the understatement of the year. The “intel” on what came to be called “Pizzagate” was utterly and completely false. It soon transpired that Welch had been taken in by a “documentary” he watched on the Infowars site of Alex Jones, America’s most unhinged conspiracist and a man who sees the federal government as being the author of almost every terrorist attack since 1995.
But the most remarkable thing about the whole bizarre episode wasn’t that significant numbers of Americans are so taken in by Jones’ “fake news” that a man like Welch actually begins shooting. What’s genuinely stunning is that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump had in late 2015 gone on Jones’ radio show, where the future U.S. president pronounced his interviewer’s reputation “amazing.”
That statement, along with Jones’ claim that Trump called him personally right after the election to thank him for his support and to promise to go on his show once again, was a reflection of just how far the radical right in America has come in recent years. And it wasn’t the only such sign. During the campaign, Trump retweeted a white supremacist’s completely false claim that 80% of white murder victims in America are killed by black people. He described Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, said Muslims should be banned from the country, and seemed to encourage violence by his supporters against black protesters.
During the campaign, Trump only weakly disavowed the white supremacists who were electrified by his candidacy. And once elected, he selected appointees known for their hardline anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas. Chief among them was Breitbart News executive Stephen Bannon, a partisan of right-wing populism who many observers see as having promoted white nationalism.
After half a century of being pushed to the very margins of American society, the radical right has entered the political mainstream in a way not even imagined since the 1968 run for the presidency by segregationist George Wallace.
In this issue, we take a look at the state of the radical right in America in the aftermath of one of the most remarkable presidential races in history. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s latest count, the number of hate groups in the U.S. remained at near-historic levels, increasing from 892 in 2015 to 917 last year. That approaches the all-time high in some 30 years of counting groups, 1,018 in 2011, when hatred of President Obama on the political right was white hot.
These numbers don’t tell the whole story. Increasing numbers of extremists — like Dylann Roof, who was convicted late last year of the 2015 murder of nine black churchgoers in a bid to start a race war — are lurking on the Internet, absorbing radical ideas without actually ever joining a hate group. Some small proportion of these people, anonymous and invisible until the very last moment like Roof, go on to kill.
America is at a crossroads. On one hand, the country has come a remarkable distance from a past marred by slavery, Jim Crow and discrimination against minorities of all kinds. On the other, like most European countries, we are facing a resurgence of racial nationalism that imperils the progress we’ve made.
Alex Jones may try scrub the evidence of his role in promoting extremism, as he did immediately after Welch’s attack in the nation’s capital. But it is imperative that we remember the Joneses of the world, and that we work to identify, isolate and neutralize those who would make America less than the country it could be.