In early April, Congress held its first hearing on white nationalism since the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. What was supposed to be an opportunity to address the rising threat of far-right extremism was, at certain points, upended by conservatives who insisted the real threat came from the left.
Candace Owens, then communications director for the right-wing student group Turning Point USA, wrote off white nationalism as a fearmongering “election strategy” on the part of Democrats. “If they were really concerned about white nationalism, they’d hold hearings on antifa,” she told the committee.
If you listened only to Owens’s testimony, you might never learn that the vast majority of extremist murders committed in 2018 were carried out by members of the far right who were steeped in white supremacist ideology. Or that the number of those murders is increasing. Or that many of the tech companies that control the online spaces where violent white supremacists become radicalized are failing to moderate hate content effectively, creating a fertile space for frustrated white men to become socialized into the world of hate.
Owens’s strategy has become standard fare on the right: diminishing the rise of white nationalist violence, diffusing blame onto “many sides” – as President Trump did after “Unite the Right” – or insisting, despite all evidence, that political violence is a left-wing problem. Trump downplayed the threat once again in the aftermath of the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooting that left 50 Muslim worshippers dead at the hands of a white supremacist. When a reporter asked the president whether he believed white nationalism was a rising global threat, he responded, “I don’t really.”
The right’s refusal to acknowledge actual political violence only aids white nationalists, not only by downplaying their culpability but also by allowing white nationalists space to push the narrative that the “violent left” is the real threat. If leftists – and, specifically, the anti-fascist activists known as antifa – are the ones hellbent on violence, then any right-wing act of violence can be framed as self-defensive or retaliatory and, therefore, justified. Accordingly, the right wing has strategically pushed what one commenter on the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer called “the ‘out of control, violent left’ meme.”
For a large swath of extremists on the far right, violence is the ultimate goal; it’s not a desire they try to hide. On social media and white nationalist platforms, they openly pine for the opportunity to attack and kill leftists and fantasize about a potential civil war. It’s why so many white nationalists recently looked more fondly upon the Proud Boys, a group they once derided for, among other inadequacies, embracing “Western culture” rather than white identity. They’ve chosen to overlook their lack of radical credentials for one reason: the Proud Boys’ battles against leftists at the dozen or so “free speech” rallies last summer and fall produced a steady supply of propaganda for them to exploit.
The hope is that these images will work to radicalize mainstream conservatives – or, at the very least, convince them that a growing leftist threat is afoot. Right-wing extremists are trying to foster the already deep distrust that’s left Americans politically and socially fractured to accelerate a potentially violent conflict between left and right. The “violent left” narrative is dangerous not only because it heightens already raised suspicions, but also because it can be used to delegitimize genuine political activism and justify right-wing acts of violence and even terrorism.
On an even larger level, all of this advances the steady normalization of violence already underway in American politics. Dangerous and threatening speech is, of course, not directed solely toward leftists, but increasingly at anyone who stands in the way of the radical right’s ethnonationalist agenda.
In recent weeks, an anti-immigrant militia detained migrants trying to cross the border at gunpoint and, in the aftermath, President Trump laughed and cracked a joke when a supporter at one of his rallies yelled that immigrants attempting to cross the border should be shot. The exchange put into relief just how easily violent language operates within our current political climate and, worse, how those words can bestow permission to act. But the frightening reality is that permission is exactly what right-wing extremists want.
Preparing for civil war
What makes the myth of the “violent left” so dangerous is that it not only creates a common enemy for those from the mainstream to the extreme right but also justifies violence against those perceived enemies by providing a cover of self-defense. It should be put plainly: What the radical right wants is violence.
“BRING IT ON STOP BLUEBALLING US,” a commenter posted on YouTube under the video of a Tucker Carlson segment on Fox News titled “Left Using the Language of Total War – and It’s Scary.” “Let the blood run in the street and see who is the last to stand up. EVERY state will be red when the last shot is fired,” another responded.
Indeed, the radical right now talks about civil war as an inevitability and – by no coincidence – started to widely embrace that idea last summer as the far-right reactionary groups Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer were ramping up their violent tear through the Pacific Northwest. Podcasts and articles begging questions about an upcoming civil conflict (with titles like “Civil War Heating Up in America,” “Thinking About Civil War II” and “ Is America Headed for CIVIL WAR?”) began multiplying online. Though theories about what event might eventually prompt political tensions to turn violent vary, most on the far right agree that the battle lines would be drawn between whites on the right side of the political spectrum and everyone else. As one commentator on the Daily Stormer wrote in January, “This is us or them (kikes, muds, moslems, antifa, ethnomasochists, femmunists, you name it), to be or not to be situation, clock is ticking. Not about optics, morality, democracy, whatever but survival.”
By accusing others of extremism, the radical right is hoping to exonerate themselves. They have already preemptively placed the blame for any potential conflict on the left. “We can’t coexist with these people because they want us dead, jailed, and unpersoned,” Patrick Casey, who heads the toney, college student-focused white nationalist group American Identity Movement (formerly known as Identity Evropa), tweeted in October. “The Left is waging war. The Right can either fight back or be crushed.”
A growing number within the extreme right insist they’re ready for violence and are simply, as Daily Stormer editor Andrew Anglin put it, “waiting for a signal” from Trump. “All he has to do is say the word,” “Fash the Nation” podcast host Jazzhands McFeels tweeted late last year.
But what if they don’t ever get the signal? That’s the growing fear among many white nationalists, who now find themselves frustrated by Trump’s lack of action. Just as he has yet to build the border wall they so badly want, Trump hasn’t satisfied their desire to punish their political enemies. “It’s always been immigration, but part of me is kind of questioning whether prosecution of antifa and taking out this mob by the President of the United States might even be more important than immigration,” McFeels said on “Fash the Nation.”
“Immigration’s important – you gotta solve the demographic issue. But if you don’t protect the people willing to fight for you…what the fuck is the point of any of it?”
The danger is that extremists will begin to take it upon themselves to complete the tasks Trump has failed to execute. Since his campaign began, Trump has riled his supporters with fantasies of punishing everyone from Democratic politicians, anti-fascist activists, immigrants and the press to black athletes. Extremists wanted Trump to ethnically cleanse the country and rebuke those who stood in opposition to his agenda. Charging that he appears only interested in maintaining the status quo, they now feel betrayed.
Some of the most extreme neo-Nazis see this as a positive development specifically because they hope that frustration will be channeled into violence. That includes the hosts of “Bowlcast,” a podcast whose hosts glorify mass killers like Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof (the name is a reference to Roof’s haircut) and encourage copycats. “I voted for him and it’s worked out beautifully,” host Vic Mackey said of Trump on a recent episode, “because all these alt-right people who were hoping he was gonna be the next Fuhrer are totally disappointed and they’re black pilled. Now they’re much more likely to do radical things.” Trump “is going to create more Bowers and more Roofs that any other event in recent history,” Mackey predicted.
“There’s gonna be a lot more kike, n***** school shootings,” he continued, “because Trump is completely dissipating the hope that he built his whole campaign around and it’s beautiful.”
The far-right monopoly on violence
The specter of the “violent left” has been one of the main animating forces in the radical right in recent years. But it’s just that – a specter. It’s not a rising campaign of terror, but a phantasm. To believe in the myth of the unhinged, violent left is to ignore the reality that the far right is responsible for the vast majority of political violence.
Between 2014 and 2018, men radicalized in racist online spaces killed 81 people and injured 104 others. In 2018, “every single extremist killing” – 50 total – “had a link to right-wing extremism,” according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League, and 78% of those were white supremacists. Racists killed 13 people in October alone. A man in Kentucky gunned down two black people in a grocery store and, only days later, white nationalist Robert Bowers was charged with killing 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. That same week, Cesar Sayoc was arrested for allegedly sending 13 explosive devices to prominent Democrats frequently demonized by the right-wing press.
This year has shown that the white power movement is a transnational threat. In March, an Australian man killed 50 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. His acts and those of other violent white nationalists before him inspired 19-year-old John Earnest, who faces federal hate crime charges following a shooting at California synagogue that left one worshipper dead and injured several others.
There is a segment of the far left that, at times, eschews non-violence. They have shown up to political rallies armed with weapons prepared to do battle in the streets. Anti-fascist protesters committed significant property damage during inauguration day protests. Later that year, Rep. Steve Scalise was shot on a baseball field by a man who expressed support for left-wing policies on social media. But left-wing violence has been declining for decades. On the whole, the incidents the right can point to as evidence of rising leftist violence are minor (including throwing eggs, water bottles and, most recently, milkshakes) – and often highly exaggerated by those citing them – in comparison to the terroristic acts and mass murders committed by men like Roof.
Antifa is also not what the far right makes it out to be. The loose network of anti-fascist organizers employ several (sometimes violent) tactics, but they are hardly the powerful, shadowy, billionaire-backed group the far right often describes. What is in reality a very small movement has become the boogeyman of the far right, and one they often incorrectly use as a stand-in for the left as a whole.
Most people who engage in protests and activism related to leftist causes are simply exercising their right to free speech. At protests, where crowds during the Trump era have overwhelmingly been made up of those somewhere on the left of the political spectrum, the right claims responsibility for the most egregious acts of violence.
According to the Crowd Counting Consortium, there were over 8,700 protests in the United States in 2017 alone. An estimated 89% of those attending demonstrations were either protesting Trump or his policies, amounting to more than 5 million people. None of them killed anyone, but James Alex Fields did when he rammed a crowd of anti-racist activists his car at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. It was also a far-right supporter who police say shot a counterprotester outside a Milo Yiannopoulos speech in January of that year. “I can’t wait for tomorrow,” the shooter’s husband messaged a friend the day before the event. “I’m going to the milo event and if the snowflakes get out of hand I’m going to wade through their ranks and start cracking skulls.”
Another shooting took place in October. Three white nationalists traveled from Texas to Gainesville to attend a speech by Richard Spencer at the University of Florida and later harassed a group of people who had protested the event. Goaded on by his companions, Tyler Tenbrink took aim and shot a single bullet at one of the protesters who held his hands in the air. He missed. “I came here to support Spencer,” he told The Washington Post, because he had been threatened by “the radical left” after he was identified as a “Unite the Right” attendee. Tenbrink is now serving 15 years in prison for his crime.
The notion of the “violent left” had to be cultivated, and no group has done more to perpetuate the idea than the Proud Boys and their compatriots. The SPLC-designated hate group spent the whole of last summer and much of the fall goading anti-fascists to battle them in the streets, filming and then endlessly reposting footage of their violent encounters. The Proud Boys played off any aggression on their part as acts of self-defense. Never mind that they were the ones creating situations conducive to violence – planning and widely advertising large rallies, publicly broadcasting their fantasies about beating anti-fascists on social media, making logistical preparations for violence, busing supporters into the furthest left-leaning cities in the country, and marching toward groups of counterprotesters while clad in homemade armor – with the hope of sparking a reaction.
Because of its history of robust anti-racist activism, most of the Proud Boys’ activity during the past year was concentrated in the Pacific Northwest. They teamed up with the big-tent far-right group Patriot Prayer, led by failed U.S. Senate candidate Joey Gibson, for roughly a dozen rallies. Under the pretext of “free speech” and “freedom and courage,” they issued beatdowns for their political enemies. “Punch a commie a day, keep the fascists away!” they chanted at a rally in June.
In the lead-up to each event, the reactionary crowd took to Facebook to hatch their plans, declaring at one point that “the liberal-occupied streets of Portland will be CLEANSED.” They fantasized about driving a minesweeping tank through the city’s streets to catch counterprotesters in its chains. One poster wrote that, after the tank had done its work, they should “leave the corpses as a reminder.”
The Proud Boys rely heavily on a rhetorical trick that researchers of dangerous speech call “accusations in a mirror” – essentially a perverted version of the instruction to “do unto others as they do unto you.” It’s leftists and anti-fascist activists, they insist, who are hellbent on waging a campaign of violence against them, thereby painting all of the violence on the “patriot” side of political rallies as defensive. “We are under siege,” Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes explained in a YouTube video in November. “We are threatened with violence – real physical violence – on a regular basis.”
The Proud Boys’ campaign against the left picked up momentum throughout the latter half of the year, due in no small part to the fact that they faced practically no legal repercussions for their violent actions (in part, recent reporting suggests, because of the right-wing activists’ cozy relationship with the police).
The violent street theatre achieved several ends. It perpetuated a narrative of right-wing victimization, bonded antagonizers together through shared acts of violence, and encouraged those watching the action to participate in the next rally.
As their rallies grew in size, emboldened Proud Boys took to harassing leftist organizers and activists outside the boundaries of their pre-planned events. Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer members decked out in ersatz armor taunted people protesting Trump’s child-separation immigration policy at Portland’s “Occupy ICE” camp, urging them to “Try something!” Alongside members of a far-right militia, they reportedly pepper-sprayed members of the Democratic Socialists of America drinking on a bar patio in Louisville.
In June 2018, two Proud Boys drove through the streets of Portland, yelling, “Go Trump!” When a passerby taunted one of the members for losing his shoes at a past rally, police say the two Proud Boys attacked him. Tusitala “Tiny” Toese and Donovan Flippo face felony assault charges related to the attack.
All of this happened despite McInnes’s assertion that “The far left, antifa – they have cafes they frequent, regular meetings that could be targeted. They’re not. [The Proud Boys] is not a group that picks fights.”
In October, their claims of self-defense began to unravel after a group of Proud Boys violently beat leftist protesters in Manhattan following a talk McInnes gave at the Metropolitan Republican Club. Their PR campaign began almost immediately. “Proud Boys Defend Themselves from Masked Attackers; World Goes Ape-shit,” read a Proud Boy Magazine headline.
But a video acquired by The New York Times shows Proud Boys initiated the fight. After one of the attackers yelled, “Proud Boys! You ready?” the security camera footage shows a Proud Boy charge and throw a punch at a protester crouching defensively. More Proud Boys run toward the small group of anti-fascists, eventually pummeling them to the ground. Ten members of the Proud Boys were arrested in connection to the fight.
The meme spreads
The Proud Boys are currently in disarray. Even McInnes stepped away from the group in the wake of the New York City attack, explaining the move was a “gesture” his lawyers said would help the men facing charges. But their current weakened state doesn’t mean they haven’t helped change the political landscape in significant ways.
All those videos of Proud Boys and their allies battling against antifa helped galvanize the far right. The videos not only provided apparent evidence of the existence of the “violent left,” but also got people excited about the prospect that they, too, might be able to able to brawl with antifa. “In your lifetime,” one poster tweeted hopefully, “you will get the chance to beat the shit out of actual communists right in the streets.”
White nationalists had long been trying to play up the threat from antifa, with headlines like one on the VDARE website that asked, “Car That Crashed Was Reportedly Being Stormed By Antifa – Was It Self-Defense?” in the aftermath of the Charlottesville rally.
But the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer created a new propaganda opportunity. “The Daily Shoah,” a neo-Nazi podcast on The Right Stuff network, spent nearly an hour of their show discussing the ongoing war between the far right and antifa in Portland after a rally on June 30, 2018, where Proud Boy Ethan Nordean knocked out an anti-fascist protester with a single punch. “It’s so much fun to see that guy get fucking clocked,” host Mike Peinovich said, before instructing listeners to share the gif of Nordean’s knockout blow.
Users on the white nationalist-friendly platform Gab cheered on the Proud Boys throughout that violent summer. One of those was Daniel McMahon, a Holocaust denier and self-proclaimed “God damn fascist” and “antifa hunter” who posts under the name Jack Corbin. He regularly encourages violence, frequently pointing to the Proud Boys as an example of how white nationalists should challenge anti-fascists.
“I’m asking people to take a page from Rufio’s handbook wear Kevlar forearm bracers at rallies to block ASP Baton attacks from antifa like [names of alleged activists] of Philly ARA,” he wrote in one post. “The SHARP who got KO’d by Rufio Panman in Portland had a seizure after getting KO’d,” he noted in another. “I hear there’s a 75% chance he might die. One less antifa terrorist and one less loose end if that happens!”
Those posts, in addition to others, were shared by Robert Bowers, who has been charged with killing 11 synagogue worshippers and wounding several others in the deadliest antisemitic attack in the nation’s history.
Entering the mainstream
White nationalist activists have made clear that they see themselves and groups like the Proud Boys as part of the same project. While the reactionaries battle it out in the streets and push the narrative that the left is violent and unhinged, they can focus on pushing online content and building communities of white nationalists like the “Book Clubs” and “Pool Parties” organized, respectively, by the Daily Stormer and The Right Stuff. Together, the complementary tactics help build a growing regiment of far-right extremists bound together by a common enemy.
But the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer rallies offered something that white nationalists simply couldn’t; namely, as one of the hosts of “The Daily Shoah” put it, their violent propaganda is “something you could sell to normies.” That means your average Fox News viewer, whose existing contempt for the left can be weaponized as a tool for radicalization. Just like the desire to demonize immigrants, the Shoah hosts explained, the yearning to punish leftists could motivate and mobilize everyone from the “boomers,” “patriots” and “Christians” who make up the Fox News audience, to the listeners of white nationalist podcasts.
Hatred toward the left is nothing new in right-wing politics. But the belief that the left poses a violent, authoritarian threat to the country – one that can justifiably be put down through violent measures – is more novel. And extremists see it as an opportunity for coalition building. “Why can’t you appeal to [Trump voters] when they hate everything you hate?” the white nationalist Ricky Vaughn asked on a TRS podcast early last year.
There’s ample evidence that the violent-left trope has caught on outside the extreme right. It’s not hard to find “anti-antifa” memes in the pro-Trump spaces of Twitter and Facebook. One photo that recently made the rounds shows a truck with a human skeleton – holding a sign identifying it as “antifa” – smashed into its front bumper. The apparent joke feels especially grotesque considering James Alex Fields murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville by ramming his car through a crowd of counterprotesters. He also, notably, shared similar memes on his Instagram account three months before carrying out his attack in 2017.
“Anti-antifa” content has also been adopted by mainstream right-wing media, organizations and even brands. Watch enough right-wing content on YouTube, and you might be shown an ad for the military-themed apparel company Grunt Style in which a police officer whips out his baton as he readies himself to charge an unruly, masked crowd of activists carrying signs with leftist slogans like “No Justice No Peace.” Last summer, the GOP released an ad simply called “The Left in 2018: UNHINGED.” In late November, right-wing pundit Erick Erickson proposed that the United States should prop up Augustus Pinochet-like dictators in Central America, tweeting that he was “hoping for some helicopters in this plan,” a reference to the Chilean dictator’s death squads that threw leftist dissidents to their deaths from the air. It’s a meme that originated in the far right and is a favorite among Proud Boys (who have donned “Pinochet did nothing wrong” shirts at their rallies).
Like many white nationalist ideas, the violent left meme has been adopted by Fox News and, especially, Tucker Carlson, who white nationalists often praise as the foremost propagandist of their cause. “What Tucker Carlson talks about, we talked about a year ago,” Tenbrink, the white nationalist who in 2017 attempted to shoot an anti-racist activist, told Janet Reitman in The New York Times.
Carlson regularly derides anti-fascists and helps perpetuate the idea that antifa is made up of violent authoritarians taking over America’s more liberal cities. He’s claimed that antifa, who he described as “violent lunatics in black face masks,” are “ruling, in effect, the streets of Portland, harassing whomever they like.”
President Trump, who notoriously parrots Fox News talking points, has also started sounding the alarm on apparently rampant leftist violence. At a rally in Missouri last September, he claimed that the entire Democratic Party was being “held hostage by far-left activists, by angry mobs – antifa – by deep-state radicals.” “I would never suggest this,” he continued, “but I tell you – they’re so lucky we’re peaceful.”
By November, his tone had become more ominous. “They better hope that the opposition to antifa decides not to mobilize. Because if they do, they’re much tougher. Much stronger. Potentially much more violent. And antifa’s going to be in big trouble,” he told The Daily Caller, adding that those who opposed antifa were “getting angrier and angrier.”
Recognizing his rhetoric reflected in Trump’s words, Andrew Anglin simply wrote, “Oh wow holy shit.”
Photo credit: AP Images/Andrew Shurtleff