Researchers studying the far right have sounded the alarm over the threat posed by the rapid proliferation of conspiracy theories, disinformation and misinformation for years, noting that shifts in the extreme right’s mobilization tactics could present new challenges to stemming a tide of violence.
The far-right insurrection on the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., which took place on the afternoon of Jan. 6 and has resulted in five deaths and a slew of arrests, represents a transition in far-right communities away from traditional organizational structures and toward diffuse systems of decentralized radicalization.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and others have tracked the presence of numerous organized hate and antigovernment groups on the ground in the runup to and during the Jan. 6 attack. Among them were the far-right, street-fighting group the Proud Boys; a variety of antigovernment groups, such as the Oath Keepers, the Sons of Liberty NJ and the Last Sons of Liberty; extremist podcasters such as Nick Fuentes, Tim Gionet aka “Baked Alaska” and Vincent James Foxx of the Red Elephants; and at least one representative of a New England-based chapter of the neo-Nazi Nationalist Social Club. But in the siege’s wake, another alarming trend has also emerged. That is, in contrast to other major instances of far-right violence, many of those arrested for their involvement were not members of a specific hate or antigovernment group.
Take Richard Barnett, a 60-year-old Trump supporter who was taken into federal custody on Jan. 8, after he was identified in numerous photos and livestreams at a staffer’s desk in Nancy Pelosi’s office. In a Facebook post reported on by The Washington Post, Barnett proclaimed he self-identified as a white nationalist.
“I am white. There is no denying that. I am a nationalist. I put my nation first. So that makes me a white nationalist,” he wrote on a page he operated under a pseudonym a few days prior to participating in the attack on the Capitol. But Barnett, who added that those who did not agree with his worldview should “get the f*** out of our nation,” did not come to Washington, D.C. with any hate or antigovernment group tracked by the SPLC in its annual year in hate report.
Some of the other insurrectionists arrested for their involvement in the attack on the Capitol include individuals aligned with QAnon, an umbrella term for a spiderweb of right-wing conspiracy theories.
Instead, at the heart of the Jan. 6 attack appears to be a trend toward a rejection of both traditional politics and the democratic process, alongside a collapse of the usual organizing methods. Some researchers, such as Jakob Guhl and Jacob Davey of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, have referred to a manifestation of this trend on the encrypted messaging app Telegram as a “post-organisational paradigm.”
“Here groups of extremists are coordinating and organizing in a looser fashion, often with adherence to key tactical, cultural and ideological tropes,” Davey, the head of anti-hate research at ISD, told Hatewatch in an email. “This is characterised by increasingly fluid and ambiguous boundaries between organizations and movements, direction and inspiration, and online and offline activity.”
Emerging from the post-Trump political landscape is a bloc best described as the anti-democratic hard right: one that wants to purge the current political order and endorses an authoritarian form of government that maintains and strengthens existing social stratification. While the right historically has been easily fractured by disagreements over strategy and where to ultimately lay blame for their grievances, those divisions have dissipated in this moment. Instead, the right has unified around the idea that America itself needs a hard reset.
Navigating a Post-Group World
Guhl and Davey, in a study of Telegram published in early 2020, defined a “post-organisational paradigm” as one wherein an “online connection to extremist culture and ideology could be equally important for inspiring violence as connections to ‘on the ground groups.’” The pair cited a wave of white supremacist terror attacks across the globe in 2018 and 2019 – the latter of which was named “the most lethal year for domestic violent extremism in the United States since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995,” according to the Department of Homeland Security – as emblematic of this shift.
Davey said in an email that these findings were based on a network analysis of different channels on the platform sharing each other’s content.
“Crucially we found that [Telegram] channels which were associated more broadly with the sharing of extremist memes and general discussion were connected into channels which were focused more explicitly on violent activity, suggesting that users with a general interest in the extreme right wing could easily and quickly find themselves coming into content advocating for extreme violence,” he wrote.
Guhl and Davey’s observations in their report were particular to the broader white power movement. On Telegram, channels associated with white power accelerationism – a strategy popular in parts of the extreme right that contends modern society is irredeemable and offers up apocalyptic race war as a solution – have sought to dissuade their followers against traditional organizing methods.
“If [a group has] got a logo, a name, and an online presence, that’s three strikes, run for your life,” wrote the moderator of a prominent white supremacist channel in a guide, published and distributed on Telegram, on how to organize a localized white supremacist terror cell.
This disavowal of traditional organizing methods is a relatively recent shift on the hard right, born in part out of what is another one of the defining far-right extremist events of the Trump era: the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Online spaces have long helped facilitate the formation of organized hate groups. For decades, the web has served as a tool for hate and antigovernment groups – one that has helped grow and perpetuate far-right extremism by facilitating demonstrations and recruitment, leading online trolling campaigns, hosting conferences, spreading propaganda for distribution elsewhere online and in public spaces, and generally building camaraderie among members. As social media platforms developed and grew, the distinction between “irl” (i.e., in real life) and online organizing began to blur, but neither was subsumed by one or the other.
In the early days of the “alt-right,” for example, the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer created real-life “book clubs” for members, while “pool parties” emerged from the white nationalist site and podcast platform The Right Stuff. The proliferation of these group’s chapters, and those associated with American Identity Movement (formerly Identity Evropa) and Patriot Front, accounted for much of the increase in hate groups that the Southern Poverty Law Center documented throughout the Trump presidency.
But “Unite the Right” revealed the weakness in this methodology. Groups that met in person and recruited online were susceptible to infiltration, whether by antifascists, journalists, researchers, or law enforcement, and doxing. Additionally, leaders of these in-person groups – particularly those who were instrumental in organizing events such as “Unite the Right” – opened themselves up to legal quagmires as a result of their members’ actions.
Hence, while extremists were once actively encouraged to join groups in order to consolidate the far right’s power, they now hear the opposite. “There is no reason to have a flag or a name. That’s putting a target on your back for the system,” the administrator of an accelerationist Telegram channel wrote in July 2020 after police arrested a Virginia man for posting stickers promoting The Right Stuff.
“That’s how you get infiltrated and set up for RICO or worse. Dont [sic] join groups. Stop making it easy for the enemy to hunt you down and lock you up.”
These structural transformations also worked hand-in-glove with a reimagining of far-right extremists’ goals. After “Unite the Right,” white nationalists and neo-Nazis who were no longer satisfied with trying to attain their goals through traditional political channels turned toward explicitly violent and revolutionary means. As a result, the mobilization and collective organizing on display at “Unite the Right” gave way to a more radical cohort of fascists. This cadre turned to neo-Nazi polemics – such as James Mason’s SIEGE, which espouses the benefits of leaderless, cell-structured terrorism – for guidance. They encouraged terrorism and insurrectionary violence, seizing upon the motto in online forums that “there is no political solution.”
Anti-Politics Goes Mainstream
This brand of anti-politics made its presence known in more mainstream pro-Trump circles at anti-lockdown protests over the summer in the form of boogaloo boys, a collection of far-right extremists united in their call for armed insurrection against the state. Police arrested three boogaloo militants in June after uncovering a plot to trigger violence at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Las Vegas. Later that month, federal authorities arrested another boogaloo adherent in California and charged him with murder and attempted murder in connection to the deaths of a security officer and a Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s sergeant.
The events of Jan. 6 demonstrated that this rejection of traditional politics and democracy itself has moved deep into the pro-Trump movement. The stakes that day were high: After the courts failed to upend the results of the election, the president’s supporters saw it as one of their last chances to flex their power and keep Trump in the White House. For the insurrectionists, the democratic process had failed to reflect the reality crafted through the mythology of “Stop the Steal.” No matter what the election result was, Trump told them on Twitter, victory had been “unceremoniously & viciously stripped away.”
Trump has not only consistently sown distrust of the nation’s political institutions, civil servants, and experts, but he has, as Professor Philip Rocco of Marquette University wrote in an edited volume, “used the ad hoc production of new information to reinforce his view of political reality.” This conspiracy-mongering has contributed to a shift toward widespread political uncertainty. Trump is one of the only politicians many of his supporters trust, and his time in elected office has come to an end. With Biden’s inauguration in sight, the right is now looking for new ways to exert political power, and they have bent toward repressive, anti-democratic mechanisms.
The Pro-Trump Movement’s Turn to Insurrection
For supporters of the president and the Capitol insurrection, the events of Jan. 6 are not the end of a political movement, but the beginning. Antigovernment militia forums and social media groups have noted an uptick in members in the days following the insurrection. “Get busy, get involved, get serious. Folks, it’s time to shit or get off the pot,” a three percenter group posted on MeWe.
“The rubicon has been crossed. The fire of revolution has been lit,” an account associated with a Proud Boys chapter wrote on Telegram.
Far-right extremists across ideologies have leaned even further into the rhetoric of revolutionary incitement in the aftermath of Jan. 6 as well, as pro-Trump social media users have either been deplatformed or, frustrated with mainstream social media networks, moved to apps such as Telegram.
Perhaps foremost among these is livestreamer Nick Fuentes, who has been the face of young, pro-Trump white nationalists. Fuentes has spoken openly about dismantling the party, which he claims operates at the behest of “globalists” – a term that is often used as an antisemitic dog whistle in far-right circles.
As Hatewatch recently reported, his rhetoric has moved beyond criticism of Republicans into the territory of revolutionary incitement and terror. In December, Fuentes led his supporters in a chant of “Destroy the GOP!” at a pro-Trump event in D.C. Then, two days prior to the attack on the Capitol, Fuentes pondered, “What can you and I do to a state legislature besides killing them?” Fuentes reiterated this incitement to violence before an audience outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, after telling them that they were potentially witnessing “the beginning of a second American revolution.”
“The revolution,” he continued, “can take place – and I hope – bloodlessly, or it can take place in other ways.”
“These politicians don’t represent us. They betray us. Now, we are forcibly evicting them from the people’s house,” he said later in the same speech, after learning that lawmakers were being evacuated from the Capitol. “They should live in fear of the American people who they have betrayed over and over again!”
It is not just extremist figures such as Fuentes who are using the language of revolution and war, but members of the political establishment. In Wisconsin, the St. Croix County Republican Party wrote on its website, “If you want peace, prepare for war,” and called for “eliminating leftist tyrants.” In December, Rep. Madison Cawthorn told a crowd to “lightly threaten” members of Congress who did not support Trump’s claim that the presidential election was fraudulent.
Despite the widespread horror expressed by most politicians in the aftermath of the insurrection, some Republican members of the Senate still decided to object to the Electoral College vote and continue to perpetuate the voter fraud conspiracy that led rioters to the Capitol in the first place. One of those, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, appeared to offer a gesture of solidarity to the crowd of the president’s supporters as they gathered outside the Capitol before storming inside. Indeed, according to a poll conducted by YouGov, 45 percent of Republicans supported the Pro-Trump insurrectionists and 68 percent said they did not believe they posed a threat to democracy.
Extremism in GOP Provides Opportunities for the White Power Movement
The radicalization of a cross-section of Trump supporters has been celebrated by members of the white power movement.
At the white nationalist site VDARE, Kevin DeAnna, a longtime white power activist who writes under the pseudonym “James Kirkpatrick” for the site, praised the attack on the Capitol and portrayed the event as an opportunity to push Trump supporters to new extremes.
“The good news: the Capitol Hill protest and its subsequent repression was another step in the radicalization, not of the Dissident Right, which already knows the score only too well, but of the mass of ordinary American patriots,” he wrote on Jan. 9, referencing, albeit indirectly, the wave of social media deplatformings and legal repercussions that attendees at “Unite the Right” faced after the event.
White power accelerationists, who see an alignment with the pro-Trump insurrectionists over their tactics and even their lust for violence, have also praised Jan. 6 as a moment for recruitment. When pro-Trump users from Parler started to crop up on Telegram, the preferred app of advocates of white supremacist terror, administrators of several prominent accelerationist channels expressed their delight.
“Your job is to influence disenfranchised White males,” one admin told their followers.
They continued, in language punctuated by emojis, saying: “Make them anti system . . . Amplify the stolen election rhetoric, glorify Ashli Babbitt,” they said, referencing a pro-Trump insurrectionist killed at the Capitol who has been turned into a martyr for the far right.
In an acknowledgement of their ideological differences, one accelerationist wrote that “as misguided as many of the folks that stormed the capitol today still are, I’m proud of what they did today. Once they are ready for total war, we could actually take this country back.”
“The average MAGA boomer would be the first in line to start hoisting politicians on the day of the rope,” another concluded, citing The Turner Diaries, a racist novel written by neo-Nazi leader William Luther Pierce that has fueled some of the most tragic acts of white supremacist terror, including the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. In the text, Pierce refers to “the Day of the Rope” as a mass hanging of enemies of the fictional, white supremacist group, the Organization. Pierce’s term was an explicit reference to lynching.
At least one member of the pro-Trump mob brought a noose to the Capitol that day.