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At the End of the Trump Era, White Nationalists Increasingly Embrace Political Violence

If anything has defined the white power movement over the latter part of the Trump administration, it’s the adoption of “accelerationism” – a term with a complicated academic lineage, but a simple meaning within the far right.

The entire economic and political system, accelerationists contend, must be dismantled through apocalyptic race war. In their conception, politics as it’s often waged – where power is exercised through elections, campaigns, policy, and mass movements – has no utility. They choose instead a “cleansing fire” of violence, as one of the strategy’s more prominent proponents put it. Accelerationism is an anti-politics born of this particular moment, defined by widespread financial and political uncertainty, a pessimistic view of the future, and declining faith in democracy.       

Accelerationism operated at the fringes of the far right at the beginning of the Trump era. Its small community of adherents, who assembled mainly in the hyper-vetted Iron March forum, were crowded out by the “movementarians” of the so-called alt-right who wanted to build broad-based support for their white nationalist agenda. For the far right, it was a moment of intense optimism: Trump was the conduit through which they could access mainstream political power, and the internet was where they would build a movement using the forces of youthful energy and transgressive humor.

But for all of the cruelty resulting from his administration’s policies, Trump failed to satisfy all of his white supremacist supporters. “We are wondering if Trump trotted out ending birthright citizenship and other populist red meat merely to save himself and his worthless party for another round of tax cuts, foreign policy distractions, and fundamental betrayals of white America,” the white nationalist Greg Johnson wrote only days after Trump was elected. To many within the white power movement, Trump simply perpetuated “the system” and acted more like a traditional conservative than the kind of fascist leader they hoped he would be.

The accelerationist label refers to a strategy and not a particular system of beliefs. The members of these communities want to bring about “system collapse” through acts of violence, and much of their online chatter focuses on how to prepare for the apocalyptic end that they assume is inevitable in a multicultural, democratic society. For some, that means seeking out paramilitary training by joining groups like The Base. Before it was severely hampered by a series of arrests, The Base held training camps around the country, with the goal of eventually having a formalized training program complete with designated instructors and a curriculum. Others advocate for moving off-grid. “Stop throwing away money on politicians or movementarian grifters selling false hopes[.] Retreat to rural White areas, improve yourself, and organize locally and privately in silence,” one accelerationist wrote in an online forum.

Accelerationists aren’t part of a new racist movement. The orientation toward apocalyptic race war and advocacy of political and racist violence have long been hallmarks of the white power movement, but these accelerationist ideas are today at the forefront of the far right. And the question we should be asking ourselves is, why now?

Trump, of course, acts as a partial explanation. He undoubtedly emboldened the far right and, importantly, created heightened expectations. In the aftermath of the 2017 Unite the Right rally – which left most of the movement’s high-profile leaders bogged down in ongoing lawsuits – many came to believe that mass mobilization and fealty to figures like Trump were not enough to build an ethnonationalist state.

“There is no political solution,” members of the white power movement endlessly repeated. As we approached the 2020 election, their mantra shifted to “Voting will not remove them,” meaning people of color, Jews, immigrants, leftists and others who stand in the way of building a fascist state.

Accelerationists were also helped immeasurably by the decentralization of tech. Over the last several years, they have increasingly flooded to alternative social media platforms and sites that offer encrypted peer-to-peer communication. They converse secretly on highly encrypted apps as they propagandize and build their networks on platforms like Telegram, where accelerationists have created a fascistic echo chamber they call “Terrorgram.” Deplatforming racists from mainstream social media sites helps to break up their networks and hinders their ability to spread propaganda, but there is no shortage of spaces for them to regroup and openly make calls for violence.  

Accelerationists can’t be viewed apart from a larger shift toward cultural and political pessimism, especially among young people. According to a poll conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics in spring 2020, only eight percent of 18- to 29- year-olds believe the country is working as it should be. They expressed particular concern about how student debt and housing costs will impact their future.

These kinds of feelings are not confined to the United States: the UK-based Varkey Foundation found in a 2017 report that, in 16 of the 20 countries surveyed, more people in Generation Z believed the world was becoming a worse place than believed it was improving. That lack of faith in the future is entangled with the belief held by many that the political system is unresponsive to people’s needs. According to a Pew survey from 2020, 71% of Americans do not believe elected officials care about ordinary citizens. Those who took this view were more likely to say they were dissatisfied with the way democracy is working.   

Feelings of uncertainty and political pessimism don’t necessarily translate into apathy and disengagement – it can also mean searching for new levers to exercise power or trying to rebuild existing structures. This can find expression in the growth of social movements like Black Lives Matter. But it can also take sinister forms in which people try to overcome uncertainty by retreating to a defined in-group and, with sometimes violent results, casting outsiders as an existential threat. As extremist expert J.M. Berger reminded in a recent article, factors like “Unemployment and poverty do not drive extremism directly,” but “When uncertainly overtakes the system itself, when the system is the source of uncertainty, things can really fall apart, and it becomes difficult to know which way society will turn.”

Members of the far right have taken a hardened turn against those they consider their enemies during the Trump era, to the point where many are no longer satisfied with letting the state maintain a monopoly on violence. Hence the embrace of vigilantism evidence in their defense of accused murderer Kyle Rittenhouse, as well as the spread of accelerationist language into the broader fabric of the far right. In a Telegram channel associated with the Trump-loyalist Proud Boys, an administrator recently wrote that “No amount of capitulation, good optics, or virtue signaling will get us out of this war. There are no political solutions.” They hope those they consider their adversaries will yield to intimidation, something they punctuated at a Washington, D.C. pro-Trump rally in December when members of the group destroyed two Black Lives Matter banners that had hung at historic Black churches. One was burned by a number of Proud Boys who wore “Right Wing Death Squad” patches.

The disillusionment and disbelief that has gripped part of the Trump-supporting rightwing could have dangerous results. Trump often told his supporters that he alone represented them within a “swamp” of uncaring political elites – with Trump no longer in power, but telling them Biden is illegitimate, why should they have faith in the political system at all? One white supremacist podcaster recently noted witnessing what he called “Sudden Acceleration Syndrome” in which Trump supporters began espousing accelerationist ideas after his loss. “It’s called waking up to the truth and embracing extremism,” the administrator of a popular accelerationist Telegram channel responded. “The system is too rotten and corrupt. It must be torn down completely.” If the slew of threats made against elected officials in the aftermath of the presidential election is any indication, it seems that more people have come to believe that intimidation and violence are appropriate tools for pursuing political aims.

A recent wave of arrests has dealt a blow to white power groups, including The Base and Atomwaffen Division, but they haven’t stopped the spread of accelerationist ideas. Those are not maintained and spread solely by organized groups, but by a larger white power movement that operates before a backdrop of systemic white supremacy. Indeed, the movement as a whole is becoming more decentralized, where adherents can become a part of a social network, or “radical milieu,” without necessarily joining a group. And if they do, they tend to be smaller, localized cells that might not even have a name.

Intervening in the lives of young people who are radicalizing toward racist, violent extremism involves all those who interact with them. Our communities need preventative and intervention-based models for social programs and processes that steer young people away from lives embroiled in hate. These models must be rooted in empirical guidance and involve academics, mental health professionals and others who can collaborate to build models for intervening as early as possible when a young person encounters extremist ideas. This work will require experts to collaborate with parents and caregivers, schools and local government, and community hubs like churches and sports leagues. The Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University, which brings academic research to bear on the problem of youth radicalization, is one example of a promising path forward.

Extremist ideas don’t exist separately from our larger culture – including our political economy, media landscape, and education models. It’s only by addressing all of these arenas, together, that we can stall the mobilization of a far-right movement that has spent the last four years turning toward an increasingly apocalyptic vision of the future.   

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Photo by Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images