The most disturbing of these reports comes from Heidi Beirich, the longtime intelligence director at the Southern Poverty Law Center now with the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, who warns that the growing radicalization of the American right has pushed the United States to the brink of authoritarianism:
The situation has become so serious that a member of the CIA’s Political Instability Task Force warned in December that the U.S. is “closer to civil war” than most would ever believe. Professor Barbara Walter pointed out that, “if you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America—the same way you’d look at events in Ukraine or Ivory Coast or Venezuela—you would go down a checklist, assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely… And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.” Walter believes that the U.S. has passed through stages of “pre-insurgency” and “incipient conflict” and may now be in “open conflict,” beginning with the Capitol insurgency. Walter also says the U.S. has become an “anocracy”—“somewhere between a democracy and an autocratic state.”
The most worrisome aspect of the radicalization, Beirich observes, is the spread of “accelerationist” beliefs—embracing a nihilistic politics directed at encouraging societal breakdown—by networking among far-right extremists online, culminating in a variety of acts of lethal domestic terrorism. She also notes that while paramilitary groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys played prominent roles in the insurrection, the “prosecutions of those involved in the insurrection has failed to shut down these groups, as has the participation of active-duty military and veterans failed to inspire serious measures to weed out extremists and prevent troops from being radicalized.”
As Beirich explains, this radicalization has been openly encouraged by Republican officeholders and a broad array of right-wing pundits, who have promoted white-nationalist and other far-right conspiracy theories into the mainstream of public discourse, ranging from the racist “Great Replacement” theory claiming that liberals are deliberately seeking to displace white voters with a tide of nonwhite immigration and civil rights, to the contradictory claims that “leftists” and “antifa” were actually responsible for the Jan. 6 violence and that the rioters simultaneously righteous “patriots” seeking to defend the nation from a communist takeover.
Beirich cites a recent University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats report identifying an active American insurrectionist movement comprising some 21 million people. These radicalized Trump followers believe that “Use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency” and that “The 2020 election was stolen, and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” About 63% of them believe in the Great Replacement theory, while 54% subscribe to far-right QAnon conspiracism.
It also notes that this insurrectionist movement is made up of “mainly highly competent, middle-aged American professionals,” leading the researchers to warn that their continuing radicalization “does not bode well for the 2022 midterm elections, or for that matter, the 2024 Presidential election.”
Initially at least, many far-right groups were set back by the aftermath of the Jan. 6 events. Many of them, as researcher Jared Holt of the Atlantic Council told NBC News, faced “a massive PR crisis.” He added: “A lot of these movements spent 2020 raising their visibility, building out their ranks, going to mainstream conservative rallies at state Capitols, showing up in opposition to racial justice protests over the summer and getting very active during the election in the period afterward. All of that perceived momentum got sucked out of the room very quickly.”
An in-depth report from Holt for the Atlantic Council describes how far-right groups adapted to the situation on the ground after Jan. 6 by pushing into mainstream politics by forming nonprofits and engaging in traditional political activities, decentralizing their organizations to embrace more autonomous local groups, and particularly by encouraging political engagement on the local level. “This has led many to adopt causes embraced by mainstream conservatives, from fighting COVID-19 restrictions to challenging school curricula, directing their ire at local officials,” it notes.
Right-wing “culture war” controversies—such as the phony debate over “critical race theory” or conspiracist hysteria about vaccine and masking mandates—have proven to be useful entry opportunities for extremists to gain traction within the mainstream, as Holt reports: “As a fruitful opportunity for generating outrage and hate, extremists have embraced emotionally charged social issues as an entry vehicle into mainstream online discourse,” he writes.
Historical revisionism about the events of Jan. 6 has been central to the radicalization narrative, Holt observes, with prominent social-media influencers and political figures obfuscating and distorting the attack, “disputing the behavior of participants despite documentary evidence to the contrary, and accusing the government of conducting a conspiracy against Trump supporters.”
Most of all, the extremist right’s narrative about both the insurrection and the 2020 election was ardently embraced by mainstream Republicans: “The sentiments of these groups remain among the leading narratives present in mainstream conservative rhetoric today, regularly receiving sympathy and repetition from Republican officials and partisan media outlets from Fox News to One America News Network,” Holt writes, noting that all of these “news” outlets rebranded “the insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol as patriots and heroes.”
Nearly all of the researchers prominently mention Fox’s Tucker Carlson as one of the primary sources of this revisionism. In addition to prominently promoting the “Great Replacement” theory on Fox, Carlson has been a nonstop propagandist for the conspiracy theory that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a “false flag” operation set up by the FBI to entrap hapless conservatives.
The SPLC’s Michael Edison Hayden similarly observed: “More people, in fact, appear to be turning to far-right propaganda lately. Even as ratings for liberal cable shows dipped after Trump’s departure from office, Carlson’s show continued to hold strong in the multi-millions, as did other hosts on Fox News.”
As Hayden says, the extremist right since Jan. 6 has been “systematically building a culture where violence and authoritarianism can further take root in the U.S.” He notes that some of their more prominent ideologues, such as white nationalist Nick Fuentes, have explicitly said this.
“We have got to be on the right, dragging these people kicking and screaming into the future … into a truly reactionary party,” Fuentes said. “It’s incremental. We’re not going to drag them all the way over. But if we can drag the furthest part of the right further to the right, and we can drag the center further to the right, and we can drag the left further to the right … then we’re winning,” he said.
The dynamic of the shift to localized politics is reflected in the post-Jan. 6 tactics embraced by the Proud Boys, as Tess Owen at Vice explored in depth. She had observed (as did we) in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection “that they were flying under the national radar, and eschewing large-scale, high-profile appearances in favor of quietly solidifying alliances around hot-button political issues and community activism.”
By closely tracking their activities over the past year, she found that “Proud Boys made at least 114 uniformed appearances across 73 cities in 24 states between Jan. 6 and Dec. 21, 2021.” In many cases, as she notes, Proud Boys also appeared at events but not in their black-polo uniforms, depending on whether or not they wanted to “incriminate” the group.
“Over the past year, the Proud Boys have worked to embed themselves amongst local activists who haven’t been tarnished by the Jan. 6 insurrection,” Devin Burghart, executive director of the Missouri-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR), told Owen. “They’ve enmeshed themselves into local efforts to push back against vaccine mandates, or critical race theory, and other local conflicts, which has allowed them to steer clear of the national discussion about the insurrection and provide them with a base of support that they didn’t have prior to Jan. 6.”
And while these localized protests drew considerably less media attention than the far right’s headline-grabbing rallies of 2020 and Jan. 6, they increased significantly in numbers. A report from the Armed Conflict Location Event Data (ACLED) project found that not only were there a significant number of pro-Trump rallies in 2021, a disproportionate number of them featured armed participants, and the majority of them were held at “legislative grounds”:
- 6.8% of pro-Trump demonstrations (112 of 1,646) between January 2020 and November 2021 were armed compared to 1.5% of all other demonstrations (501 of 33,298).
- The percentage of armed pro-Trump demonstrations increased last year. In 2021, 8.8% of pro-Trump demonstrations were armed (32 of 364) compared to 6.2% in 2020 (80 of 1,282).
- Between January 2020 and November 2021, 47.3% of armed pro-Trump demonstrations (53 of 112) took place at legislative grounds, compared to 12.2% of all other armed demonstrations (61 of 501).
- The percentage of armed pro-Trump demonstrations that took place at legislative grounds increased in 2021, with 81.3% (26 of 32) reported at these sites compared to 33.8% (27 of 80) in 2020.
As Stephen Marche commented in The Guardian, Americans need to shed the delusion that a civil war is a long way off. It’s here, now, in the form of an implacable insurrectionist movement, an insurgency that made its intentions manifest on Jan. 6:
What the American left needs now is allegiance, not allyship. It must abandon any imagined fantasies about the sanctity of governmental institutions that long ago gave up any claim to legitimacy. Stack the supreme court, end the filibuster, make Washington DC a state, and let the dogs howl, and now, before it is too late. The moment the right takes control of institutions, they will use them to overthrow democracy in its most basic forms; they are already rushing to dissolve whatever norms stand in the way of their full empowerment.