Trump’s relationship with the far right is just as important in 2020 as it was in 2016, but the character of the relationship has changed dramatically.
Image above: Pro-gun rally in Richmond on January 20th showed Patriot movement’s ability to put thousands of people in the streets.
I’ve been revisiting the articles I wrote about Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, taking stock of what’s the same and what’s different, as a way to get some perspective on what we’re facing now.
One key piece of the picture is Trump’s relationship with the forces of the U.S. far right, by which I mean those rightists who are fundamentally disloyal to the existing political order, because they want to replace it with something even worse. In the 2016 campaign, Trump had a symbiotic relationship with the far right that was unprecedented—unlike anything any major party candidate had ever had in U.S. history as far as I can tell. The relationship was centered particularly on the Alt Right, which played an important role in helping the Trump campaign, particularly in the primaries but also in the general election, through its effective and innovative use of social media to attack Trump’s opponents. In return, the Alt Right got a lot more visibility and recognition and validation by having this connection with a rising and ultimately triumphant political figure.
Looking at the current situation, it’s still true that Trump has an unprecedented symbiotic relationship with far right forces, but the specifics and the character of that relationship have changed.
In 2016 the Alt Right was the far right’s most dynamic sector. After the election, they declared themselves to be the vanguard of the Trump coalition, and in 2017 they made a big push to capitalize on their success and create a broader, militant street-fighting coalition of right-wing forces. The push failed and the Alt Right suffered a dramatic decline. The murderous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville exposed the brutality at the core of their politics for everyone to see. That setback—followed by a strong counter-mobilization by antifascists, deplatforming by media companies, and a series of internal conflicts—left the Alt Right much weaker and more isolated. Since the end of 2017, the alt-right has had little capacity to mobilize much of anything.
Today, the most dynamic sector of the far right is the Patriot movement—the people who brought you citizen militias, conspiracy theories about globalist elites, and a militarized ideology of individual property rights. Unlike the Alt Right, which is white nationalist (meaning they literally want an all-white nation), the Patriot movement has always encompassed a range of positions on race and a tension between explicit calls for white dominance and what’s been called “color-blind racism”—the ideology that protects racial oppression by denying it exists.
The Patriot movement was probably a lot bigger than the Alt Right in 2016, but it was relatively quiet after the collapse of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation early that year. By contrast, 2020 has seen a series of political mobilizations with politics much closer to Patriot ideology than to Alt Right white nationalism, notably the gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, back in January and the anti-lockdown protests in April in May. So while the Alt Right in 2016 made powerful use of Internet memes and online harassment campaigns, the Patriot movement in 2020 has demonstrated a capacity to put hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of people in the streets in cities across the country, which the Alt Right was never able to do.
It’s not just that a different branch of the far right is on the upswing now compared with 2016. It’s also that the Patriot movement has developed a different relationship with Trump and with the established political system than the Alt Right has had.
In 2016, most Alt Rightists supported Trump enthusiastically, but they were always clear that he wasn’t one of them. They said: Trump doesn’t share our politics, but he is useful to us; he’s creating openings for us to promote our message, he’s attacking a lot of our enemies—including the conservative establishment—and he’s buying time for the radical changes we need. The Alt Right saw Trump’s anti-immigrant and Islamophobic politics as slowing down the supposed process of “white genocide,” but they never expected him to dismantle the United States or create a whites-only society. And as his administration went on, many Alt Rightists were deeply disappointed by what they saw as Trump’s betrayal of his America First promises and his capitulation to establishment conservatism. You see this shift most starkly in the Occidental Dissent blog, where Alt Rightist Brad Griffin (“Hunter Wallace”) once supported Trump but now writes about him with loathing and contempt.
The Patriot movement doesn’t call for a white ethnostate, but it has developed its own ways of delegitimizing the existing political system, such as claiming that local governments can veto or ignore federal laws, and even creating new bodies, such as “common law courts,” that claim to have legal authority. In 2014, hundreds of Patriot activists with guns successfully faced down a large contingent of armed federal officers at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch in a dispute over Bundy’s refusal to pay grazing fees on federal lands. It’s hard to think of another instance of armed rightist defiance of the U.S. government on that scale since federal troops went after the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan in the 1870s.
Yet the Patriot movement has, with exceptions, been more staunchly and consistently supportive of President Trump and his efforts to expand federal policing than the Alt Right ever was. Patriot activists engage in ideological gymnastics that dismiss undocumented immigrants, refugees, and leftist protesters as tools of a sinister elite conspiracy to impose world government. This framework enables them to rationalize support for Trump’s repressive measures as defense of a populist upsurge against an elite-sponsored campaign to suppress it.
In December 2015, I suggested that one way to read Trump’s friendly relationship with much of the far right was that “Trump’s campaign is co-opting far rightists into, if not renewed loyalty, at least suspending their disloyalty to the existing political order.” That cooptation has had limited effect on Alt Rightists and other white nationalists, but it’s had a strong pull for the Patriot movement.
So it’s not surprising that Patriot activists—associated with Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, militias, and related groups—have played a major role in the wave of vigilante repression that’s crashed over Black Lives Matter protests this year. Bolstering brutal police crackdowns, armed far rightists have dogged BLM demonstrations hundreds of times in 2020. Since George Floyd’s murder in late May, right-wingers have physically attacked protesters over 100 times, and have killed at least three people. Urged on by racist cops and Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric, these activists have been functioning implicitly or explicitly as vigilantes helping the police to crack down on radical dissent.
Previous right-wing mass killers such as Dylann Roof (Charleston, 2015) or Patrick Crusius (El Paso, 2019), have generally framed their violence in terms of white nationalist or neonazi ideology. But Kyle Rittenhouse, who murdered two protesters in Kenosha last week, says he is a member of a local militia protecting local businesses and is almost a caricature in his adoration for the police. Also unlike Roof or Crusius, Rittenhouse has been endorsed by figures such as Tucker Carlson and Trump himself. It’s true that some of the recent vigilantes have been white nationalists, but white nationalists have tended to be ambivalent on whether to support cops or not, while Patriot groups have rallied to them more consistently. Closely aligned with Patriot groups have been the Proud Boys, a misogynistic organization that is “western chauvinist” but multiracial, and that has consistently tried to position itself as vigilante allies of the police, as well as Patriot Prayer, a northwest regional group with politics similar to the Proud Boys.
If internet activism was the linchpin of Donald Trump’s symbiotic relationship with the far right in 2016, physical violence and harassment play that role today. Whether they intimidate Black Lives Matter protests or intensify them, far right vigilantes dramatize Trump’s claims that extraordinary measures are needed to combat lawlessness. In return, his fearmongering offers Patriot activists and other paramilitary rightists validation, increased attention, and political focus.
Vigilante repression as an adjunct of state power is nothing new—it’s been integral to the United States from the beginning. For most of U.S. history, the state repressive apparatus was relatively small, and the people in power relied heavily on non-state forces of armed white men to keep subject populations—Indigenous, Black, Mexican, and Asian—terrorized and under control. During the key period of industrialization from the 1870s to the 1930s, capitalists also relied heavily on private armies such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency to intimidate, beat, or kill workers who tried to organize unions or go on strike. As recently as the 1970s, federal security agencies sponsored right-wing vigilante organizations such as the Legion of Justice and the Secret Army Organization to spy on, vandalize, and physically attack leftists. In 1979, an undercover agent of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms helped to plan the operation that resulted in the Greensboro massacre, in which a coalition of Klansmen and Nazis murdered five leftists at an anti-Klan rally.
Overall, however, vigilante repression has tended to decline over the past half century or more, as traditional outfits such as the Ku Klux Klan became a liability to the ruling class, large sections of the white supremacist movement abandoned loyalty to the state for white nationalism, and the state’s own repressive apparatus has become much bigger and more powerful. But now we’re seeing a new push to bring back vigilante repression alongside the modern security state.
Today’s resurgence of right-wing vigilantism is unstable and conditional, because it’s driven by a situation of unprecedented volatility. On one side, we have a wave of protests, uprisings, and strikes against police violence and white supremacy beyond anything the U.S. has seen in decades. On the other, we have a president who promotes supremacist politics, routinely subordinates governmental functions to his own personal interests, and both threatens and celebrates violence against his opponents. Armed Patriot activists and some other far rightists are rallying to the police partly because they’re afraid of Black-led working class revolt, and partly because, despite reservations, they still see Trump as a populist leader at war with entrenched elite power. Their de facto loyalty to the system could shift into support for efforts to keep Trump in power by extralegal means, or armed opposition if they give up on Trump* or he leaves office. A coup attempt or a civil war—I’ll discuss these dangers in a follow-up post.
* Highlighting that Patriot movement support for Trump is not a given, Oath Keepers, one of the most prominent Patriot groups, recently tweeted, “We’ll give Trump one last chance to declare this a Marxist insurrection & suppress it as his duty demands. If he fails to do HIS duty, we will do OURS.”
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