The images of the assault on the Capitol last Jan. 6 show that, in what appeared as a colorful array of the crowd, there were numerous members of far right extremist groups like the Proud Boys, III% and the Oath Keepers.
Proudly wearing badges that showed their affiliations, usually without masks, these members surrounded the crowd and led them into the Capitol. Far from being improvised, this event was prepared and rehearsed all through 2020 when groups of armed protesters assaulted many state legislatures. From a larger perspective, the attack on the Capitol is part of the desire of the extreme right to break through the wall that separates the virtual from reality and to assert itself on the national scene as a key player.
The extreme right is a nebula without hierarchy or national organization, composed of groups sharing an ideology made up of diverse degrees of a mixture of Christian fundamentalism, white supremacy and a greater or lesser distrust of government.
Some groups even talk about a civil war leading to the creation of a utopia. It began its reorganization, for its members, with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, which represented the first stage in the institution of a new order. Starting from this moment, the groups multiplied; the militia “patriots” grew, for example, from 149 in 2008 to 1,360 in 2012.
Online, the extreme right uses the potential of Web 2.0 on which, alongside universal platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, appear specialized websites like The Right Stuff, VDare and Gab. But it is with Gamergate (2014) that the potential to mobilize virtual tools like doxxing, trolling or harassing became evident. From this moment on, the extreme right has led a hunt for “Normies” to drive the specter of national political discourse toward the right. In this process, humor, irony and provocation are the methods used to attract new recruits and especially the attention of the media.
Still, in Nevada in 2014, the victory of rancher Cliven Bundy over federal agents who came to seize his cattle shows that it is possible to push back against authorities using threats of organized violence. In Ferguson, Missouri, during the protests against racism, members of the Oath Keepers, a group that openly recruits former police officers and military personnel, “ensured security” with assault guns and body armor.
Determined to no longer rely only on “keyboard warriors,” the leaders of the extreme right were galvanized by Donald Trump’s election, which echoed some of their concerns. They organized a series of violent protests that culminated in Charlottesville in 2017. This rally turned into a riot, and rather than unifying the movement, showed the threat that it posed. Until then obsessed with the Islamist threat, authorities turned to this new threat that had been neglected since 2001. The following year, an organized protest in Washington, D.C., was a failure. The refusal of the president to condemn the violence in Charlottesville was thus interpreted as a victory.
COVID-19 gave new breath to the American extreme right, which used health measures to mobilize and assemble the population against the established order. In this process, the president, who called on the protesters to “liberate” Michigan from its Democratic governor, acted as a bridge between rhetoric and the actions of the extreme right. Throughout 2020 these people made their intentions public: Intimidating protesters, threatening elected officials and law enforcement officers, and going so far as to act in their place during protests.
In this program, Trump is nothing but a spokesperson, a symbol permitting the mobilization of a larger number of disgruntled people who do not share, for now, the ideology of the extreme right. As the assault on the Capitol has shown, a crowd, once it is put in a framework, can thwart a presidential election. It can even revive the specter of the American Civil War (1861-1865) by carrying the Confederate flag inside the Capitol, which even the rebels during the Civil War failed to do. After the attack led by a white supremacist in Oklahoma City in 1995, the authorities greatly weakened the extreme right in the United States. Let’s hope that the seizure of the Capitol will provoke a similar reaction.