The SPLC report confirms what we and others have reported in recent months, particularly in reviewing developments in the year since the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol: namely, that the “reactionary and racist beliefs that propelled a mob into the Capitol that day have not dissipated. Instead, they’ve coalesced into a political movement that is now one of the most powerful forces shaping politics in the United States.”
Moreover, as SPLC analyst Cassie Miller put it on Twitter, “extremist ideas are part of mainstream politics, are being baked into policy, and creating an atmosphere that legitimized political violence. And extremists are overtaking one of our main political parties.”
While the numbers of anti-government groups have been in general decline since their all-time high of 1,013 in 2012, the decline in hate groups has been more recent; they had reached a record high of 1,020 in 2018; the current tally of 733 is the lowest since 2002. As the report explains: “Rather than demonstrating a decline in the power of the far-right, the dropping numbers of organized hate and anti-government groups suggest that the extremist ideas that mobilize them now operate more openly in the political mainstream.”
An indication of this is one of the major exceptions to the decline: Membership and numbers of chapters of the Proud Boys—designated a “general hate” group by the SPLC in 2018—actually increased in 2021, with 72 active chapters spread over 39 states, up from 43 the year before—a 67% rise. This surge in interest in the neofascist street-brawling organization occurred despite the massive publicity around Proud Boys’ leading role in the Jan. 6 insurrection—or perhaps because of it.
As Miller and coauthor Rachel Carrol Rivas note in the report: “Their growth suggests the country has become alarmingly fertile ground for their brand of authoritarian politics.”
These numbers don’t appear out of a vacuum. The larger context, as Miller and Carroll Rivas explain, is that this is being encouraged by the Republican political establishment as well as right-wing media:
Many Republicans and a monied network of ally groups have exploited the “Big Lie” of a stolen election in 2020 to enact a historic number of voter-suppression bills that disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color and people in poverty. They have rallied their base against inclusive and anti-racist education and introduced a slew of bills that would allow discrimination against transgender people and gut the teaching of Black history. Attempts to ban books are on the rise, targeting materials that discuss race, sexuality and gender. Some Republican members of Congress have worked together with open white nationalists and promoted the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory that has inspired numerous deadly terror attacks. They have scapegoated the Asian American community for COVID-19, harassed public health officials and election administrators, celebrated a vigilante who killed two protesters at a Black Lives Matter demonstration, and defended insurrectionists.
The mainstreaming of this extremism was empowered and amplified by the right-wing media apparatus, from Fox News to Infowars and Newsmax. Fox’s Tucker Carlson is the preeminent example:
- Carlson has made a specialty out of whitewashing the toxic effects and presence of white nationalists, claiming that calling them out is what actually stirs up hate in America.
- In the past year, he has amplified this by promoting white-nationalist “replacement theory” and parroting its vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric.
- Since Jan. 6, he has led a gaslighting campaign to convince the public that the event “was not an insurrection” while peddling the debunked conspiracy theory that it was all a Deep State plot to get patriotic Americans to commit criminal acts and persecute them.
Of course, it’s not just Carlson, Fox, and other right-wing media figures who have tried to fabricate this alternative reality, but the Republican Party itself. It has welcomed over 100 extremist candidates into its fold for the 2022 election, many of them QAnon conspiracy cultists, COVID-19 denialists, and Trumpian “Big Lie” peddlers.
Moreover, as the SPLC report notes, many of these extremists within the mainstream right regularly indulge in violent eliminationist rhetoric, such as Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar’s bizarre anime video in which he fantasized about killing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joe Biden, or Wendy Rogers’ recent speech to a white-nationalist gathering in which she demanded “a newly built set of gallows” for Democrats and liberals.
“The elite endorsement of political violence from factions of the Republican Party is distinct for me from what we saw in the 1960s,” Pomona College political scientist Omar Wasow told The New York Times. “Then, you didn’t have—from a president on down—politicians calling citizens to engage in violent resistance.”
When GOP leadership has been confronted with this extremism, such as the participation of multiple Republican figures in that same white-nationalist gathering—as well as their purposeful undermining of democratic norms and basic political civility—it has cowered and done nothing. Instead, it has enabled the bullying and intimidation tactics of these extremists against members of their own party who dare to dissent.
Republicans around the nation—particularly at the state and local levels—have lined up behind right-wing extremists’ post-Jan. 6 strategy of attacking and undermining democratic institutions at the local level, from school boards to health districts to civic and country government bodies. These attacks are always in the form of threatening and bellicose extremists who label local officials “pedophiles” and intimidate them with the presence of Proud Boys—particularly in rural areas.
I observed this one month after the insurrection:
It has become painfully obvious that the Republican Party has ceased to be a viable partner in American democracy, because it has transformed into a profoundly anti-democratic, authoritarian political entity that is willing to resort to the rule of violent mobs and thugs to seize that power. While this transformation has been gathering momentum for years, the Jan. 6 insurrection became its apotheosis.
The aftermath of the insurrection gave Republicans the opportunity to distinguish themselves from the radicalized insurrectionists who assaulted the Capitol with the intent of installing Donald Trump as an unelected dictator. But now it’s becoming clear that, not only are Republicans refusing to distance themselves from the conspiracy theorists and violent thugs who have overwhelmed their ranks, they are doubling down by openly embracing them: In the refusal of congressional Republicans to discipline conspiracy-peddling lunatics within their own ranks; of state-level Republicans to form open alliances with paramilitary militiamen; and most of all, in Senate Republicans’ ongoing refusal to acknowledge the mountain of evidence that Trump incited the violence and do their plain duty to convict him of that seditious act.
The SPLC’s numbers confirm that this is our new reality.
Fortunately, the report also contains a deep report on how to combat this anti-democratic insurgency despite its increasing normalization by one of our two major parties—first by empowering community responses to hate, mobilizing the power of grassroots action, and creating “unity and resilience”; and then through enacting specific policies designed to protect and enhance our democratic institutions: passing voting-rights protections, hold both irresponsible public figures and the Jan. 6 insurrectionists accountable, bolster efforts to combat far-right terrorism, confront extremism within the ranks of the police and military.
As Miller and Rivas write:
Even more, a reinvigorated vision of a more inclusive democracy is necessary, one that creates a stark alternative away from the destructive path of the hard right. That means expanding and protecting access to voting, creating legislation to protect people who face discrimination, promoting civics education and teaching students an anti-racist curriculum, and ensuring all Americans have healthcare, housing and other vital services so they can lead safe and dignified lives.
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