Jan 6, 2021

One Year Later: U.S. Democracy in Peril as Far-Right Extremism Spreads Globally

By Heidi Beirich



By Heidi Beirich

Watching the violent events unfold at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 last year was horrifying for all of us. For the first time, the Capitol was under attack by Americans intent on subverting democracy. Never before has a mass movement been inspired by a president trying to stop the certification of a free and fair presidential election. Not to mention the violence: January 6, 2021 was the deadliest attack on the Capitol ever, killing five people and injuring 140 police officers.

As shocking as the events of that day were, they were not a surprise. Analysts of the radical right had been warning for years of the consequences of allowing the far-right to grow unchecked and had even issued multiple warnings in the days prior.  Some law enforcement agencies had also sent intelligence directives about possible violence on that day. For those paying attention, the possibility of violence at the Capitol that day was clear and littered all over internet chat rooms and social media.

In the lead up to the attack, 2020 was harrowing. The pandemic supercharged far-right movements and ideas, and extremists sought out new online recruits – people glued to their screens and social media while stuck at home. All the while, Trump and his allies continued to push anti-lockdown, anti-vaxx, and anti-democracy messaging. The QAnon conspiracy movement exploded. Hate against marginalized populations, rage over Covid measures, and outrage over a possible Trump loss mingled online and created a combustible environment. The violence spilled offline against BLM protesters and in plots including the attempt by militia members to kidnap the governor of Michigan, an attempt by far right Boogaloo Bois to bomb BLM protesters in Las Vegas, and dozens of car ramming attacks.

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.”

Walter is not alone in warning about the perilous state of American democracy. The European think tank International IDEA now calls the U.S. a “backsliding democracy” heading towards authoritarianism. This is part of a global pattern, as the number of countries trending toward authoritarianism in 2020 outnumbered those moving in a more democratic direction. Furthermore, Trump’s allegations during the 2020 election had a “spillover effect” on elections in Brazil, Mexico, Myanmar and Peru. Freedom House reported in March that America’s democracy score fell another three points, for a total of 11 over the past decade. Freedom House concluded that although the U.S. remains a “free country,” it is now more akin to states with less robust democracies, such as Romania, Croatia, and Panama.

Threat from the Far-Right Is Complex and Growing, Not Enough is Being Done
Over the past year, the U.S. domestic terrorism landscape has become even more complex, as online networks grow, merge, and proliferate. DHS official John Cohen said in December that the threat had “not lessened” and was in fact worse since the Biden administration published its domestic terrorism strategy in June. “We continue to face a threat environment that is dangerous, complex and highly volatile,” Cohen said, adding that “the volatility of the environment is not going to change.”

Perhaps most worrying in terms of violence is the continued growth of accelerationist networks, populated by violent neo-Nazis, who share terrorism manuals online and whose members have committed murders and other violence offline. The groups are called accelerationist as they aim to “accelerate” the collapse of democratic systems through mass violence including civil war. The three groups with members charged with conspiracy for their acts on January 6 – the white supremacist Proud Boys and the anti-government, paramilitary organizations the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters – had already been involved in considerable violence in the years prior. 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.

The barriers that once existed between divergent forms of far-right extremism are dissolving. Seeing militiamen among the violent white supremacists who rioted in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 was novel. That kind of mixing and collaboration is now typical, especially online, where the pandemic has fueled extremist and conspiracy movements that have exploded into offline threats and violence.

White Rage Against  Change
There were a number of reasons for the explosion of violence on January 6. But the predominant factor driving the growth in the far-right extremism movement is the near certainty that America and other Western countries are moving towards a diverse future, where the white population will no longer dominate numerically. For years, this reality has fueled white supremacist and anti-government movements, who now regularly spread fears via social media of being “replaced” by people of color and immigrants. They explain natural demographic shifts using a racist conspiracy theory called the “Great Replacement,” which alleges demographic change is a plot against white people, often instigated by Jews, to reduce their power. This racist idea stayed on the fringe of the far-right for years, but has increasingly been voiced by mainstream conservatives and politicians and spread by far-right media personalities –both in the U.S. and around the world. The racist, extremist, and often violent reactions to changing demographics will likely get worse in the coming years, in the U.S. and abroad, setting the stage for even worse violent events in the months and years to come.

Thriving democracies are key to achieving equality and fairness, racial justice, solutions to climate change, and economic justice. Free and fair elections are the linchpin to a better world. As these anti-civil rights and anti-democracy movements continue to grow, they threaten liberal democracy in multiple countries, some inspired by the U.S. Capitol insurrection. As they gain power, liberal democracy is becoming more fragile, and a better future for all is threatened.

For the U.S., the big question remains, was January 6 a one-off? Or was it more akin to Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, a precursor to more ominous developments to come?

Though it is obviously dangerous territory to make such stark historical comparisons, the concerns that January 6 might be the first in future coup attempts aren’t just coming from progressives, but rather from historians who see worrying parallels between today and the 1930s. The increasing numbers of Republicans buying into the big election lie and working to undermine electoral infrastructure undergird these analyses. Trump allies like Steve Bannon have been blatant about their attempts to manipulate the American electoral system. In an April call to supporters to take over local election boards, Bannon said, “They’re not going to be welcomed with open arms…But hey, was it nasty at Lexington? Was it nasty at Concord? Was it nasty at Bunker Hill?” Then, in October, Bannon said that “shock troops” need to be prepared to take over and “deconstruct” the state when the next Republican president is elected.

Radicalization of the GOP
The growth of white supremacist and other extremist movements is always concerning, especially in terms of the violence inherent to those movements, but the infiltration of their racist and unfair ideas into the mainstream conservative movement is absolutely terrifying. A thriving democracy needs competitive political parties pursuing legitimate agendas that give options to voters. But a year after January 6, elements of the GOP are increasingly adopting formerly fringe and potentially violent conspiracy ideas, like QAnon, with many of its members also downplaying the events of January 6 and spreading extremist views themselves.

So, too, is the racist Great Replacement conspiracy theory finding a home on the right. The idea has been pushed by powerful conservatives, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson and GOP heavyweights including Newt Gingrich and Trump advisor Stephen Miller. This is a blatant white supremacist concept, once consigned to the racist movement, that inspired the 2019 mass shootings at mosques in Christchurch, N.Z., the massacre in El Paso, and other attacks.

There is no question that Trump bears much of the blame for stoking these fires. He decimated  American social norms, stoked racism and anti-immigrant hatred, and spread noxious conspiracies that impacted globally. But the most dangerous thing Trump has done is undermine our nation’s faith in democracy by pushing the idea that his electoral “win” was stolen–and that future elections will be as well. The long-term implications of how this could undermine American democracy are serious.

A considerable number of Republicansnearly 75 percent – have bought into Trump’s vision that elections are no longer free and fair and that January 6 was perpetrated by righteous patriots. A September poll by the Public Religion Research Institute finds that nearly a third of Republicans agree that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” A CBS/YouGov poll earlier this year found that half of Republicans believe that the insurrectionists who invaded the Capitol last January were “defending freedom.” Once a center right party, political scientists now place the Republican Party in the same bucket as very far-right parties like the anti-Muslim and anti-refugee Alternative for Germany, parts of which are considered officially extremist by the German security services.

Additional data also gives pause. Research from the University of Chicago now identifies an American insurrectionist movement made up of about 21 million people who 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.” This group of people also share two other central beliefs – 63 percent believe in the Great Replacement conspiracy theory and 54 percent in QAnon. Made up of “mainly highly competent, middle-aged American professionals,” the researchers conclude that the radicalization of this insurrectionist movement “does not bode well for the 2022 midterm elections, or for that matter, the 2024 Presidential election.”

This radicalization of many conservatives even has our military concerned. Three retired generals warned in a December opinion piece, “We are chilled to our bones at the thought of a coup succeeding next time.” They pointed to a number of factors, including that a group of 124 retired military officials, under the name “Flag Officers 4 America,” released a letter echoing Donald Trump’s false attacks on the legitimacy of American elections. The generals called on the military to immediately introduce civics courses for active-duty troops, that all leaders of the insurrection be held to account, and for military intelligence to root out possible extremists before 2024. They also pointed to a terrifying possibility that rogue military units might reject an election outcome and support a losing presidential candidate.

Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon said in early January that “By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence.” The Atlantic put it this way: “Trump’s next coup has already begun…January 6 was practice. Donald Trump’s GOP is much better positioned to subvert the next election.”

January 6 as a Global Problem
This isn’t just an American problem. The movements that came together on January 6 to upend American democracy have spread throughout the globe, bolstering and feeding anti-democracy tendencies and far-right populist movements in multiple countries. Attacks on serious policy issues like climate change, addressing the pandemic, and civil and human rights are worldwide. And the cause is often the same, changing demographics exploited by far-right movements.

QAnon networks are now found in most European countries, and dozens of others, with adherents mixing in with anti-lockdown and anti-vaxx movements in increasingly violent street actions. The theory, and its diehard support for Trump who often tweeted out QAnon material and is backing an adherent to run Arizona’s elections, even made its way to Japan, with splinter groups focusing on various aspects of the “theory” and online channels with thousands of adherents. Anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown ideas have also migrated from the U.S. abroad. In Germany, an anti-vaxx plot to murder political figures was uncovered in December and an EU MEP was physically attacked with a Molotov cocktail thrown into his home. Violence at anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown protests has broken out across the continent, as the pandemic continues to radicalize portions of the population into these conspiracy movements. This fraught environment is giving fuel as well to populist movements on the continent who have harnessed anger at pandemic measures to further their political fortunes, while scapegoating vulnerable populations for these troubles.

The Great Replacement conspiracy theory is also widespread, particularly in Europe having actually been formulated by a Frenchman, Renaud Camus. Far-right candidates in multiple countries, including France, Netherlands, Poland, and Hungary, are exploiting the idea as an excuse for anti-immigrant crusades. America isn’t the only country where lone actors engaged in domestic terrorism because they believed the Great Replacement was real. Witness attacks on synagogues and politicians in Germany and Anders Breivik’s violent Oslo rampage as an example.

Our Precarious Future
Looking ahead to 2022, far-right extremism will continue to grow and be cause for great concern, as will the radicalization of the GOP. Without a doubt the biggest cause for concern is the threat to the foundation of our democracy. Already several states have passed laws making it harder to vote. More alarming is the success of far-right conservative activists working to undermine America’s election infrastructure, proposing changes that could put election results in the hands of partisan legislatures, rather than the popular vote. If the 2024 election is politicized in this way, what we saw on January 6 will seem quaint given the widespread unrest that will surely follow. It is not an overstatement to say that 2021 could be a harbinger for the outcome of the 2022 midterm elections in the U.S., and what’s to come in 2024.

The U.S. isn’t the only country facing elections in 2022, as France, Brazil, the Philippines, Austria, and Sweden are holding elections for their highest offices. They all face rising far-right populism and extremism and must also be protected.

There is much that can be done to avoid a dark future. The recently released Department of Defense rules against extremism among active-duty troops is a step in the right direction and may, if properly implemented and enforced, reduce insurrectionist tendencies. Similar measures have been put in place in other countries, particularly Germany, where military extremism is on the rise.

In terms of domestic terrorism, several countries including the U.K., Australia, and Canada, have banned extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and The Base. The U.S. has no process for doing the same given constitutional constraints, but the Biden administration has laid out a strategy for confronting the same movements. But we need to see these strategies implemented sooner rather than later.

Social media companies have a lot of work to do, in particular they need to apply community standards to all users. The recent disclosures of “whitelists” for political figures as well as the lack of fact-checking standards for political advertising must end, as these practices fuel far-right extremism and populism in the U.S. and abroad. The fact that social media companies haven’t committed the necessary resources to moderate content in languages other than English also needs to be resolved. In places such as India, Brazil and The Philippines, lack of content moderation has fueled rights-restricting movements.

The U.S. democracy and democracies across the globe, the ones that ensure continuing world peace and a global economy, are under attack to a degree that we’ve never witnessed. The far-right, following Trump’s lead, is recruiting and radicalizing people who were formerly less inclined to join these extreme movements. Racism, hate, and extremism are everywhere you look, including within the mainstream conservative movement.

To avoid another Jan 6th, or worse, now is the time to take these steps. And, at GPAHE, we are committed to doing everything we can, to ensure that people pay attention to our collective futures and those of the generations to come.

2560 1706 Global Project Against Hate and Extremism
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