Far right shifts to social movement as threat grows: Report

Annual SPLC report on hate groups notes continued momentum due to Trump even as number of groups declines.

Enrique Tarrio
Far-right group the Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio interacts with supporters during the 'Latinos for Trump' demonstration in Miami, Florida, on October 18, 2020 [File: Mario Cruz/EPA-EFE]

The Southern Poverty Law Center announced on Monday a decrease in hate groups across the United States, though warned the threat – and increasing cooperation – of far-right activists is rising.

SPLC noted in its annual Year in Hate and Extremism report there were 838 active hate groups in the US, ranging from white supremacists to far-right anti-government militias. This was 102 fewer than 2019, but researchers said during a Monday news conference this reflects a lack of need for hierarchal groups and a move to a widespread social movement invigorated by former President Donald Trump.

Trump’s refusal to condemn the January 6 insurrection that aimed to keep him in power and was based on refuted claims about election fraud alarmed the researchers. He “even praised the rioters, calling them ‘patriots,’ saying ‘we love you’ and ‘you are very special'”, the report noted.

Michael Edison Hayden, an investigative reporter and spokesperson for SPLC, said during the news conference the Capitol insurrection appeared as a “collapse of these soft barriers that once existed in the Republican Party, or around the Republican Party sort of kept violent, far-right extremists”.

The shift to a social movement featuring mainstream politicians and people of colour may present challenges to the public perception of the far right movement, shaped by the white nationalist rallies of 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia and elsewhere.

Images of people of colour involved in the insurrection point to the increased cooperation between groups that espouse racial supremacy and far-right movements that are not explicitly racist, including the QAnon conspiracy theory and militia movements.

Former US President Donald Trump departs on the South Lawn of the White House, on December 12, 2020, in Washington, DC [File: Al Drago/Getty Images]

Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, leader of the mostly white, pro-Trump Proud Boys, a far-right group that bills itself as “Western Chauvinist”, is of Afro-Cuban descent. He was ordered to leave DC before the riot after an arrest on felony and misdemeanour charges.

Cassie Miller, a researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center who focuses on the far right and accelerationists within the movement, told Al Jazeera in an interview the presence of people of colour in far-right movements is not new.

“The far right is not simply a movement premised on upholding white supremacy, but authoritarian ultranationalism that promotes multiple, reinforcing forms of hierarchy,” Miller said.

“A group like the Proud Boys, where misogyny is a core tenet, might appeal to some men primarily because want to shore up the privileged status that patriarchy affords them.”

Dovetailing movements

But the blurred lines between the far right and the political mainstream extend beyond the Proud Boys.

Though Trump was widely criticised for “racist” rhetoric during his 2016 campaign for president and his term, he saw notable increases in support with voters of colour, including a roughly six-point jump among Black men and five-point increase with Latino women, according to exit polls.

These gains are credited partly to the strong, right-wing views on the economy during his term and socially conservative moves – which critics called misogynistic –  like quickly nominating anti-abortion rights Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

These moves, along with the perception Trump challenged the liberal political establishment and unfounded conspiracies about election fraud, have opened collaboration on the far right in an unprecedented way, Heidi Beirich, co-founder and chief strategy officer at the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told Al Jazeera.

Particularly, non-racist armed militias that believe the rights of US citizens are being stripped by liberal elites and the ascendant QAnon conspiracy movement are open to collaboration.

Militias “don’t portray themselves as white supremacist – that’s not their gig”, Beirich noted, “but they certainly became more anti-immigrant and more anti-Muslim in recent years.”

QAnon adherents believe a wide range of conspiracies centred on the unfounded notion that Trump was chosen to defeat a cabal of liberal, “Deep State” elites engaged in child trafficking and harvesting their blood to remain young.

Demonstrators from conspiracy theorist group QAnon protesting against child trafficking at a demonstration on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, California in August 2020 [File: Kyle Grillot/AFP]

But the movement has not used overt racism since it emerged on the dark corners of the internet in 2017, though many see anti-Semitic codewords in its theories.

“The fact that there aren’t sort of explicit racial statements in the QAnon movement and in the militia world means they can mix more,” Beirich said.

The militia movement, which is majority white, has a history of membership people of colour. For example, JJ Johnson, who is Black, founded the Ohio Unorganized Militia and was known for his anti-politician rhetoric as a fixture on the militia speaking circuit in the 1990s.

“The most important reason you can’t go out here and shoot [law officers, politicians] is because ammunition is just too expensive. And don’t hang ’em either. Rope’s too expensive,” Johnson was quoted as saying by grassroots environmental group Klamath Forest Reliance.

Some Black Republicans who ran for office in 2020, including Philanise White in Illinois and Angela Stanton King in Georgia, have expressed support for QAnon.

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is white and is currently facing calls to be expelled from Congress for QAnon-linked theories and allegations she supported violence against her House colleagues, is perhaps the best example of the movement’s ascendance to the mainstream.

These movements are “more directly now tied to Trump and the stealing of the election, and the hatred of the “‘Deep State'”, Beirich said.

Years ahead

Miller said it is important to note that far-right groups can use people of colour to “protect against accusations of bigotry. That can also allow them to gain acceptance in more mainstream political arenas,” which strengthens the movement and provides it with threatening power.

Federal authorities issued a bulletin last week warning of continuing threats of domestic extremism driven by election fraud conspiracies, anti-immigration, racial tension and more.

To combat this threat, SPLC said it supports the passage of the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, passed in the House last September, which would provide resources for increased law enforcement cooperation to confront far-right extremism and fund anti-bias education initiatives.

Source: Al Jazeera