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A nation must think before it acts.
One of the most striking sights on January 6, 2021, was that of a far-right extremist carrying a large Confederate flag through the halls of Congress. The American Civil War had ended over 150 years before, but the briefest illumination of a long-dead lost cause was deeply disquieting.
For those right-wing extremists seeking to destabilize social orders in the present, the past furnishes transgressive symbols in abundance.
However, both the context and content of the 21st-century extreme right movements are—arguably—quite different from their ancestors. Any continuity of symbols should not blind us to profound contrasts in tactics, propaganda, and recruitment efforts with predecessor movements such as classical fascism. While contemporary far-right extremist groups do indeed admire and borrow from the classical fascist aesthetic, this disguises profound shifts in both mobilization and strategy. 20th-century fascism was an ideology of hyper-statism: the state was to be captured so that society could then be remolded (particularly against communism). By contrast, the contemporary extreme-right consistently displays visceral distrust—or, at the very least, a deep ambivalence—about the prospect of over-mighty government. Over time, European models have yielded to North American templates.
More specifically, the current era of far-right extremists owes much to the legacy of “leaderless resistance,” pioneered by Louis Beam, a Vietnam War veteran and Grand Dragon of the Texas chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Leaderless resistance is sometimes referred to as a “lone wolf” approach, a trend popular among far-right extremists that have led some counterterrorism analysts to speak about the declining relevance of organizational structure once at the forefront of analyzing terrorist groups. Such “anarchism of the right” could hardly be further removed from the European leadership cults of 100 years ago.
What unites the disparate elements of the far-right today is the concept of accelerationism, a violent extremist strategy aimed at triggering the downfall of current systems of government through repeated acts of extreme violence. Accelerationism is essentially a tactical doctrine elevated to an end goal: rocking the ship of state until it capsizes. The aim is to provoke a general crisis that must magically unlock all future possibilities. Civil wars thus function as fantasies of grand catharsis. But what comes after this satisfying showdown is unclear: or, rather, is left open to individual taste, of which there are many along the far-right extremist spectrum.
In 2022, accelerationists can connect online, meeting on fringe social media platforms to organize, spread propaganda, and recruit new members to the movement. The far-right is also more inclusive than at any point in recent history, broadening its tent to welcome not just garden variety racists, but also conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, “incels,” and an array of anti-government and anti-authority violent extremists. Like the crowds at fascist rallies a century ago, isolated and frustrated individuals can feel themselves part of something bigger. Unlike 100 years ago, that something bigger asks very little of them in terms of personal discipline or subordination to a higher authority, but it does often encourage political violence.
Even as it remains difficult to measure the success of far-right groups mobilizing online, the growth and virility of what many have labeled the far-right ecosystem is but one example. It is this far-right ecosystem, sustained by a ubiquitous online presence, that radicalizes supporters and followers and incites individuals toward violence. The various manifestos left behind by the attackers in Oslo, Christchurch, El Paso, and Buffalo, to name just a few, demonstrate how far-right ideology is immortalized online, with perpetrators described as martyrs and lionized on sites like 4chan. Such terrorist manifestos are strikingly auto-biographical: narrative devices such as the ‘self-interview’ speak to a narcissistic online culture.
Such hyper-personalized indulgence raises intriguing questions about how extreme-right activists actually hope to provoke the shared crisis that is so ardently desired. As an insurrectionist strategy to overthrow the state, the endless production of mass murderers who slaughter in cold blood looks distinctly ambitious. Although there has been a disturbing development of an institutional memory amongst terrorists of how to plan such attacks to guarantee maximum death tolls, the psychological and competence barriers to pulling off shockingly violent attacks remain high. Incompetent, poorly executed (and quickly forgotten) attacks and disrupted plots are far more common—and may, indeed, undermine the appeal of the brand over time. This is not to downplay the overall human cost. But it is to emphasize that such self-styled celebrity terrorists are unlikely to provoke any general civil war unaided. Certainly, there is no historical precedent for such a disaster.
Likewise, the contemporary extreme right has no coherent strategy to conquer the streets.
Saturation tactics have failed repeatedly. In August 2017, the notoriously violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia was preceded by a major effort by the extreme right at “stepping off the internet in a big way” (as one of leaders put it in a VICE News interview). But the event drew hundreds, far less than many were hoping for. This seems a recurrent pattern: three years later, in September 2020, the organizers of the Proud Boys rally in Portland, Oregon, hoped to rally 20,000 adherents. Less than 200 showed up. This stands in contrast to right-wing extremists of the past, particularly European Fascists who, from Italy to Germany, were far more organized and successful in employing coercion to achieve their objectives.
These trends exist across the Atlantic as well. In Liverpool, England, a “White Man’s March” was defiantly proclaimed in March 2015 by National Action with the slogan “Only bullets will stop us!” During the course of the event, the small National Action contingent had to be locked inside a left-luggage facility at Liverpool Lime Street Station by the police to protect them from counter-demonstrators. In summary, there is little serious threat of a paramilitarized mass movement that marches toward dictatorship. Contrasts with earlier models of extreme right mobilization could hardly be sharper from the days when—to pick just one example—no less than 60,000 Nazi Brownshirts first marched, and then rampaged, through Braunschweig, Germany in October 1931. Numbers like this were the direct result of a deliberate strategy, refined through trial and error until it resonated with large swaths of the population who were willing to join the movement and engage in action, not simply to support it rhetorically.
Even in the United States, where due to a range of indicators, some scholars have suggested the environment is ripe for a coming civil war, the state still maintains a monopoly on the use of force. According to terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer’s “cheese bell” theory of foreign fighting, states have become so effective at crushing rebel groups, in order to survive, these violent non-state actors must periodically leave the area of state control. Conflicts like Ukraine have proven attractive to far-right extremists from North America and Europe, with foreign fighters drawn to both the Ukrainian and Russian sides. Where far-right groups have been established–The Base, Atomwaffen Division, Russian Imperial Movement, and others–their physical presence has been limited, and their numbers are believed to be small.
So while there have been limits to how widespread far-right mobilization has manifested at public events, the more insidious aspect is the overall mainstreaming of extreme ideas. Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, which draws approximately 4.5 million viewers each night, has mentioned elements of the Great Replacement theory in more than 400 episodes. The Great Replacement theory suggests that “global elites” are replacing white Christians (“legacy Americans”) with immigrants. To prevent this phenomenon from playing out, far-right extremists call for the use of political violence. Some variant of this conspiracy theory has been peddled in the manifestos of recent high-profile right-wing terrorists, from Christchurch to El Paso.
The mainstreaming of the extreme has made it seem innocuous, even anodyne. But this masks a more nefarious implication, which is the concept of mass radicalization. Partly due to the role of the internet, some experts like terrorism researcher Michael Jensen from the University of Maryland, believe that the timeline for radicalization has been expedited. What used to be a process that could take years, on average, now often occurs in months. In an interview with Politico from last year, Jensen said that “mass radicalization is a much larger phenomenon in which you have tens of thousands—if not millions—of individuals who are vulnerable to [extremist] messages they receive from really influential people.” The reach of instigators like Carlson and at times, former President Donald Trump, can have an outsized influence on support for politically and ideologically motivated violence.
The ubiquity of violent rhetoric among the far-right is emblematic of another axiom–disagreement is akin to treachery and violence can have a cleansing effect. In a television ad for the senate race in Missouri, former governor Eric Greitens wields a shotgun and urges his followers to go “RINO [Republican in Name Only] hunting,” declaring, “there’s no bagging limit, there’s no tagging limit.” Coincidentally, this was the same language used by far-right terrorist Anders Breivik, who bragged of having a “multicultural-traitor hunting permit tagging not required, no bag limit.” There are numerous examples one could list, but the point is to show just how thoroughly, deeply, and inextricably these anti-democratic violent elements seem to be embedded within wider movements, including Western political systems. This isn’t classical anti-democratic fascism but it is, unequivocally, the mainstreaming of extremism in a way that will ensure its longevity. As the Greitens ad suggests, nothing is considered beyond the pale; even direct threats of lethal violence are no longer taboo. Trump’s recent post on Truth Social confirms as much after he said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had a “DEATH WISH,” because McConnell agreed to a deal to fund the U.S. government through the remainder of this year.
One of the byproducts of political polarization in the United States has been the erosion of previously established norms, the same breakdown of the social contract that once led to the rise of Fascist movements in Europe. If the United States isn’t careful, the mainstreaming of extremism could permanently damage American democracy and in turn, further erode the longstanding foundations that undergird its most trusted institutions.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.