The Proud Boys and QAnon conspiracists have had a bad week, as the predicted second insurrection failed to materialise. But they are building dangerous new coalitions among newly homeless Trump voters – and exporting their poison abroad
On 6 January, over the course of a long walk along Pennsylvania Avenue to the US Capitol, thousands of pro-Trump voters moved from political-rally fandom to insurrectionist violence. “If you don’t fight like hell,” Trump had told them in a speech near the White House that day, “you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
And they did fight like hell. Those throngs of mobilised Trump voters scaled concrete walls and weaponised flagpoles and fire extinguishers against the police, joining more disciplined extremists who had come equipped with pipe bombs, flexi-cuffs, mace, weapons and tactical gear. It was a strange and spontaneous coalition, as white supremacists and neo-Nazis, anti-government militias, QAnon conspiracy theorists, Proud Boys, and violent Trump supporters came together to storm the Capitol with the common objective of thwarting a supposedly illegitimate election.
Overshadowed though it may have been – for now – by Joe Biden’s inauguration (an event which was not, as the conspiracist ‘Q’ predicted, disrupted by mass arrests of Democratic leaders and nationwide upheaval), the attack itself was a momentous turning point for the far right.
As disappointed as they undoubtedly are by the failure of the “StopTheSteal” campaign, and by the conspicuous absence of a national uprising on Inauguration Day, extremists globally continue to celebrate the Capitol incursion as a resounding and unprecedented success. Building on that foundation, they will now aim to solidify their emergent coalition with the greater mass of Trump supporters and try to draw conservative and MAGA voters further to the right.
Prior to January 6, it was rare to see such unity among the extremist fringe. On the contrary: historically, the US far right has been highly fragmented and characterised by constant infighting. Previous efforts to bring together groups from across the spectrum – such as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville – have quickly faltered.
Despite this lack of unity, the far right grew in strength and scope in the past few years by virtually every measure available: the circulation of white supremacist propaganda, numbers of hate crimes, plots foiled by the FBI, and the numbers of deaths caused by their activities. In the autumn of 2020, the US Department of Homeland Security declared white supremacist extremists to be the “most persistent and lethal threat” facing the nation.
By then, it was already clear that the far right was growing on multiple fronts. In January 2020, around 22,000 armed individuals protested proposed legislative restrictions on gun ownership in Richmond, Virginia. Conspiracy groups like QAnon expanded their influence alongside anti-government extremists calling for civil war.
By the time the election rolled around, there were already signs of new and odd coalitions. Images from protests against state “shelter-in-place” orders – localised coronavirus lockdowns – suggested growing interaction between and overlap amongst conspiracy theorists, anti-government seditionists, and white supremacist extremists. But what ultimately brought these coalitions together into violent, insurrectionist action was a mass disinformation campaign portraying the 2020 presidential election as illegitimate – “the Big Lie” – accompanied by calls to fight tyrannical traitors who were supposedly perpetrating mass voter fraud.
Whether this coalition will hold or become further fragmented remains, of course, an open question. But what is clear is that the extreme right’s success in mobilising conservative and far-right voters means it is all but certain that they will at least try to do it all again.
In the wake of the 6 January attacks, there is a category of conservative Trump voters (of a total 75 million, remember) that represents rich terrain for those seeking to radicalise new allies to the standard of direct action. This is already taking place online, as extreme right groups woo homeless pro-Trump voters who have been driven from Parler and other sites in the wake of social media deplatforming and shutdowns.
There is no shortage of potential recruits. Within a week of the Capitol attack, for example, Telegram – an online channel with little moderation that has long been favored by extremists globally – became the fifth most downloaded app in the US.
As more and more people moved to less restricted apps online, white supremacist extremist groups immediately began to seek strategies that would enable them to “infiltrate pro-Trump chats” and recruit “Parler refugees”.
These strategies include searching for new recruits in online spaces, tailoring propaganda to a newly susceptible audience, weaponising emotions like anger and disappointment, and introducing white supremacist ideas – but gradually. Playbooks offering advice on how to do this, including readymade messages and memes, are circulating online.
One can also see a growing convergence of narratives favoured by conservative and Trump voters and the themes that prevail in far-right propaganda. As my research team has observed online, there is common ground in the rage at government and big tech companies’ alleged suppression tactics and censorship, along with conspiracy theories about liberal enemies and incipient tyranny.
While the world celebrates the fresh start and alleged return to normality marked by Biden’s arrival in the White House, the toxic mix on display at the Capitol on 6 January continues to spread online, as Proud Boys, QAnon supporters, MAGA and Trump supporters and others from across the far-right increasingly overlap and interact with one another. Talk of civil war is frequent.
This isn’t a problem that started during the Trump administration, and it certainly will not disappear now that the Biden presidency has begun. Rising far-right populism, nativism, and far-right extremism is a decidedly global issue, with the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Committee reporting a 320 per cent increase in right-wing terror attacks globally over the five years prior to 2020.
The US is a major exporter of far right extremist ideology. Several US-based extremist groups have developed clear transnational linkages, especially in Europe and Eastern Europe. After Fred Perry stopped US and Canadian sales of the black-and-yellow shirts the Proud Boys had adopted as an unofficial uniform, a UK-based Proud Boys group pledged to purchase the shirts and mail them to their colleagues overseas. And QAnon conspiracy theorists are now active across the European continent and in more than 70 countries globally.
We have already seen what can happen when Trumpism – the peculiar blend of celebrity, nativism, anti-elite populism and reckless leadership that attracted Trump voters – is mobilised to the point of violence. The potential repercussions of the combination of rising far-right extremism and radicalised Trumpism could not be clearer. We would be remiss if we didn’t consider the potential for this to get worse.
To address this challenge, we need to treat it like the crisis that it is. We need large-scale investment in public media literacy education and interventions to prevent online manipulation and susceptibility to conspiracy theories and persuasive extremist rhetoric and tactics like scapegoating.
But we also need to think about how to reduce the potential for the loose coalition that formed on 6 January to hold. Research suggests that an effective strategy to disrupt extremist growth is to increase distrust among extremists by accelerating fissures within groups. The same strategy might further fragment the loose and still-new coalition that met in Washington that day.
There are already signs that the more disciplined anti-government parts of the far-right spectrum are frustrated with the “magical thinking” of QAnon, which more militant extremists view as “counterproductive to future insurrections”.
Ensuring that extremist groups return to being as fragmented and isolated from one another, as they have been in the past, can ensure that these groups are relegated to the fringe of a democratic society.
The Biden era has begun, but – in the global battle against extremism – we should not delude ourselves that it marks a clean slate.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss directs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University, and is the author of Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right.
Photographs: Getty Images