Although Donald Trump has been out of power for nearly a year, the far right in the United States is still going strong. The January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol was easily the year’s most important event, and its fallout has, in many ways, defined 2021. Arrests, lawsuits and congressional hearings are still ongoing.
Even without Trump’s tweets to guide them, the far right failed to collapse, as many had hoped. Excepting a gruesome mass murder in Denver, Colorado, at the year’s end, the bulk of right-wing violence has been committed by the politically moderate Trumpists, as opposed to open white supremacists — its traditional perpetrators. The Proud Boys have continued their campaign of violence. A split in the Republican Party between the moderates and the Trumpists has likewise failed to emerge. In fact, the latter have arguably only increased their grip on the party. Right-wing conspiracy theories also continue to mutate and gain popularity, especially those about COVID-19.
January 6 Capitol Assault
Republicans have been fired up by Trump’s incessant but completely fabricated claim that the election was stolen. On January 6, after Trump’s speech, his supporters marched to the Capitol building and broke in, hoping to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory. Congress was forced to flee, and five people died as a result of the melee. It later emerged that rally organizers were in direct contact with White House officials.
Two-thousand people participated in the event, and more than 700 have been arrested. The crowd itself was a mixture of far right factions. Dozens of Proud Boys were among the most visible — and aggressive. While there were some open white supremacists involved, the most worrisome aspect was that such a violent action was undertaken by more ideologically moderate political elements. Some have claimed the crowd were disenfranchised whites. But in fact, those arrested included elected officials; police; members of the militia milieu, including Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and Sovereign Citizens; business owners and CEOs; the guitarist of a heavy metal band; a federal agent; and a Trump appointee. Ten percent were current or former military.
The attack’s political fallout included social media platforms booting Trump — including Twitter, which had been his presidential bullhorn. Parler, a social media platform favored by Trumpists, was taken offline. Trump was impeached a second time, and Congress later established a commission to investigate the events.
Trump and his cronies have done all they can to stymie the investigation. He has unsuccessfully attempted to withhold some presidential records and has continued to attempt to suppress others by asserting “executive privilege.” Those who have refused to testify include Steve Bannon, Trump’s one-time adviser. Pardoned by Trump in January, Bannon was arrested in November for criminal contempt.
The right-wing media machine also jumped into high gear to defend January 6 arrestees. Some claimed those arrested were “patriots” protesting a “stolen election,” while others blamed the violence on “antifa” disguised as Trumpists. (Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz promoted this conspiracy theory on the night of the Capitol assault.) Fox’s Tucker Carlson even created a three-part series to argue the attack was a “false flag” which was a prelude to a new “war on terror” against Trump supporters.
Trumpists Without Trump
The Trumpist hold on the GOP is perhaps best illustrated by the expulsion of Rep. Liz Cheney, the de facto leader of the anti-Trumpists, from the Wyoming state party’s leadership. But their hold goes much deeper.
Although he had been in office beforehand, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) came to prominence under Trump as the farthest right U.S. congressmember, openly using white supremacist rhetoric. While, like Trump, King lost reelection, a group of Republican representatives have since replaced him, including Florida’s Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Paul Gosar of Arizona and Lauren Boebert of Colorado. In April, several of them were involved in a brief attempt to form the “America First Caucus,” which was to champion “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”
Greene became known for claiming that a Jewish space laser was responsible for California’s wild fires. Boebert made speeches implying that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), a Muslim, was a terrorist. Gosar’s social media featured an anime video of him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), for which he was censured. Gohmert asked the Forest Service if it could change the orbit of the Earth or moon. Finally, Gaetz, who has been investigated for having sex with a 17-year-old, said that if Republicans swept the mid-terms, he wanted to install Trump as House speaker. (Technically one can hold the position without being a House member.)
Far Right Conspiracies Spread
Just as the Capitol attack was fueled by conspiracy theories, in particular QAnon, they continue to bubble up and occupy conservatives’ minds. While “Q” has been silent since December 2020 after his predictions failed, followers are still coming to events, and some QAnon promoters have moved on to boldly promote antisemitism.
Others have moved to attack the movement for Black lives with a new conspiracy panic around critical race theory. Their racist narrative — which claims that teaching students about systemic racism and U.S. history is “anti-white” — has become a popular talking point for Republicans. It has led to the banning of books and anti-racist curriculum in schools.
Anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories remain extremely popular. Some claim Bill Gates created the vaccines to implant microchips in people, while others say COVID is a plot by Big Pharma. Some continue to deny that COVID exists entirely. Others claim the disease is real but can be cured by drugs like Ivermectin. Meanwhile anti-maskers — which include both those who believe COVID is real and those who don’t — oppose mask mandates. For some, this is a slippery slope to a communist or Nazi dictatorship, while others object on grounds of personal freedom — other people be damned.
Protests by anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers have been violent at times. Local government meetings, especially school boards, have been disrupted, and there has been a concerted attempt to elect anti-maskers to the latter. (The harassment was so intense that in October, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the FBI would investigate threats against school officials.) Transit workers, flight attendants and restaurant servers have been attacked for enforcing mask requirements. After a librarian in Omak, Washington, was spit on, the library said it might close to protect its employees.
Trials, Lawsuits and Sentences
This year also saw a number of high-profile court trials. The most infamous was that of Kyle Rittenhouse, a right-wing teenager who took a rifle to a movement for Black lives protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, at which he murdered two people. Rittenhouse, who has become a poster boy for the far right, was acquitted in November during a trial which many regarded as overseen by an exceptionally biased judge.
But other trials went differently. Derek Chauvin — whose 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis reignited the movement for Black lives — was convicted of murder in April. Further, three white vigilantes in Georgia who murdered Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery were convicted in November.
Several civil lawsuits have also been successful against the far right. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who claimed that the Sandy Hook school shootings didn’t happen, lost a defamation suit by victims’ family members, who had been mercilessly harassed. But the most important case, Sines v. Kessler, was against the organizers of the fascist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, which ended with the murder of anti-fascist protester Heather Heyer. The suit, which had hampered various prominent fascists for years, will undoubtedly bankrupt those individuals and groups who were found liable for a total of $25 million.
Sentences were also handed down against high-profile white nationalists. The death sentence was upheld for Dylann Roof, who murdered nine at a historically Black church in 2015. The perpetrator of the 2019 Poway, California, synagogue attack received a sentence of life in prison. Lastly, Proud Boy Allen Swinney, whose violent actions include pulling a gun at a demonstration, received a prison sentence of 10 years.
Proud Boys Endure
Of all the groups which originated in the far right ferment of 2015-2017, the Proud Boys have come out as the largest and most active. Neither arrests, scandals, leadership shakeups, nor lawsuits have deterred this violent street gang whose raison d’être is to brawl with their political enemies, especially antifa.
Violent actions by the Proud Boys were an important run-up to the Capitol attack. In December 2020, they took part in invading the Oregon state capitol building in Salem during a legislative meeting. That month their violent demonstrations in D.C. included vandalizing Black churches, plus four stabbings and a shooting. Two days before the Capitol attack, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio was arrested for vandalism and weapons offenses (he eventually received a five-month sentence). The group was the largest, most organized and most militant one during the Capitol assault. There are charges against dozens tied to the group, and three lawsuits have been also filed against them for their role. In February, Canada banned the group. Proud Boys have also joined the anti-vaxxer movement; made threats against school boards; appeared at rallies in Los Angeles and New York City; and took part in the largest violent rally of the year in August in Portland, Oregon.
Good Night to (Most of) the “Alt-Right”
While as a whole the alt-right is yesterday’s fad, there are other active remnants besides the Proud Boys. For example, the “incel” (“involuntary celibate”) movement is one of the movement’s living branches. For the first time in recent memory in the United States, an entire year had almost passed without a far right mass murder. But an alleged white supremacist who also espoused virulent misogynist views is the main suspect for the December 27 killing of five people in Denver. (In August, a man active in incel circles had also murdered five in Britain.)
Most — but certainly not all — of those who attended the Charlottesville rally have taken major blows. Richard Spencer has been quiet since 2018 in no small part because he was awaiting the outcome of Sines v. Kessler. Found liable at the trial and heavily fined, his future now looks dim. Livestreamer “Baked Alaska” was arrested for his role in the Capitol attack, while in February, Christopher Cantwell (known more widely as the “Crying Nazi”), was sentenced to 41 months for harassment.
But two other Charlottesville participants, Nick Fuentes and Thomas Rousseau, are going strong. Rousseau leads the Patriot Front, the most vibrant of the openly white supremacist groups which came out of the alt-right. Although mostly concentrating on propaganda and vandalism, they have held three marches in 2021, including one in December that drew more than 100 participants.
While Rousseau’s Patriot Front turned their back on Trump as too moderate, Fuentes did the opposite. His “Groyper” movement has become part of the Trump movement in a bid to gain mainstream support. So far, they have not been unsuccessful, with Representative Gosar keynoting the group’s February conference. Unsurprisingly, Fuentes and his group also took part in the Capitol attack.
But the alt-right had another wing that was so radical they passed going to Charlottesville because it was too mainstream, instead promoting neo-Nazi terrorism. This faction, the most prominent of which was the Atomwaffen Division, was decimated by legal action this year. Although in 2020 the Atomwaffen Division announced it was disbanding, numerous members were sentenced in 2021, including three years for former leader John Cameron Denton. Another important member was outed as an FBI informant. (However, Atomwaffen’s first leader, Brandon Russell, was released in August after completing his sentence.) Members of a similar group, The Base, were also sentenced to prison; two military veterans received nine years each. But despite these setbacks, these groups that promote terrorism keep their propaganda at a simmering boil on Telegram.
Lastly, important information from a number of digital companies has been made public. Two of the biggest far right social media platforms, Parler and Gab, were both hacked. Epik, the main host for far right websites, was also compromised. Additionally, whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked internal Facebook documents showing how the company knowingly declined to take action against violent far right groups and lied about what they did do.
Still, despite anti-fascists’ best hopes, far right street forces have remained active, and the Trumpists ensconced, if not more powerful, within the GOP. With President Biden’s ratings dipping and no end in sight for COVID, prospects look pretty good for Trump and Trumpism, but the coming midterms will be a major temperature check for 2024.