After pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol building in an attempt to overthrow the country’s democratic elections last Wednesday, many researchers, activists and journalists covering the American far right were disturbed but not necessarily surprised.
They had long warned about the potential for violence from the far right. Now the rest of America finally understands the threat. The question is what far-right extremists will do next ― and what the country will do to stop them.
As the U.S. processes what happened last week and prepares for a wave of similar anti-democratic protests in the coming days, there are big questions about how members of the far right may shift their tactics and goals during President-elect Joe Biden’s administration and what danger they pose to democracy.
HuffPost spoke with David Neiwert, a staff writer for Daily Kos as well as the author of “Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump” and “Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us,” to discuss what the American far right may look like after the presidency of Donald Trump.
You’ve been tracking the far right for decades and recently wrote about how Wednesday’s riot was a culmination of where this movement had been heading for a while.
The thing that I’ve been most assiduously tracking for the last 20 years is the sort of crossover and mainstreaming of the radical right within the mainstream conservative movement. We saw it during the Bush years, but it really started taking off after Obama was elected. What a lot of us were seeing during the whole tea party phenomenon was that movement had really become a major conduit for the transmission of radical right ideas. Agendas and ideas from the patriot movement and other blocs. It just kept accelerating during the Obama years and finally culminated in Trump in many ways.
During the Trump years, he just basically took the lid off Pandora’s box and all the demons came out. Right now, we’re hoping at least to try to get the lid back on, but we’re going to be dealing with all those demons that came flying out for many years afterwards. That’s kind of the big picture.
There’s now a sizable section of America that might not be violent extremists or adhere to violent extremist ideology but has been radicalized to this point that they believe in conspiracies and openly support anti-democratic action.
What do we do about that section of the populace? Is that section now past the point of return or is this something that can be undone?
It could be undone, but it’s going to take a massive shift on part of the larger culture. One of the significant institutional issues we have is in the media, particularly with right-wing media, and I’m thinking primarily of Fox News.
Fox News plays this really powerful role in the whole right-wing media ecosystem in the way that it normalizes and mainstreams a lot of these extremist beliefs and this extremist agenda. It has been doing this for at least the last 10 years, and really longer, but it accelerated during Obama’s presidency. Just turning that faucet off is going to be critical.
I don’t see removing Fox News from the air, but I think that the organization itself really needs a come-to-Jesus moment to recognize that it’s inflicted tremendous harm on the country and really work to repair that damage. If that were to happen, then I think that could be very powerful, to have an organization like Fox News become a real news organization that deals with facts and evidence ― as well as advocates for helping its former audience come to grips with reality.
One of the problems with deradicalization in America that strikes me is that if you look at ways to stop radicalization that have had success in other contexts, they involved limiting the amount of propaganda that is being put out, limiting access to power and limiting the way that it gets injected into the mainstream.
But after so many years, a lot of these radicalizing elements have become so embedded in politics and in the media. It seems like that is a very difficult thing to disentangle.
Yes. I think that a lot of what has enabled the radicalization in the first place is that we have built up an incredible tolerance for sedition and insurrectionist speech ― violent speech. The tolerance for speech where they talk about overthrowing the government, where they talk about assassinating public officials, where there’s just this open advocacy of eliminating liberals and getting rid of, you know, their neighbors.
We’ve just sort of said, “oh, that’s just hot talk.” We’ve just sort of let it slide. Now that we’ve had this assault on the Capitol, people are realizing seditious speech brings about sedition. They are really looking at making federal charges for sedition against the people who invaded the Capitol, and I think they should. In fact, I think it’s long overdue.
“[Trump] just basically took the lid off Pandora’s box and all the demons came out. Right now, we’re hoping at least to try to get the lid back on, but we’re going to be dealing with all those demons that came flying out for many years afterwards.”
Although there were numerous domestic terror and anti-government terror plots while Trump was president, seemingly, with him out of office, there is this broader potential for radicalization and domestic terror plots aimed at the government. Whereas under Trump, far-right groups were sort of effectively aligned with the Trump administration.
The domestic terrorism that we saw during the Trump years was primarily extremely radicalized white nationalists acting alone. Patrick Crusius, Robert Bowers and people like that. I did a database for Reveal News called “Domestic terror in the age of Trump.” The vast majority of what we were seeing there was that radicalization was happening at an increasing pace, but the majority was lone wolf action. What we have seen in the past year has been an increase in domestic terror arrests for bands of organized insurrectionists or paramilitary extremists.
Like the Michigan plot to attack [Michigan Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer.
The plan on Gretchen Whitmer is particularly striking. If I had to guess, what we’re going to be seeing in the next four years is a combination of lone wolf action, as well as organized paramilitary bands engaging in domestic terrorism.
Is there anything that you’re keeping an eye on that will dictate where the far right goes from here?
One of the things is the really extreme level of threatening rhetoric being directed at news media right now. I think journalists are going to start being targeted. We had a guy in Olympia, [Washington] ― this young neo-Nazi from Seattle who was on the grounds of the governor’s mansion in Olympia. He was part of the group that managed to get on the grounds last week during a protest, and there is this video of him talking to this news reporter from one of the local TV stations and telling her “we’re gonna start killing you, rest in peace, better start looking over your shoulder because we’re gonna start killing all of you.”
That is definitely part of the rhetoric we’re hearing and seeing in these extremist groups, like the Oath Keepers, and last month, I believe, there was a lot of talk about “we need to start targeting the media.”
It’s something that I do worry about, obviously. I’ve kind of had it buzzing around in the background for 30 years but I think it’s really acute now. I think that journalists would be wise, especially if they’re doing any reporting on this stuff, to take measures to increase their personal security, and I think news organizations need to be providing bodyguards and security assistance for reporters who are out there in the field. I think that it’s going to get ugly. You saw they attacked an Associated Press crew in D.C. and made a heap out of all their equipment, including turning their cables set into a noose.
And attacked The New York Times’ photographer inside the Capitol as well.
Yes, so there is a lot of anti-media rhetoric going around. Both individual journalists and news organizations more generally need to be really keyed into this reality because it’s going to be really acute over the next four years, if not longer, that we’re gonna be dealing with that.
I’ve been placed on a couple of death lists over the years, and so I’ve always tried to have good [operations security] practices, but I’ve never seen it like this. I’ve never seen this level of visceral hatred ― for liberals generally, but for the media in particular ― that we’re seeing now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.