by Sarah Edgcumbe and Clyde Collins
The storming of Capitol Hill in Washington on the 6th January and the ongoing aftermath has dominated western media over the past few days with good reason. White Americans fuelled by bizarre QAnon conspiracy theories and egged on by Trump’s false narrative of fraudulent election results, forced their way into the building, ransacked the interior, hung confederate flags, stole items and generally behaved like a bunch of supremacist football hooligans who had been binge-drinking for several hours, and whose team had just lost. In doing so however, they demonstrated the extent to which they have become empowered by Trump – and that is terrifying. When Trump leaves the White House (hopefully in handcuffs; tears streaking his fake tan), his manifest right-wing extremist legacy is going to remain present for years to come.
The vast disparity between the response of law enforcement to these white thugs and those Black protestors who throughout 2020 demanded an end to their murder with impunity speaks volumes and requires an entirely different article in order to do it justice. Likewise, reportage of the events that took place that day could justify dedicated analysis in a completely separate article. We will simply state here that referring to these events as a “coup attempt” as much media is doing, is affording this particular group more intellectual and organizational capacity than they either deserve, or have the ability to exercise. The events that took place on the 6th January were the result of the combustible intersection between years of online far- right networking and mobilisation, and huge amounts of funding for the days events from pro-Trump “dark money” groups, notably Women for America First. Trump’s calls to action on that specific day were the match that lit the extremely short fuse. What followed was a violent rampage conducted by an angry, poorly-informed mob who undoubtedly wanted to intimidate and harm people within the building, but who had no systematic plan to obtain structures of governance for themselves. Though not a coup, it was a direct assault on both democracy and national security and a kick in the teeth to U.S. voters. It was domestic terrorism, and it is imperative that both the perpetrators – and Trump, as instigator – should be treated accordingly.
In times of increasing wealth disparity, monetary inflation, and viral pandemonium, formerly level-headed, functional individuals are absorbed into right wing radical groups that air righteous white privilege. The conditions that characterise contemporary America have therefore resulted in psychological extremes manifested in increasingly exclusive ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’. The vast amount of support and funding that these white supremacist and far-right perceived ‘in-groups’ have received over recent years has resulted in them feeling emboldened to an extent never before seen. As an illustration of the implications of this, after the siege on Capitol Hill, the Anti-Defamation League expressed concerns that right-wing mob violence is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Trump’s removal from the presidency combined with his indefinite bans from both Facebook and Twitter will hopefully prove to be the catalyst for his descent into obscurity. But what next? Trump did not create the particular social demographic represented by the marauding gang we saw on Capitol Hill. He simply tapped into their ideology and manipulated it in an attempt to create himself a private army of mercenaries as well as a dependable voter base. The “what next?” is critical if the United States is going to be able to heal its fractured communities and the increasing ideological gulf that currently characterises the population. It is therefore vital that moving forward we try our hardest to avoid writing off QAnon adherents and white supremacists as intellectually inferior or a collective lost-cause, no matter how uncomfortable this may be for many of us. If we fail to examine the causes of their radicalisation, we stand no chance of countering it.
But what next? Trump did not create the particular social demographic represented by the marauding gang we saw on Capitol Hill.
It is highly unlikely that a democratic presidency alone is going to be the remedy required. Particularly given the entrenched nature of neoliberalism across both parties in the country. The U.S. economy has been failing everyone but the richest few since the 1980s, if not before. The U.S. has the highest level of income inequality among G7 countries (unsurprisingly, the U.K is second on this list), with the richest 5% of Americans owning two-thirds of the wealth. The wealth gap between the U.S.’ richest and poorest families more than doubled between 1989 and 2016. Outsourcing and mechanisation of jobs, neglect of rural economies and communities and subsequent loss of social security for many white families has undoubtedly contributed to the rise in right wing extremists. However, economic insecurity cannot be the only cause. One of the Capitol Hill mob, for example, was a CEO.
Former neo-Nazi Shannon Foley-Martinez describes the drivers that lead many individuals to join such groups as a combination of economic insecurity, emotional and social insecurity resulting from social change, and feelings of loss of control in an increasingly globalised and technology-driven world. Research points to a substantial link between disinformation and conspiracy theories and racial prejudice and hatred. This indicates that a complex and multi-layered deradicalization response is required if QAnon and other narratives of falsehood and white supremacy are to be successfully relegated to oblivion.
So what specific factors lead seemingly ordinary people to transform from having middle-of-the-road political beliefs, to buying into extreme right-wing ideologies and engaging in actions such as storming Capitol Hill, or mowing down Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors? Only a few years ago Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was shot and killed during the siege on Capitol Hill, voted for Obama, tweeting that she believed “he did great things”. She couldn’t stomach voting for Hilary Clinton, so voted for Trump, and it seems subsequently fell prey to the QAnon narrative.
Let’s rewind to Missoula, Montana in the Spring of 2020. A BLM rally was organised,one of many organised in response to nationwide police brutality against black Americans. Clyde, one of the authors of this article lives in Missoula. It is the liberal hub in a predominantly “red,” or “right wing” republican state, housing the University of Montana and a grass-roots vibe of politically active community members. Montana lacks substantial demographic diversity and is a mostly white demographic: a factor contributing to the small size of the rally. After a few days of BLM supporters raising awareness through peaceful protesting at the rally, a group of men and women armed with AR-15 assault rifles arrived at the scene. These people have been commonly referred to as “Trumpers”, “Militia,” “Three-percenters,” “MAGA people,” and “Vigilantes” depending on the source.
The Militia members present in Missoula that day claimed to be Danish, although anyone with less-than-adequate hearing would obviously place them as rural sticks from the heavily forested region of Northwestern Montana. As a white male, Clyde was able to engage some of the Militia members in conversation without each perceiving the other as overtly physically threatening. The Militia portrayed themselves as being present at the rally in order to “guard BLM protestors” and “guard ANTIFA”. Clyde was struck by the contradiction between their words and their behaviour on that day. “Guarding” appeared to be their veil for inquisition; a cover for their intentions to pick up arms and attempt to intimidate people they were taught to perceive as a threat. The Militia group were unmistakably apparent in their green military camouflage. Their leader was actively communicating via walkie talkie, coordinating individuals to guard the perimeter of the city square from BLM supporters. Their leader was also in active communication with other Militia coordinators in the United States regional area — he had military training and caller ID on his phone.
The essential question at this point is: where are these Militia groups directed from, and by whom?
The essential question at this point is: where are these Militia groups directed from, and by whom? Nationwide, Militia effectively communicate on social media platforms and there isn’t a singular source for their ideology. Most ideologies or belief systems have a vague relatable theme and a leader to follow. In this particular case, the theme and leader lend themselves towards “Make America Great Again” or “Trumpers,” and Trump. For psychological conformity, followers of an ideology require conditions they can conform to. Environments characterised by such conditions Clyde has seen in Montana are: social media platforms; perceived ethnic heritage; community beliefs; family values; biased upbringings. In conjunction with these conditions, right wing extremist groups seem to prey upon vulnerable individuals, although they may represent a diverse demography in terms of psychological inclination, socio-economic status, intellectual capacity, and perception of self and identity, even ethnicity.
Generally speaking, the key variables that seem to spawn “Militia” in the United States (or at least in Montana) are low income, poor standard of education, and pride in a confederate white upbringing. Social media undoubtedly facilitates this conveyor belt of Militia spawn. Efficient communication platforms like Parler, or even Facebook, allow for a trite sense of connection which disenfranchised individuals seek out. Fuelled by Trump, they commit to the ideology. Fuelled by Trump they are convinced that something was taken from them and they must get it back. They are proud of their ideological identity.
Identifying these individuals and how they communicate and organise is one thing. Deposing their leader from government is another. How do we counteract the conditions and the narrative that have so effectively been radicalising these individuals? Experts on countering disinformation suggest that whilst it is tempting to bombard these individuals with facts, it will have little difference on their perspective. Rather, they say that interacting with them on a personal level as friends, loved ones and community members is the most successful approach. At a grassroots level then, the responsibility falls on all of us who are white and members of families or communities in which right wing radicalisation is a threat.
Looking forwards at a more macro-level, education always seems to be both the fundamental problem and the solution. America needs to reorganise its education sectors. An emphasis on resources for social media interpretation, including critical thinking and media literacy should be established within the national curriculum. A holistic sense of rational-emotional well-being should be prioritised and promoted in secluded and global communities. Perhaps America can decide if it wants to step up public school regulations and ensure they are uniformly well-resourced, regardless of whether they are urban or rural in the meantime.
The government, rather than demonising and ostracising socialist and anarchist groups, should seek to learn from their practices of grassroots care and mutual aid. These are the ties that bind communities together; it is through community-based cooperation that wider networks are created. Mutual grievances and priorities can be both identified and used as a tool for unification. Poverty and social marginalisation are political. They are the direct result of decisions made by national and international elites. Any attempts to counter radicalising factors whilst simultaneously depoliticising them will ultimately fail. As such, the government should equip community leaders with the skills, resources and networks required to be able to effectively remediate negative environments. Ethically sound community leaders and local government representatives, who are already working to promote positivity in their communities, should be consulted on their views as to how to better approach environments conducive to right-wing radicalisation, with proactive intervention being deployed through community initiatives at an interpersonal level.
At a grassroots level then, the responsibility falls on all of us who are white and members of families or communities in which right wing radicalisation is a threat.
Should the Government analyse and regulate social media? We admit that we don’t have all the answers. We don’t have any concrete answers at all; rather, a handful of suggestions. But we feel sure that we can start to fix our broken society by promoting active community engagement over consumerism, and facilitating community-based discussions about how to create an inclusive, positive environment, which considers and addresses grievances in an educative manner, thereby establishing mutual goals and unifying groups in recognition of both misuse of power and accountability.
Featured image CC BY 2.0 Marco Verch
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