How to Treat Right-Wing Violence in the U.S.

In the days immediately following the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, antifascists were comparing images online, trying to identify the culprits with methods that one might find in amateur detective guides: focus on the geometry of the ears, the curve of the nose, the parts that can’t easily be changed if someone gains or loses weight or grows a beard. The violent far right is often described as a shadowy and somewhat faceless force. But, to those who follow the movement’s major figures, it looks more like a repertory company, one whose members might take slightly different roles in different performances in different cities: a compact, delineated group of usual suspects. Ethan Nordean, who held the “war powers” for the Proud Boys on January 6th, had sat for interviews with Alex Jones on Infowars. Stewart Rhodes, the eye-patch-sporting Yale Law grad and founder of the Oath Keepers, had been a prominent militia leader, staging patrols of Cliven Bundy’s ranch and at Trump rallies, before he was charged with seditious conspiracy and sentenced to eighteen years in prison for orchestrating his group’s storming of the Capitol. I remembered Joe Biggs, a bearded Proud Boys leader and right-wing podcaster who broke through police lines at the Capitol, from an event that Roger Stone had staged during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, in 2016.

It can be disorienting to track these far-right cadres closely. You can lose yourself. Not long after the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, in 2017, I sat in the kitchen of a likable young humanities professor at the University of Virginia who was devoting hours each day to identifying the marchers and posting the results to antifascist forums online. Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written perceptively about both left- and right-wing street politics for a decade, knows these patterns well. “I’ve found, more often than not, when interviewing people who have devoted their professional lives to understanding perpetrators of racial violence, that they often share a similar, if diametrically opposite, radicalization process,” he writes in “American Whitelash: A Changing Nation and the Cost of Progress.” “They can identify the very moment their eyes were opened—when they first realized they’d never again look away from the evil they now saw.”

The past few years have forced plenty of ordinary Americans to regularly wonder whether they should open their eyes to the far right in this way, too. Both choices are bad. Familiarize yourself with the activities of Patriot Front or the Boogaloo Boys and you risk letting a very tiny number of unoriginal extremists unnecessarily darken your world view. Ignore them, and you may feel naïve when, as at Charlottesville or on January 6th, they play a major role in political events. The events on Saturday, in Jacksonville, Florida, in which a twenty-one-year-old white gunman targeted Black customers at a Dollar General, killing three, were yet another reminder, as in Buffalo and El Paso and Charleston, that the problem of far-right and racially motivated violence isn’t going away.

Politicians tend to describe the far right almost spectrally—its protagonists are said to emerge from the dark recesses of the American past or the fringes and “fever swamps” of the present. In some ways, the batch of new books published about the far right represents a helpful corrective. Their authors tend to see American extremism as a more specific set of political patterns. But, taken together, they also suggest how little agreement there is on basic matters: what the far right wants, and whether it represents an eternal pattern in American politics or a new one.

Lowery’s focus is on race. He sees the right-wing tumult of recent years as a reaction to the increasing presence of nonwhite Americans and especially to the election of the first Black President. Even if racists sound much the same as they always have, Lowery thinks they were changed by the civil-rights movement, often referred to as the Second Reconstruction. “The advent of multiracial democracy through the Second Reconstruction and the perceived browning of America through immigration has forced today’s white supremacists to accept as a premise that they’re ‘losing,’ ” Lowery writes. “No longer can they claim, as their forebears did, that they aim to return to the norm of a white supremacist status quo. Today’s white supremacist movement is revolutionary—its explicit aim being to overthrow our maturing multiracial democracy.”

You might draw a straight line from this to Donald Trump, but Lowery takes a more episodic approach, tunnelling in on a few cases of racial violence, each of which made headlines at the time but whose details tend to be largely forgotten. Often, these atrocities turn out to be committed by longtime fanatics. Lowery relays the 2012 massacre at a Sikh temple, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in which Wade Michael Page, a forty-year-old skinhead who was active in the neo-Nazi music scene, fatally shot six people and wounded four others, in part, through the eyes of a pair of radicalism researchers. One of them found a Myspace photo of the then unidentified shooter, and exclaimed, “Oh my God! That’s Wade.” Lowery also lingers on the white supremacy of Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr., a prominent figure in the white-power movement for decades, who, at the age of seventy-three, killed three people at Jewish centers in Overland Park, Kansas. “I had good moral reasons for doing what I did,” Miller told a judge. “I’m going to prove to them that Jews are committing genocide against white people.”

Racial violence has a way of drawing the eye back into the past because white supremacy is so deeply entwined with American history. Lowery is sharp in his attunement to the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim violence of the Bush years, which now look like a presage of Trumpism. One episode in his book concerns the Patchogue, Long Island, assault of an Ecuadorian immigrant named Marcelo Lucero, by a group of teen-agers who went out “beaner-hopping” days after Barack Obama’s election. Lucero was killed by a seventeen-year-old named Jeff Conroy, who stabbed him in the chest. Conroy, whose father ran the area’s youth football and lacrosse organization, turned out to have a swastika tattooed on his thigh. “I knew about it,” Conroy’s father later told a local journalist of the tattoo. “It was just one of those stupid kid stunts.”

There was a specific anti-immigrant political context in that part of Long Island following Obama’s election. In 2007, a legislator from nearby Amityville said that, if he saw day laborers gathered in his community, “I would load my gun and start shooting, period.” Some of this was channelled politically by the Suffolk County executive, an anti-immigrant Democrat (though he would later become a Republican and maintains that he was never anti-immigrant) named Steve Levy. In 2007, Levy told the Times, “Whether you are black or white or Hispanic, if you live in the suburbs, you do not want to live across the street from a house where 60 men live. You do not want trucks riding up and down the block at 5 a.m., picking up workers.” A little unexpectedly, Lowery writes that the closest analogue he has discovered for Trump is not Rudy Giuliani or Sarah Palin but Steve Levy.

Lowery’s book is elegant. He convincingly shows that, during the Obama years, conservative figures from Levy to Trump worked adeptly to stoke fear of displacement. But, in some ways, “American Whitelash” reads as a chronicle of a specific time—much of the action concerns the backlash to Obama’s Presidency, and the early years of Trump’s. The last deeply reported episode in the book, chronologically, is the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. That took place six years ago, which raises the question of whether the situation has changed since.

To revisit the Unite the Right rally, as the former CNN producer Nora Neus does in her excellent oral history “24 Hours in Charlottesville,” is to realize that the patterns of right-wing violence that are now familiar were then still new. “Just hearing lots of reports of people bringing guns. I was like, Oh my God, is this something we’re going to experience today?” a news photographer named Zack Wajsgras told Neus. Part of the novelty was how confident the militias were, raising Confederate and Nazi banners in the center of one of America’s premier college towns. In some ways, they behaved, nine months after Trump’s election, as if they were in control. Tom Perriello, a former Democratic congressman from the region who was at the rally as a counter-protester, told Neus, “You could not tell who was National Guard and who was white supremacist. They were in full camo. They had earpieces in. They were moving in formations. They had open long guns. They were, in every meaningful way, exactly how National Guard would be out in the streets. And they saw themselves that way.”

Charlottesville was understood as a statement of arrival by what was then called the alt-right, the extremist cadres, organized largely online, united by a confrontational white supremacy. They had entered the mainstream. The journalist David Neiwert argues in “The Age of Insurrection: The Radical Right’s Assault on American Democracy” that it was also their Waterloo. Neiwert has been following the far right since the late nineteen-seventies, when he was a cub reporter in Idaho—a center, at the time, of the white-power movement. His story, which spans a half century, is most interesting in its account of what happened to the movement after Charlottesville. Many of the alt-right’s principals wound up in jail. The Proud Boys and some affiliated groups, particularly in the Pacific Northwest and South Florida, pursued a running sequence of street fights with antifascist protesters. Richard Spencer, the white supremacist who once appeared frequently in the national media, had already effectively vanished from public view by the time a judge handed down a $2.4-million judgment against his organization, the National Policy Institute, in 2021, following a suit brought by a Charlottesville victim. Several members of the California-based Rise Above Movement, who were responsible for many of the most violent acts at Charlottesville, were sentenced to federal prison on rioting charges. These organizations and their slogans, Neiwert notes, fell into disuse. “The term—and, in most regards, the movement itself—was quickly discarded,” he writes. “No one identified as an alt-right group after Charlottesville.”

Neiwert’s contention isn’t that Charlottesville was a death knell for violent extremism: “Like a blob of mercury crushed under a thumb, they simply spread out into newer, smaller blobs.” Some of these new groups took turns toward religious conservatism, in ways that presaged the loose Christian millenarianism of the QAnon movement. Thomas Rousseau, who, as a teen-ager, had marched in khakis and a white polo at Charlottesville, founded an avowedly fascist splinter group called Patriot Front, whose members were dressed up in riot gear and arrested in a van on their way to a Pride event in Idaho. Nick Fuentes, who, at Charlottesville, had been an eighteen-year-old white-supremacist podcaster and Boston University freshman, now leads groups of his so-called groyper army in chants of “Christ is King” at anti-abortion and anti-vaccine protests.

Neiwert also traces a more consequential turn. By the pandemic phase of Trump’s Presidency, even mainstream Republicans had adjusted their approach to right-wing extremism. In Michigan, for instance, the Republican leader of the State Senate was seen at a political fund-raiser with one of the militiamen who, months later, would be arrested for participating in a plot to kidnap and kill Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer. (He has pleaded not guilty.) Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, joined a wave of fellow Republican figures in amplifying false claims that “Antifa”—the Proud Boys’ street-fighting antagonists, but not otherwise a major political force—was preparing for violence. The former U.S. Attorney and G.O.P. pundit Joseph diGenova appeared on Laura Ingraham’s podcast in 2019 and insisted that “we are in a civil war” and advised viewers to buy guns to prepare for “total war.”

Neiwert emphasizes how closely the bug-eyed guys with guns follow mainstream politics. He writes that, among the deleted e-mails and online activity obtained during the prosecution of Christopher Hasson—a Coast Guard acquisitions officer and avowed white nationalist who was arrested, in 2019, for plotting a series of political assassinations—were planning notes for a bioweapons attack and shooting spree, and Google searches for “what if trump illegally impeached” and “civil war if trump impeached.” Neiwert writes, “It’s not hard to find the source of Hasson’s belief that civil war would erupt if President Trump were to face impeachment: By early 2019, civil war had become an endemic talking point and source of speculation among right-wing pundits.”

Many of the quotes that Neiwert lifts, from congressional speeches and cable-news appearances, show how spectral and apocalyptic Republican politicians and conservative media came to sound during the Trump era. Early in Trump’s term, the televangelist Jim Bakker warned that, if Democrats sought to remove the President from office, “there will be a civil war in the United States of America. The Christians will finally come out of the shadows because we are going to be shut up permanently if we’re not careful.” On the House floor, during Trump’s first impeachment, the Texas congressman Louie Gohmert declared, “This country’s end is now in sight.” Neiwert traces the fallout. An ex-Navy SEAL named Jonathan Gilliam used Gohmert’s remarks as a “springboard,” writing on Twitter, “I see exactly what he sees. Therefor it is time we begin considering the possibility of civil war.”

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