Are We Safe in the United States?
Are we safe in the United States?
Depending on your gender, class, skin color, nationality, or belief system, the answer to that question wavers from an uncomfortable reality of perpetual danger to an alarmingly ambiguous one.
This safety, of course, in part hinges on the safety of a common institution: our democracy.
What is the greatest threat to our democracy? As a leftist who identifies as a social democrat, alongside economic strife caused by neoliberalism and climate change, we have to reckon with domestic terrorism and its parent, white supremacy.
The right, of course, has a different set of fears. Or to be exact the modern alt-right, or Donald Trump Republicans. If we listen to Trump and his staunchest allies and adherents, democracy’s pressing threats include Black Lives Matter, Antifa, cancel culture, an inclusive Democratic Party, Christian prosecution, the fraudulent election, the threat of socialism, and coronavirus lock-down measures (which they perceive to be a leftist coup).
The bottom line? They fear the civil and social upheaval of our white hierarchical order.
The alt-right has fervently latched onto conspiracy theories that spread at a pace never before seen, all to generate this fear. And thanks to the internet for generating ever-increasing membership in white supremacist and apocalyptic paramilitary groups.
(I must clear this up. Admittedly, alt-right is a catch-all term. It always has been and will remain elusive with ever-expanding priorities, specifically in waffling over whether it adheres to ethnonationalism or civic nationalism. In 2016, as chief executive officer of the Trump campaign, Steve Bannon considered the operation to be the “platform for the alt-right.”)
These same right-wing/alt-right groups organized and took part in the January 06 insurrection of our D.C. Capitol Building, fueled by discussions on Reddit, 4Chan, 8Chan, 8Kun, Parler, MeWe, Gab, right-wing media stars, and online trolls, including white nationalists Lauren Southern, Laura Loomer, Vice founder Gavin McInnes, Milo Yiannopoulus, Jack Posobiec, Richard Spencer (who coined the term “alt-right” in 2008), et al, and the proliferation of misinformation by elected Republicans and the right-wing media companies Fox News, One America News, The Epoch Times, Breitbart, Newsmax.
With the recent violence at the Capitol, my concern led me to this question: In our politically polarized state, with conspiracies infecting our minds, paramilitary membership increasing, and the right’s unwillingness to thwart these conspiracies, are we ushering in the threat of more violence and attacks on our elected leaders?
In other words, our political climate of the past four years draws easy parallels to that of the 1960s, where racial tensions and counter-movements led to violence. It feels as if this is the calm before a violent storm, the siege on the Capitol a test run.
Much like the Civil Rights movement of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience in the 1960s, the BLM movement has necessitated a public confrontation of our shameful record of racial inequity (we should acknowledge that the BLM movement comprises a copious and more diversified support system). As activists fought Jim Crow segregation laws (see: Brown v. Board of Education) and sustained violence and discrimination against Black Americans by white supremacists, today BLM fights against remnants of this tattered system: continued police brutality, our racist, for-profit prison system, the war on drugs, and Jim Crow voter suppression laws.
Both movements resulted in open and productive dialogues between activists and the government, and identical to the 1960s, the white hierarchical order has quickly castigated activists (mostly people of color) with police violence, public harassment, and betrayal by our elected leaders.
Previous unrest culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act. In response to 2020’s marches, many local city councils are rewriting the foundations of their police forces, the consequences of which we are watching play out in real-time.
Just as President Richard Nixon declared law and order as protection for white folks from communities of color, so too has Donald Trump promised the very same throughout his time in office.
Both presidents stoked racial resentment. But I’d be damned to say history is repeating itself, or even that history is building off an already swelling white grievance. It is more appropriate to echo Pankaj Mishra’s reflection in his Age of Anger, “History is far from being repeated, despite many continuities in the past. Our predicament, in the global age of frantic individualism, is unique and deeper, its dangers more diffuse and unpredictable.”
What’s different today?
1. Tyrannical Will
Donald Trump’s willingness to stoke racial resentment to his tyrannical will, as seen when he unleashed secret police in Portland to kidnap protestors, and when he ordered federal police to pepper-spray and tear gas peaceful protestors for a photo-op.
In the first Presidential debate against Joe Biden, when given ample time to denounce supremacist organizations, Trump unequivocally told the white nationalist group, The Proud Boys, to stand down and stand by. One can argue he is too ignorant to know what he said but said it he did in front of millions of vulnerable Americans, and that is enough.
It is a fool’s errand attempting to find the nuance in the cause and effect of Donald Trump’s incessant social media posts and live pronouncements about debunked voter fraud, which includes tweeting to his white followers to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and the resulting threats subsequently made on Governor Gretchen Whitmer, her staff, and other Michigan lawmakers in April. His calls to liberate Michigan coincided two weeks later with the foiled attempts to kidnap and murder the governor. Right-wing militias heeded the rallying cry and breached the state capitol. In December, conservative extremists broke into the Oregon State Capitol and sprayed security guards with chemical sprays.
Trump’s rhetoric and actions culminated in the rally on the Ellipse before the storming on January 06. His calls to show strength indisputably incited his supporters in the crowd to act. There is no debate on this issue, so no need to further repeat his calls for violence.
Though he is officially out of office, the most consequential (in)actions during Trump’s four years in power was his deliberate reluctance to heed the advice of his Homeland Security, which sought vigilantly to stem the rise of domestic terrorism by curbing the recruitment, organization, and proliferation of paramilitary groups. That will remain with us for years to come.
Years of research into domestic extremism by our counterterrorism forces and the FBI. concluded that far-right extremist groups were the real threat and not the left, including the loose ideology, Antifa. Yet, Donald Trump and William Barr still deemed it appropriate to pull resources from our agencies and pour them into Portland to hone in on what boiled down to a campaign message.
That is a scandal. A gleeful encouragement from a government institution is not easy to put back into Pandora’s box.
2. The Staying Power of Trumpism
The second is that Trumpism, and by extension, these paramilitary groups, is here to stay. These militias — many of which formed during the 1990s and resurged during the anti-government Tea Party movement in response to our first Black president — include the mainstream militias Wolverine Watchmen, 3 Percenters, Michigan Militia, Oath Keepers, Texas Freedom Force; the highly devolved libertarian groups the Boogaloo Bois and People’s Rights; the street movement/nationalist Proud Boys; the white supremacist organization, The Base, which has ties to Russia; and countless other extremist organizations totaling more than 500 unorganized paramilitary groups. Every one of these groups is preparing to increase their membership to cement their place in our polity.
With the insurrection of January 06, with the battle and deaths that ensued, these militias smell blood, and it stinks of power. The moment is ripe for emboldened outliers to claim a mainstream mantle to spread their message.
The rise of right-wing autocrats, or despotism like Trumpism, around the globe is no coincidence. This trend is a sign that there is a distrust or discontent with the regular ruling party, and it is occurring somewhat regularly throughout the globe. In the United States, the quotidian Democratic and Republican Party nominees were passed over for the outlier Donald Trump. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro replaced disgraced Excellency Michel Temer using not only outright misogynistic and homophobic slurs but, consequentially, by establishing a near fetish for an outsized military on the campaign trail. He considers the military the ultimate arbiter of democracy — this for a country ruled under military dictatorship for two decades.
Poland, followed by Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Spain, and the significant decline in democratic values in China, Egypt, Hungary, Philippines, Turkey, Ukraine, and others, signifies a call for a new type of leadership. It should not be lost on us that because all of these leaders rail so aggressively and successfully against the status quo, their outlier sensibilities — the ones that already harbor within their respective countries — find access to the mainstream.
But it is not that these leaders require Herculean militaries to fight their cause. It is the paramilitaries that guarantee their services to the alt-right leaders in which they see themselves. Ukraine has their far-right neo-nazi groups Azov, C14, and Karpatska Sich. Germany is witnessing a mass infusion of far-right neo-nazi groups into their military ranks, just as we do in America.
Discontent, the delicacy of democracy, and questionable or downright horrid leadership leave a void for many outlier groups to fill.
Donald Trump, unable to control the military in the way I’m sure he envisioned, instead of Tweets his support for the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers — 14 members arrested due to their ties to the January 06 insurrection of the Capitol. Beyond his grasp, though, while vetting their ranks for the inauguration, the National Guard had to remove several enlisted personnel due to their far-right sympathies or membership.
When these types of groups — to whom several of the removed belong — are given access to the mainstream, which occurs with a lack of pushback from world leaders — in this case, the Trump administration’s unwillingness to listen to DHS’s four years of warnings against of the uptick in domestic terrorism — they feel legitimized and multiply exponentially.
Just this month, law enforcement agencies released a rare joint bulletin, warning that right-wing extremists aiming to incite a race war “may exploit the aftermath of the Capitol breach by conducting attacks to destabilize and force a climactic conflict in the United States.” Threats of violence and significant moments of chaos are unfailingly harbingers of further unrest. A cascade effect, one we cannot ignore.
Nor can we disregard the formation and the growing popularity of the street movement Proud Boys, a sheet-less Ku Klux Klan. The Proud Boys membership has doubled from 16,000 to 34,000.
Or the roughly 10,000 people who identify as 3 Percenters.
In 2015, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a study showing the containing plague of domestic terrorism in the United States. Between April 1, 2009, and February 2015, domestic terrorist violence from the right (and homegrown jihadists) occurred every 34 days, 90% of which carried out by one or two persons. This does not lessen the emphasis on paramilitary groups, as both the lone wolf and the groups both adhere to and preach far-right anti-government and hateful ideologies. And it seems to be that these lone wolfs are finding, and I predict, will continue to seek, a refuge in larger groups that accept not only their ideology but their appetite to act out their resentment on those they deem their opposition.
Growing anxiety over these groups is legitimate because it doesn’t take much to imagine what empowered paramilitary groups intend to do. Not only are they determined to ignite an apocalyptic civil war (which reveals their desire to cause war rather than expose the possibility of an impending one), but their ultimate goal is simple. Uphold white supremacy and a deranged status-quo befitting self-serving political philosophies and disguise it as “law and order.” But by no stretch of the imagination can the siege of the D.C. Capitol building, not to mention anti-quarantine protests and myriad online threats of calls to murder various lawmakers, ever be considered law and order. It is thinly veiled vigilantism.
America is privileged to have a reasonably robust Democratic government as our defense but had Donald Trump won re-election with an administration littered with sycophants stonewalling any investigation into far-right extremist groups, it would not be a stretch to assume the militias mentioned above would wield enough influence as their kin in Ukraine — Azov, C14, Karpatska Sich. If not for these barriers, I daresay we would face a dire situation (National Guard military personnel removed from inaugural duties due to far-right sympathies or membership), not unlike the situation in Ukraine or the breach of German military ranks by the neo-Nazis group Northern Cross.
Lastly, group membership is not the only cause for alarm. The loose collection of white supremacists, QAnon adherents, and 2nd amendment extremists in crowds like the one we all witnessed at the Capitol, might prove to be a more difficult crowd to corral. At the beckon of the president and the paramilitary groups, these individuals will, it seems, press forward to the death in a heterogeneous network or worse, as lone-wolf actors, to overturn the election results or in an attempt to murder lawmakers who do not see the world through their lens (think Kyle Rittenhouse, who crossed state lines last year to murder two protestors. While in jail, armed groups and conservative sympathizers rallied to raise money on a Christian crowdfunding website for his release).
3. Defining Right-Wing Networks
We must understand and define the new network of right-wing extremist activism.
The chaos of loosely wrapped alt-right thinking involves a sprawling network of Christian conservatives, of white supremacists, right-wing conspiracy theorists including QAnon adherents, libertarian anti-government sentiment, gun-rights extremists, an authoritarian proclivity and fealty to those tendencies in high levels of government, a reliance on rampant xenophobia and a seemingly imperishable system of anti-Black racism. The right-wing media acts as an arm of the government and the movement, the latter of which cannot seem to operate functionally without opinion show acquiescence. They willingly discard the strenuous goal of objective journalism for a bully pulpit abused as a partisan and sympathetic megaphone. That is new.
We need to stifle the ascendancy of the Christian Right. Those like Senator Josh Hawley, who profess a conservative Christianity, or what is Christian nationalism. Wholly opposed to a pluralistic, secular society, Hawley and the like wish to return American culture to a narrow worldview called a biblical worldview. From medicine to philosophy to literature to government, we would fashion all societal decisions in a submission to a Judeo-Christian God, with ceaseless thanks to the almighty. Sharia for Christians. A Handmaid Tale, if I may. For as much as Hawley claims to scorn the political elites as blasphemous before his God, he merely intends to replace them with privileged Christian elites like him whose cardinal goal is to bring us back a millennium to a time when intolerance dominated society.
We can start by revoking any committee power held by Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and other religious fundamentalist politicians. We need to stifle the Federalist Society by supporting groups like the American Constitution Society to no longer concern ourselves about an Amy Coney Barrett ascending to the highest court in the land. Cut their influence and watch their stock fall.
4. Big Tech’s Outsized Influence
The third is the outsized power and influence of big tech and social media apps, on which fringe groups rely. As many social media apps are busy removing tyrants and removing right-wing apps from online stores, we need to have an honest conversation about the power they wield.
For a price, apps like Famoid provide thousands of bot followers for anyone on social media. Roughly 60% of most high-profile social media users’ followers are bots (Kim Kardashian has tens of millions). These bots can generate popularity by fabricating activity on any one person’s account or any group’s page. With the proliferation of friends and followers, any person or group can outsize their influence, which only helps further interaction, leading others to want to be in the group. Ever wonder why influencers, within a few days, increase from a hundred likes to several thousand? The same goes for journalists, a-list celebrities, politicians, and extremist groups. Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook do not stop this because it generates unparalleled revenue (in the trillions). There is no incentive to remove these bots because it’s big business. Thus, with extremist groups, where admittedly most members are real and harbor offensive beliefs, the addition of inorganic growth still amplifies growth.
More importantly, if we make to ban extremist groups on Facebook and remove right-wing apps from major servers, perhaps we should curtail the power tech companies exert over our public conversation of free speech. Or appropriately, the limits of free speech. I no more prefer Big Tech to determine what is and isn’t free speech as I do an overreaching government. Christopher Hitchens put it poignantly when he said, “There is a utilitarian case for free expression. It recognizes that the freedom to speak must also be insisted on for the person who thinks differently because it is pointless to support only free speech for people who agree with you. It is not only on principle to want that, but also self-defeating. For your own sake, you need to know how other people think.” I tend to agree.
There is hardly a doubt that those actions created clusters of group-think. Not to mention the algorithms designed to enhance endless hours of obsessive viewership and encouraged membership in conspiracy theory groups, exposing many innocent minds to anti-semites, misogynists, and white supremacists. They culminate in the creeping normality of burgeoning bizarre and offensive beliefs, which have led to calls to murder Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton, and countless others (mostly women, POC, Jews, LGBTQ+, or anyone considered an ally to any of those folks).
These algorithms would fail or significantly curtail to the fringe without a healthy hyperconnectivity guaranteed by social media platforms.
Because Facebook and others allowed the groups to flourish into constellations of networks before shutting them down at a moment of apogean tension, they are now aiding in a boundless proliferation of said fringe groups onto encrypted-protected sites, which act as back doors for these groups. So, we not only risk losing track of these extremist groups for a time but perhaps could irrevocably mislay the smaller, more dangerous clusters within a growing wildfire that is engulfing the global highways where hate and conspiracy previously coasted wantonly. The mistake these social media companies made was in their attempts to purge extremist groups.
Purging these groups leads down darker, harder to trace rabbit holes where mimicry goes undetected. I say we need to reign in social media companies from their power grip over free speech, even in the era of the wildfire-type spread of misinformation.
Oligarchy is not the alternative to autocracy.
Finally, those of us on the Left, whether we be social democrats or democratic socialists, or those of us somewhere in the liberal-centrist Democratic spectrum, we must assemble a united front against the new alt-right and its willing megaphone, the Republican Party.
The New York Times reported this week that many militant Republicans are betting that if the Democrats abuse their power during these next two years, it will unify the party. “Nothing unites a party like a common threat,” said Republican Representative Steve Strivers of Ohio. Perhaps we prove to Mr. Strivers and the militant Republicans that they are the real threat facing our nation.
We can start by passing the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus bill and increasing the minimum wage, helping many folks living in abject poverty both climb out of their financial grave and combat the nascent automation industry, all of which contributes to the dissatisfaction with institutions that has lead to anti-democratic behavior.
Why not introduce a constitutional amendment to disassemble Citizens United and unfair gerrymandering laws that decide our congressional and judicial districts? Why not pass Delaware Senator Tom Carper’s Washington, D.C., Admission Act, which would grant our capital statehood and in effect provide representation to its constituents?
Perhaps the time is finally here to listen to the young activists protesting for sensible gun reform, which would remove most of the arsenal from the paramilitaries parading our streets.
Perhaps it is high time we recognize and financially support the work of Black women like Stacey Abrams and countless others for not just increasing voter turnout but for exposing voter suppression tactics that elected alt-right Republicans to office.
Importantly, we need the United States government to develop a database akin to that of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which compiles a database of all the domestic terrorist plots dating back to 1994, chronicling the ideologies, personnel, and weapons used, and make it publicly available.
Perhaps we must use the preeminent amendment to speak our mind in search and in defense of a better America than what the alt-right and their militias have in mind. That includes the hard work already done by many activists — speaking out fearlessly in the face of hatred and aggression, using our voices in the name of democracy to drown out the sound of gunfire before it has even a hint of a chance.