Today marks the one-year anniversary of an assault by pro-Trump forces on the U.S. Capitol. Many questions linger about what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, but perhaps the overriding question is this: How could a segment of the Republican Party, once known by words like "prudence" and "probity," become so radicalized that such a violent, deadly event could happen?
Michael Edison Hayden tackles that question in an essay, titled "One year after Jan. 6, the Hard Right digs in," for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Hayden places Alabama-connected extremist Ali Alexander near the center of the radicalization effort. Writes Hayden:
There are two stories of the radicalization of the pro-Trump wing of the Republican Party. One is slower moving and arguably starts during the 1990s, around the launch of Fox News. The other story begins on Sept. 7, 2020, when polling made it apparent that Trump’s path to reelection faced significant challenges. Far-right influencers such as Jack Posobiec and Ali Alexander used right-tilting social media giant Twitter to start pushing the five-year-old Roger Stone-inspired hashtag #StoptheSteal. “Stop the Steal” became both the rallying cry for pro-Trump Republicans seeking to overturn the will of American voters, and the name this anti-democracy subgroup took for their movement. From the moment #StoptheSteal went mainstream, pro-Trump Republicans have accelerated in one direction – toward a path undermining or attacking our democracy to gain and retain power.
The barrage of voter suppression bills Republicans introduced in statehouses across the country in 2021 disproportionately impact Black, Brown and Indigenous people. The laws restrict the number of available polling places, increase the likelihood that officials purge voter rolls under false pretenses, drastically affect mail-in voting, and shrink election day hours. Republicans also purged election boards in swing states such as Georgia, and replaced election officials with partisans who can exert influence the way those votes are counted. They have targeted nonpartisan election officials around the country in campaigns to destroy personal reputations, for the purpose of installing pro-Trump loyalists. Trump himself has also used his prodigious influence in the party to drive out Republicans he perceives to be disloyal and replace them with proponents of his Big Lie.
Is there much depth, much thought, along the GOP's path to radicalization? Hardly any, Hayden concludes:
“This is really just the politics of fear and vengeance. This is not about ideas. ... They have effigies they want to burn and that’s it,” Kevin Kennedy, who was Wisconsin’s longest serving election official before retiring after 34 years in 2016, told the Associated Press of the campaign to dismantle to the democratic infrastructure of that state.
Pro-Trump Republicans have justified their push to undermine the right to vote to their own supporters by saturating right-wing media and social media with lies about voter fraud in the 2020 election. Two-thirds of Republicans still believe opponents of Trump stole the election from him, according to polling published in November by Public Religion Research Institute. Within that same group, nearly 40% believe that “patriots might have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” The 60% of election lie believers who do not agree that acts of political violence are justified represents perhaps the best firewall between pro-Trump politics generally and the outright acceptance of violent extremism.
The Trumpist crowd seemingly does not mind having friends in low places:
Pro-Trump Republicans who seek to limit democracy also appear more willing to ally themselves with hateful ideologues or give voice to bigoted views after Jan. 6. Extreme far-right activists such as Andrew Anglin of the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer or Stop the Steal’s Nick Fuentes have long sought to radicalize those in power to their views or work to elect people who either publicly, or secretly, align with them. Due to several factors, including rampant gerrymandering, which has made political representation whiter than the demographics of the country, activists like this are now getting what they want from some Republicans. Fuentes described his desire to push the party into accepting a more extreme point of view on one of his livestreams in May 2021.
“My job … is to keep pushing things further. We, because nobody else will, need to push the envelope. And we’re gonna get called names. We’re gonna get called racist, sexist, antisemitic, bigoted, whatever. … When the party is where we are two years later, we’re not gonna get the credit for the ideas that become popular. But that’s okay. That’s our job. We are the right-wing flank of the Republican Party. And if we didn’t exist, the Republican Party would be falling backwards all the time,” Fuentes said.
Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar and Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers publicly aligned with Fuentes in 2021. Fuentes, who has praised Mussolini, went on, more explicitly stating his ambitions of molding the Republican Party into something that mirrors his hateful ideology.
“We have got to be on the right, dragging these people kicking and screaming into the future. … Into a truly reactionary party. It’s incremental. We’re not going to drag them all the way over. But if we can drag the furthest part of the right further to the right, and we can drag the center further to the right, and we can drag the left further to the right … then we’re winning,” he said.
Acceptance of racism and authoritarianism seems to have become more pronounced in the post-Trump era:
When Trump still served as president, the Republican party condemned white nationalist congressperson Steve King in near universal terms. Congress stripped King of his committee positions in January 2019, and Republicans supported the measure. In 2021, the list of comments from elected Republican leaders embracing hate or hard-right, authoritarian values is long. Rep. Matt Gaetz called the Anti-Defamation League a “racist organization” in September for criticizing Tucker Carlson’s evocation of the white supremacist “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which suggests elites are deliberately eliminating white people in their homeland. Gaetz’s comments, sniping at a Jewish organization in this context, echo the kind of commentary researchers of the far right might expect to find on a neo-Nazi forum.
Fuentes-allied Gosar posted a video to Twitter this November in which a photoshopped anime version of himself kills Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While speaking to her constituents in the leadup to Thanksgiving, Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert made explicitly racist and Islamophobic comments about Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and then later boasted about the support she received for doing so. These incidents all occurred in a span of under 60 days.
Although Congress censured Gosar, the motion passed with little support from Republicans. Extreme far-right Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s own analysis of the party, “we actually represent the base of Republican voters,” which she tweeted on Nov. 30 in defense of Boebert’s anti-Muslim hate, should not be written off as a mere justification for bad behavior. Trump-critical and pro-Democracy congresspersons such as Adam Kinzinger and Anthony Gonzalez, who abandoned opportunities to seek re-election in 2021, more objectively represent the fringe of the Republican party than Greene and her allies do.
A number of recent trends become particularly alarming in the era of a "dug in" right wing:
Those who fight for human rights in the U.S. should also pause to reflect on this country’s potential vulnerability to the allure of hard-right authoritarianism. Due to inflation and the persistent COVID-19 pandemic, nearly two-thirds of Americans said the country is moving in the wrong direction, according to a Suffolk University/USA Today poll published in November. An Emerson College poll released one year after the 2020 election also shows Trump – whom Congress impeached twice without removing, and who lost access to mainstream social media platforms – beating President Biden in a theoretical 2024 rematch. (The two-point difference in that survey may be even more significant: Polls have repeatedly underestimated Trump’s appeal to voters, and not the other way around.)
The slow weakening of traditional print and television newsrooms, and also the declining trust people feel towards the press, offers advantages to would-be authoritarians. Pew research reported in July that U.S. newsroom employment fell 26% from 2008 levels. Just 29% of Americans trust the news, according to a study the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford published in June. In that survey, the U.S. ranked lowest of 46 countries, beneath far-right Poland, which has seen its media freedom undermined by its leaders. The lack of trust appears to be carried by those who align with Trump. “Seventy-five percent of those who identify as being on the right thought coverage of their views is unfair,” the same poll found. NPR reported in December that people living in counties that voted for Trump died from COVID-19 at rates three times higher than those who voted for Biden, suggesting that misleading propaganda about the pandemic may have been to blame.
More people, in fact, appear to be turning to far-right propaganda lately. Even as ratings for liberal cable shows dipped after Trump’s departure from office, (Tucker) Carlson’s show continued to hold strong in the multi-millions, as did other hosts on Fox News. Cable channels such as Newsmax and One America News Network also succeed in finding audiences during the Biden era. This deluge of pro-Trump propaganda threatens to undermine the investigative work of the House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 Attack, who seek to uncover how the violence at the Capitol unfolded. Despite the work being objectively bipartisan in nature, featuring two Republicans, a majority of the public views the work through a lens of Democrat and Republican partisanship – once again, due largely to successful far-right propaganda efforts.
So, which way is the right-wing wind blowing as we dive into 2022? Hayden, once again, finds Ali Alexander to be a useful barometer:
Even after more than 600 arrests related to the violence, and revelations that Fox News host Laura Ingraham texted former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Jan. 6, asking him to urge Trump to send people home, the propaganda machine that supports the pro-Trump movement continues to spin the attack into something seemingly inconsequential. Tucker Carlson even invited Ali Alexander, the far-right extremist who led the Stop the Steal movement, to talk about the attack in a special about Jan. 6. The special floated the possibility that enemies of MAGA staged the event. Alexander credited his appearance on Tucker’s show with reviving his life in politics.
“Thank god Tucker Carlson has the stomach for this issue,” Alexander said in November.
Propagandistic lies sustained the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 and have allowed it to mutate into an ongoing event, undermining our democracy in ways large and small. Lies have enabled those who sought to undermine our country’s democratic process that day to survive as public figures and escape consequences.
“Democracy has become a woman-to-woman, man-to-man defense of our values,” the Filipino journalist Maria Ressa said during her Nobel Lecture in Oslo on Dec. 10. “We’re at a sliding door moment, where we can continue down the path we’re on and descend further into fascism, or we can each choose to fight for a better world. To do that, you have to ask yourself: what are YOU willing to sacrifice for the truth?”
Now more than ever, an honest appraisal of America’s plight is required to meet the moment. The hard right has dug in throughout the country, seeking power by openly corrupt means – and it is a power that they will not relinquish without a fight.