Resurgence of Far-Right Extremism Tied to Obama Election, Economic Trauma

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A Washington DC protest, 2009. Photo by Andrew Aliferis via Flickr

The 2008 election of the first African-American president helped drive a surge in rightwing extremism in the U.S., many of whose adherents participated in the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, according to Arie Perliger, author of the new book American Zealots: Inside Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism.

While the roots of the American far-right stretch back many decades, the election of President Barack Obama, combined with the traumatic impact of a serious economic recession, national demographic shifts and the lingering insecurities from the 9/11 attacks, all helped to stoke anxieties about the changes in American society, Perliger told a seminar organized by the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College.

Perliger, director of the graduate program in security studies at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell School of Criminology and Justice Studies, has spent 20 years studying the politics of the far-right. He created a data set of their activities from the 1990s through 2017, covering attacks in the U.S. against both people and buildings.

Among his most interesting findings: the Deep South is not the hotbed of extremist violence that some may believe. Instead, he tracked a higher level of violence in the more politically diverse states.

“There is more in the blue states than in the red states,” he said.

Perliger said the best predictors of which states would have higher levels of extremist violence are the sizes of the Asian American and Hispanic populations because these communities are seen as competitors for jobs and advantages.

His research has also revealed an escalation in the level of violence perpetrated by the far-right during election periods, such as in 2008. Perliger contends that in the throes of an election campaign, people are more susceptible to political messages, and that includes violent political messages.

Beyond the election cycles, there has been a definite escalation in recruitment, planning and activity on the far-right in the last several years, Perliger said.

Since 2016 some of the far-right groups have felt a greater “sense of empowerment,” said Perliger.

They feel “legitimized” by hearing their views aired before wider audiences, including in the comments of former President Donald Trump, he added.

Some groups on the far-right are motivated by a desire to promote the privileges of certain groups ―mainly to restore or maintain the privileges of white people and usually white males, Perliger has said in past interviews.

“In 2016 and 20017, it was the first time that a lot of ideas and narratives and sentiments of the far-right found expression in the mainstream,” he told the seminar.

“We see many more concepts and ideas and narratives that 10 to 15 years ago would have been seen as fringe and extreme, now moving to the center of discourse,” he said.

“There are more political leaders who are conservative who are willing to engage with the far-right. This makes them feel legitimized.”

Perliger was speaking before the opening of the second impeachment trial of Trump in the Senate. But his comments underlined some of the arguments made by House Democrats managing the impeachment, who put together a vivid video linking Trump’s encouragement of the crowd to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory and the subsequent ransacking of the Capitol building.

Another factor in the recent rise of the far-right: the disorienting blow to the nation’s economy and social system dealt by the COVID-19 pandemic, which “created an opening for conspiratorial theories and narratives,” he said.

The pandemic lockdowns provided alt-right leaders with a lot of free time in which to get online and share ideas and recruit.

In his book American Zealots, Perliger traces the history of some of these ideas.

“The American far right is a very diverse phenomenon, inspired by different ideologies,” he said.

Its origins can be traced to the early days of the Republic. Subsequently, the “Know Nothing” movement of the mid-19th century espoused white nationalist, anti-immigration views that echo today.

The “traditional” white supremacy groups that have played violent roles in America are the Klu Klux Klan, the Neo-Nazis and the skinheads. The latter two, he pointed out, were imported from Europe.

Then came the rise of the anti-government groups and militias who “believe the federal government is a disorganized, corrupt entity that has overreached with its intrusive policies,” he said.

Anti-government groups and militias are more likely to act against representatives of the government, including buildings, while white supremacy groups are more inclined to target minorities.

In an interview on C-SPAN, Perliger said, “I think it’s important to remember that with the people who stormed the capitol, many of them are members of groups who really see the federal government as an intrusive, aggressive entity that tries to undermine their constitutional rights and freedoms.”

Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.

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