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Will a More Dangerous Far Right Spring From the Corpse of Trumpism?

Deferring to the economic and political elites that have set the stage for this carnage will only the embolden the far right to continue to provide a kind of reactionary framing to the feelings of abandonment, isolation and betrayal.

Pro-Trump rioters entered the U.S. Capitol building after mass demonstrations in the nation's capital during a joint session of Congress to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Pro-Trump rioters entered the U.S. Capitol building after mass demonstrations in the nation's capital during a joint session of Congress to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Donald Trump's political fortunes may indeed be at an end. Abandoned by his allies, facing a possible second impeachment, and stripped of his most effective tool of popular mobilization – his Twitter account, he leaves office in a matter of days only to face multiple lawsuits and possible prosecutions when he returns to private life. But the political forces that produced the January 6th Capitol takeover haven't disappeared, nor have the groups and networks that have nurtured its growth. Indeed, the moment seems to have given the far right a coherent sense of purpose and identity, galvanizing yet more dangerous future actions.

There was no sense of pessimism, for instance, among the more than one hundred Trump supporters who rallied last Saturday on the steps of the Federal Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon for an "Anti-Socialism" protest. On the contrary, they were ebullient and aggressive, visibly armed with long guns, side arms, and knives. Unmasked, they protested the presidential election results, demanded the arrest of Governor Kate Brown for the state's Covid restrictions, and denounced BLM and Antifa. When a phalanx of Proud Boys in helmets and Kevlar arrived in formation, the emboldened crowd menaced journalists, and pounded on passing cars. Video from the scene showed a group of them beating a counter-protestor to the ground, jabbing him with the end of a flagpole. This was no ending.

The various groups that publicized the January 6 event—Three Percent Militia, Oathkeepers, Proud Boys, Ammon Bundy's People's Rights Organization, and all the local groups who had already been carrying out similar breaches at statehouses over the last couple of weeks, have a clear idea what this was about, and vow to continue.

It's not just the size of the rallies that matters. Indeed, the self-identified members of far-right groups remains relatively small. But their growth has anticipated and accompanied the expansion and development of Trump's grassroots base, as they narrate and channel a sense of loss and abandonment towards reactionary ends. The frequent militant protests at state capitols across the country in protest of COVID 19 restrictions over the last nine months helped set the terms for the capitol takeover. So did the thousands of armed "patriots" who appeared on the streets to oppose (and often attack) Black Lives Matter protestors in cities and towns across the country in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Hedge fund leaders and oil barons may object to the unseemly sight of the mob rummaging through the Capitol, but they have been materially doing much the same work for years--pillorying public resources and bending the government to serve its interests.

These actions are hardly isolated from broader currents in the political culture, and there are many more complexities to untangle. Tens of millions of Americans believe that they were victims of a left-wing coup. For many of them the storming of the Capitol was a democratic act. They watched as people like themselves acted together to disrupt that supposed coup, and defend popular sovereignty. The capitol takeover wasn't a populist, let alone a white proletarian revolt. The far right has always been a cross-class phenomenon. Nevertheless, right-wing insurgency is endlessly nourished by narratives that pit the "the common people" against elites, which includes both the storming of the Capitol and the pleasures of excess once inside—from feet on the desks of legislators to the wrecking of historical artifacts. 

As the far right has lurched forward over the last four years with a mixture of victories and defeats, it has furnished a language of opposition, defiance, and civic virtue in the face of a declining polity. One key feature has been the disavowal of openly racist language, a distinguishing feature of a range of fast-expanding groups from the Three Percent Militia to the Proud Boys. This has allowed the far right to avoid the openly white nationalist brand associated with the torchlight march and murder of Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017. It is what allowed Kyle Rittenhouse, the militia-inspired killer of two Black Lives Matter activists in Kenosha, WI last summer to become a hero of the mainstream right.

White voters in general and white men in particular (across all income groups and geographic areas) have formed the base of Trump's support, as a visit to any Trump rally will reveal. Yet in spite of his unending litany of racist, nativist and misogynist attacks, that base has expanded to include more rather than fewer voters of color. Not just among Cuban and Venezuelan Americans in South Florida, but in working-class communities in Los Angeles, the Bronx, and in the Rio Grande Valley.

The reasons for this growth are complex, but it is fantasy to think that some final cover has been pulled back on the irrationality and violence of Trumpism. The experience of the last four years has revealed the opposite. The more aggrieved, combative, and violent his rhetoric grew, the larger and more diverse his base became. Four years of Trump's vitriolic grievance politics and his cataclysmic management of the pandemic delivered 11 million more popular votes in November's election. Last week's debacle might expel some voters from that camp, but how many?

The bipartisan condemnations of Trump and those who besieged the Capitol have been accompanied by calls for a return to "normal," in which the adults in the room would safeguard civility and reason and restore the authority of U.S. economic and democratic institutions from the populist mob.

Yet these responses play right into the hands of the very elites who rob us of the shared resources (both social and material) needed to build alternatives to Trumpism. Many sectors of the American economy where wealth is most concentrated—finance, tech, real estate, energy, military contracting—have realized enormous profits amidst Trump's ascent. Hedge fund leaders and oil barons may object to the unseemly sight of the mob rummaging through the Capitol, but they have been materially doing much the same work for years—pillorying public resources and bending the government to serve its interests.

These forces do not express the crudeness and violence of those who stormed the Capitol. But a future predicated on a deference to their authority is no less dystopian, characterized as it will be by rampant wealth hoarding, growing "deaths of despair," and cynicism towards many forms of public action and trust.

Trump's defeat in November surely was a necessary precondition to realize new alternatives. But deferring to the economic and political elites that have set the stage for this carnage will only the embolden the far right to continue to provide a kind of reactionary framing to the feelings of abandonment, isolation and betrayal, channeling those energies into ever more dangerous and violent conflicts.

Joe Lowndes

Joe Lowndes is a professor of political science at the University of Oregon. He researches and writes on right-wing politics, race, and populism. He is most recently the author (with Daniel Martinez HoSang) of  "Producers, Parasites, Patriots: Race and the New Right-wing Politics of Precarity." Read more of his work at his website here.

Daniel Martinez HoSang

Daniel Martinez HoSang is an Associate Professor of Ethnicity, Race & Migration and American Studies  at Yale and co-author of Producers, Parasites, Patriots: Race and the New Right-Wing Politics of Precarity

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