Feb 11, 2021
After four years of shock, confusion, and paralysis, the United States is finally taking action against the far right.
Perhaps most dramatic has been the deplatforming of Donald Trump: the suspension of his Twitter and Facebook accounts and the targeting of his prominent followers across social media platforms. Even a few months ago, such a radically sensible action would have been inconceivable. Kick a president off of social media?
But such are the indignities visited upon sore losers. Not surprisingly, these moves have significantly decreased the amount of misinformation in the public sphere and made it that much more difficult for white nationalists to organize actions.
The events of January 6 have also led to Trump's second impeachment. The Senate trial, which began this week, may not result in a conviction, but it will force the Republican Party to choose between upholding the Constitution and supporting a president who tried to overthrow democracy.
The penalties for remaining the party of Trump are slowly beginning to mount.
The corporate world has moved against the ex-president by canceling events at his resorts and hotels and suspending financial services with his company. Several high-profile donors have abandoned the most vocal congressional adherents of the phony election fraud narrative, like Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Ted Cruz (R-TX). Not only has Simon & Schuster canceled Hawley's book contract but the chief promoter of MAGA texts at Hachette--who published screeds by Donald Trump, Jr., Corey Lewandowski, and Jeanine Pirro--was recently fired.
Some politicians have faced steeper penalties. For their participation in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, West Virginia State Delegate Derrick Evans was pushed to resign and Jorge Riley was forced out of his position in the California Republican Assembly. At the federal level, House Democrats and 11 of their Republican colleagues recently voted to strip Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments. That seems like a mere slap on the wrist for someone who has promoted the assassination of her political opponents. But it's something.
A defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News, Sidney Powell, and Rudy Giuliani, all of whom spread conspiracy theories about the company's voting machines used in the 2020 election, has already claimed one success. Fox cancelled Lou Dobbs, one of its many factually compromised show hosts. Dominion is readying another round of suits against as many as 150 targets including Newsmax, One America News Network, and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.
The Justice Department has opened up "domestic terrorism" cases against a number of the participants in the January 6 insurrection. Congress is beginning to consider new legislation on federal penalties for domestic terrorism.
The campaign against the far right isn't exactly a full court press. Marjorie Taylor Greene continues to push Trump-like pronouncements on Twitter, and all the attention she's gotten in the last weeks has only enlarged her platform. Corporate boycotts are not affecting the bottom lines of politicians like Hawley, who depends more on individual donors (he actually saw a big increase in donations after January 6). Trump retains his hold over much of the Republican Party, especially at the state level as the censures of Liz Cheney in Wyoming and Doug Ducey in Arizona indicate.
In other words, the far right is down but not out. The much-feared round of violence at the state level in the wake of January 6 did not happen. Rallies and marches in support of MAGA or Trump or QAnon have not materialized. When Twitter suspended Trump's account, a demonstration outside the company's San Francisco office brought out dozens of police officers and exactly one protestor. But neither the Proud Boys nor the white activist militias have disbanded. And according to a poll at the end of January, 64 percent of Republicans would join any party that Donald Trump sets up.
Even as the U.S. establishment begins its tentative detox of the public sphere, the handwringing has also begun. The deplatforming of Trump has raised concerns over the tyranny of unregulated social media giants. The campaigns to limit the platforms of Hawley and Greene have generated a fear that the silencing of minority opinions will be applied to radical voices on the left as well. Critics worry that the labelling of the January 6 insurrectionists as "domestic terrorists" will inevitably be used against communities of color and others protesting racial inequities.
The threat of white nationalist movements is not hypothetical. Four years of Trump have provided ample evidence of what can happen when these movements gain mainstream legitimation. But the anxieties over how "cancel culture" can be applied to the left and communities of color are also legitimate, as erstwhile football star Colin Kaepernick can readily confirm.
The Biden administration has already begun its de-Trumpification of the U.S. government by reversing the previous administration's policies, removing Trump appointees, and cutting off high-level access for right-wing crazies like Giuliani, Steve Bannon, and members of the MAGA media.
But the banishing of the far right back to the fringes of American society is going to require a different set of strategies. And here, the United States could learn a few lessons from other countries.
Quarantining Politicians and Parties
Although several European countries ban Nazi or neo-Nazi parties, a more effective tactic to reduce the political influence of extremist parties that fall just short of fascist has been to quarantine them. In Belgium, for instance, the major parties have an informal agreement not to partner with Vlaams Belang, a far-right Flemish nationalist party. This agreement became increasingly difficult when Vlaams Belang received the second most votes in the last parliamentary election in 2019. Austria abided by a similar "cordon sanitaire" until 2000, when the conservative People's Party invited the far-right Freedom Party into government. The European Parliament has nevertheless borrowed the cordon sanitaire strategy to prevent members of the far-right Identity and Democracy bloc from holding any key posts such as the presidency of committees.
In Germany, the major parties have similarly avoided any coalition arrangements with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). But the German government, presided over by the conservative Christian Democrats, has deployed another interesting tactic against the AfD. Last spring, the country's domestic intelligence agency declared one wing of the AfD "extremist" and placed its leaders under surveillance. "But many saw in Thursday's announcement a step toward broader measures targeting the entire Alternative for Germany party, setting the stage for a battle between the state and a party whose influence has steadily grown even as it has radicalized," writes Katrin Bennhold in The New York Times.
In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn grew to become the third largest party in the parliament. The government successfully pursued a legal strategy to criminalize the organization, charging it with murder, racketeering, illegal possession of firearms, and attacks on migrants. In the end, 37 members of the party, including 17 MPs, were convicted of crimes and imprisoned. By the 2019 election, the party couldn't get enough votes to have even one representative in parliament.
If Donald Trump ends up creating a new political party, a public pressure campaign could be mounted on the Democrats and Republicans to follow a strict policy of no talks, no committee assignments, and no joint actions with any entity that Trump touches. Whether the disgraced ex-president follows through on his threat, a similar approach should be applied to all Republicans who continue to embrace a "stop the steal" agenda. Biden should make clear that his efforts at bipartisanship should exclude those who believe his administration to be illegitimate.
Purging the Far Right from Security Forces
When the National Guard was called in to secure the Capitol for Inauguration Day, two members were removed from duty because of possible ties to right-wing extremist movements. This additional vetting was deemed necessary because nearly one in five participants in the January 6 insurrection had links to the military. As a first step in addressing the longstanding problem of far-right proselytizing, the new head of the Pentagon, Lloyd Austin, has already notified the armed forces to conduct a one-day stand down to address extremism in the ranks.
The United States could learn from the example of Germany where the country's special forces, Kommando Spezialkrafte (KSK), had become a veritable haven of far-right sympathizers. The working group investigating the KSK discovered "soldiers who expounded unconstitutional views, a 'toxic leadership culture' among superiors, and the unexplained disappearance of 62 kilograms of explosives and large quantities of ordnance from KSK depots." As a result of the investigation, the German government disbanded one entire company of the KSK and reorganized the remaining units. It has also tightened its screening process.
In the United States, only thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and other efforts to bring accountability to policing did the FBI begin collecting data in 2018 on the use of force in law enforcement. The next step is to purge police ranks of racist extremists, jurisdiction by jurisdiction.
Hate Speech and Digital Controls
Because of First Amendment protections, the United States does not have any hate speech laws. However, such provisions can be found in the private sector, such as universities.
Other countries, however, have sought to penalize hate speech in a number of different ways. Germany has outlawed "incitement to hate" or Volksverhetzung, which applies to verbal attacks on national, racial, religious, or ethnic groups but also, according to a 2020 ruling, the denigration of women. Denmark, too, has recently expanded its hate speech law to include extremist language directed at gender identity and gender expression. Since the 1970s, New Zealand has had a law on the books criminalizing the incitement of "racial disharmony," and the government has been considering additional measures following the Christchurch killings in 2019.
But legislating against hate is notoriously tricky. Canada repealed a hate speech law that tried to balance a commitment to free expression with equally strong commitments to multiculturalism and equality (but has more recently explored reviving it). France passed an online hate speech law last spring only for the country's constitutional court to strike down large portions of it.
Dealing with hate speech became even more urgent when the far right discovered how to use social media to recruit, organize, and inject its messages into the conservative mainstream. In the United States, the home of the largest social media platforms, there has been no move to legislate against extremist content on-line as long as it isn't criminal (like libel, threats to kill, or child pornography).
Rather, in typically American fashion, policing has been left to the private sector, which determines who to "deplatform" and what posts to take down. Initially, the mainstream social media platforms only suspended the accounts of those on the lunatic fringe, like Alex Jones of InfoWars infamy or Milo Yiannopoulos formerly of Breitbart News. Facebook and Twitter were reluctant to take a more proactive approach to white nationalists not only for fear of being labelled "censors" but because it would also have meant banning Republican politicians who voiced similar sentiments.
By 2020, however, Facebook and Twitter reversed themselves because politicians like Trump were openly challenging American democracy. Well, actually, Trump and his cohort had been doing so from day one, thanks to an indirect assist from the social media giants. But after the November elections, Twitter and Facebook could rationalize their moves because Trump had become a lame-duck president.
Deplatforming demonstrably works, whether measured by the bankrupting of Milo Yiannopoulos, the reduction of audience for groups like ISIS and QAnon, or the virtual disappearance of Donald Trump from public discourse. It doesn't qualify as censorship, since Twitter and Facebook are not public spaces. They are corporate spaces, and the corporation decides who speaks there, just like The New York Times decides who to publish.
But this raises two problems - to whom are Twitter and Facebook accountable? And why aren't there rules governing the Internet more generally, since the Web is certainly a public commons?
Facebook instituted an oversight board last year that looks at decisions with an eye toward possibly overturning them. Three of the first six cases have involved hate speech. Here's one of them:
A user posted two screenshots of tweets by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, which said "Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past." Facebook removed the post for hate speech violations, but the user's appeal indicates they wanted to spread awareness of the prime minister's "horrible words."
Perhaps more consequentially, the oversight board will soon make the call on whether to restore Trump's Facebook account.
As for generating rules for the Web more generally, that's a tougher challenge, given the anarchic, libertarian spirit that has presided over the enterprise since its inception. But here's one interesting "fix" that New Zealand has instituted: any Kiwi who views extremist content on-line is now automatically directed to websites that help people leave hate groups.
Going After Terrorists
For two decades, the United States has conducted a "war on terror" largely against "radical Islam" in countries like Afghanistan and Syria. It has ignored state supporters of such groups, like Saudi Arabia, when they're allies, while going after governments like Saddam Hussein's that were mistakenly identified as al-Qaeda boosters.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government largely ignored home-grown right-wing extremists who organized with near-impunity particularly during the Trump era.
So, why are some people unhappy about calling the right-wing extremists who overran the Capitol on January 6 "terrorists"?
"The use of these words only elevates a harmful counterterrorism framework that has historically been used to target Arab, Muslim, and Black communities," writes Rania Batrice in The Boston Globe. "Call them white supremacists. Call them a violent, murderous mob. Call them insurrectionists. Call them fascists. Call them traitors or treasonous. But please remember that the words used have an impact on broader, already oppressed communities."
I am sympathetic to this argument. But is it not problematic that the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list does not include any far-right extremist groups? A number of these outfits - the Proud Boys, the Atomwaffen Division, the Base - have an international presence. Canada just labelled all of them terrorist outfits. An FTO designation would permit greater international cooperation to disrupt the global networking of the far right.
Yes, I'd like to see the United States criminalize white supremacy and fascism. But the terrorism designation, for all its problematic history, focuses not so much on words but on actions. And in the United States, it has historically been easier to go after the far right for what it does not for what it says.
Whatever language we use, however, it's critically important to keep up the pressure to delegitimize the far right. Extremists are trying to maintain a toehold in power via Hawley, Greene, and others in the hopes that Trump will run again or some equally malign candidate will emerge in 2024. It's time to resurrect a global anti-fascist consensus to name, shame, and throw these guys out of the game.
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