Emboldened by the support offered by President Trump, “the right” decided to try to unite in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The right was right that this would be a watershed moment, but wrong about who would be shedding the water (to maul a metaphor). The blatant displays of racism and bigotry did not endear these groups to most Americans and the murder of Heather Heyer proved to be the downfall of the event.
The right retreated to the relative safety of the internet and engaged in lower profile activities until the assault on the capital by Trump supporters in 2021. Trump and his deluded and deceived allies failed in their inept efforts to overthrow democracy, despite being aided and abetted by certain Republican members of congress and other officials. The attack on the capital was, to say the least, bad optics for the right and the right attempted to flee back to the safety of the internet. But they found that the social media companies and other tech giants had finally decided it was time to act against the extremists of the right. Which, one might note, seems a bit ungrateful: these extremists and their fellows had helped enrich the coffers of these tech giants. But the right preserved and found new habitats online and new means of encrypted communication.
In April of 2021 the far right attempted to organize White Lives matter rallies across the country. These proved utter failures. In one case, a single person showed up to rally for white lives and was outnumbered by counter protesters. In other cases, no one showed up at the rally sites. It is worth noting that some of these events might have been created to troll or trap white supremacists; tech savvy anti-fascist and anti-racist activists delight in such activities.
Given these repeated failures and Trump’s defeat, it might be tempting to think that extremists have been broken once again (as happened after the Oklahoma City bombing) but this would be a fatal error. To use an obvious analogy, the smart extremists and clever folks who want to exploit the extremists follow the guidance of Atwater and avoid being openly extreme. Open extremism, as Atwater notes, does not play well with the mainstream—but coded extremism is quite delicious to many Americans.
Smart extremists and clever exploiters of extremism are also careful to not attend big, loud, and stupid public events where things inevitably go wrong. Trump, though generally incompetent, had enough sense to walk away and watch his mob on television rather than assault the capital with them. Tucker Carlson is careful to use coded language and never shows up at extremist events, though his mask is tattered and pierced with holes. They want to avoid being outed to the public because of the negative consequences of being openly extremist. Even the less clever extremists have largely learned the lesson of January 6: extremism is still not a majority view, and the exploiters of extremism will abandon them to their fate without a second thought. So, they are also being quiet, at least for now. But they keep the hope alive that their time will come.
The big, loud, stupid events seem to be test runs for extremism, to see how the public reacts. So far, the public has not approved. Then again, I might be giving too much credit here: perhaps the less clever extremists keep jumping the gun against the wishes of their true and proper masters. But these loud failures should not deceive us. Extremism is alive and well. One can point to the obvious examples of extremist groups and hate groups such as the Proud Boys. One can also point to Trump and his followers.
While Joe Biden got 6 million more votes than Trump, this still means that Trump got 74 million votes. While people voted for Trump for a variety of reasons, Trump’s racism, his affinity for extremist groups, and his anti-democratic authoritarianism are all well known. While some who voted for him might sincerely believe that Trump is none of those things, it would be reasonable to infer that most of his supporters understand what Trump is and what he stands for. That is, they voted in favor of racism and authoritarianism. While most of these people are probably “moderate” racists and authoritarians or perhaps just comfortable with racism and authoritarianism, these sorts of people are ideal recruits for extremism. And, of course, even “moderate” racism and authoritarianism are serious threats to American democracy. In fact, they might be more serious threats than the extremists since they can be far more influential than extremists in shaping policy and law. The Republican Party has also largely embraced an anti-democratic position, rushing to pass laws aimed at restricting voting rights. Even Lindsey Graham acknowledges that the Georgia law forbidding giving food and water to people waiting in line to vote does not make a whole lot of sense. But he and his fellow Republicans support these laws in general and have been rushing to chastise and punish businesses that have acted in response to them. They still, of course, want corporations to keep donating money to their campaigns.
As such, it would be foolish to think that extremism has been defeated simply because attendance was low or nonexistent at some stupid extremist rallies. The real action is in the shadows. And in state legislatures. The huge public rallies for extremism, if history is a guide, do not become a thing until the extremists are on the way to victory. And then it will be far too late.