The United States is at a crossroads.
As the nation faces elections on Nov. 3, its voters are being presented with one of the starkest, most consequential choices in memory. We could opt to reject authoritarianism, white nationalism and deepening polarization — to follow, as Abraham Lincoln once famously said, “the better angels of our nature.”
Or we could choose a path that will lead us deeper and deeper into the fetid swamp of intolerance and hatred — a path that will likely lead to increasing political violence, terrorism and even, conceivably, a form of fascism.
How did we get to this dangerous place?
The American radical right has been growing and expanding its reach into the political mainstream since the 1980s. From a relatively small part of the population that rejected the civil rights movement and the increasing diversity of the United States, the radical right has moved to the center of the American political debate. It has reached the point where President Donald Trump, along with countless other opportunistic politicians, regularly embraces the ideology, conspiracy theories and assorted hatreds of right-wing extremists.
But Trump is as much a symptom as a cause. The reality is that the surge in American hate groups, hate crimes and political polarization, is not primarily the product of Internet algorithms, mental illness, drugs, violent movies, or other essentially incidental causes, despite endless claims by Fox News and other right-wing media outlets seeking to minimize the rise of the violent right.
Fundamentally, the radical right has grown as part of a backlash against the tremendous socioeconomic changes wrought by globalization in recent years. They include demographic change — the United States, which for most of its post-colonial history has been 90 percent white, is expected to see whites fall below 50 percent of the population in the next 25 years or so, and large numbers of white Americans greatly resent that. There is economic change — the hardships suffered by steelworkers, auto workers and others who have seen their jobs outsourced to other countries. And then there are cultural upheavals, the best example of which may be the completely unexpected legalization of same-sex marriage.
Also contributing are legacies of American history. The country’s original sin of slavery has never been fully confronted, as seen in the current national movement against police killings of black people. Income inequality and the poor treatment of underprivileged minorities have actually grown worse in recent decades. And the fact that the American nation was founded in revolutionary response to the tyranny of the British monarchy has left a powerful ideological legacy in the deep distrust many Americans feel for government authority.
The radical right has also grown more radical with the decades. Although the far right in the nation’s early years was vitriolic – and aimed primarily at curtailing the political power of black people and non-Protestant immigrants — it was fundamentally restorationist, in the sense that it longed to return to an imagined Edenic past in which whites ruled the country virtually without opposition.
Since the 1980s, however, the radical right has become truly revolutionary. Rather than seeking a return to the “good old days” — a prospect that is more and more unreachable thanks to irreversible social developments — it wants to create an all-white ethno-state within the borders of the current nation, a program that would inevitably lead to the deaths of millions of non-white Americans. At the same time, it has been Nazified, increasingly seeing Jews as the primary enemy.
In his almost four years in office, Donald Trump has poured fuel on this radical-right fire. He has denounced and defamed Mexican immigrants, Muslims, black countries in Africa and the Caribbean. He has encouraged violence against black protesters, people arrested by the police, Democrats and so-called antifa activists. He has weaponized government agencies like the Department of Justice to go after his many enemies. He has denigrated women in incredibly vulgar terms, and even boasted of engaging in sexual assaults. He has weakened key democratic institutions like the courts. He has avoided denouncing white supremacists and even treated them as friends. In a phrase, Trump has normalized ideas and insults that for many decades were far outside the bounds of acceptable discourse.
What will happen when America goes to the polls?
Already, we have seen pro- and anti-Trump forces battling in the streets, with killings carried out by both sides. Armed right-wing militia members have confronted Black Lives Matter and other civil rights protesters in tense cities around the nation, and recently federal authorities arrested more than a dozen such militiamen in an alleged plot to kidnap the Democratic governors of Michigan and Virginia and possibly attack the Michigan Capitol with some 200 men.
Several groups on the radical right — like the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the League of the South and various militia groups — have suggested that they will be at the polls on Nov. 3. They are apparently responding to Trump’s repeated, and baseless, claims that the Democrats plan to steal the election. Around the country, authorities are openly fearful about violence during the polling.
As the U.S. Conference of Mayors said recently: “The 2020 election is shaping up to be like no other in our nation’s history. There is significant concern that we may see voter intimidation efforts and protests, some possibly violent, in the days leading up to November 3, on that day, and on the days following.”
It’s hard to predict just what will happen after the election. In recent years, a pattern has emerged of radical-right growth accelerating during Democratic administrations. If Joe Biden wins the presidency — and especially if the Democrats also take the U.S. Senate, giving them effective control of the entire federal government — we can expect to see more violence from the radical right. Frustrations will almost certainly lead to increased right-wing terrorism.
But if Trump wins, we may actually see a similar pattern. That’s because Trump has emboldened the radical right like no politician in living memory, and extremists are likely to feel that they are actually winning the battle for America’s heart and soul. In those circumstances, hate crimes against various minorities are almost certain to increase — as they did in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s 2016 election — and violent efforts to start a civil war may proliferate.
America is not the Weimar Republic in the 1930s. The country has considerably stronger civil society institutions, and polling suggests that a solid majority of Americans reject the country’s recent slide toward authoritarianism. But the nation has not seemed so weak, or so in danger of seeing its democratic institutions fatally injured, since our first civil war ended in 1865.
Mark Potok is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Freelance writer, speaker, consultant, expert on right-wing extremism. See full profile here.
© Mark Potok. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).