Supporters of the Trump administration gathered in Washington, DC, on November 14 for the “Stop the Steal” rally. Attendees hoped that a show of numbers (and for some, force) would help to challenge the results of the 2020 presidential election. Extremist organizations also saw the rally as an opportunity to reach Trump supporters and gain converts. This potent combination of misinformation, extremist politics, and “true believer” political subculture wove together a complex web of radical and extremist narratives, heated rhetoric, and complex conspiracy theories— all under the banner of the outgoing President Trump.
Caleb Cain, a research associate at the Polarization and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University in Washington, DC, gathered the data for this study via on-the-ground ethnographic methods, interviewing “Stop the Steal” attendees, as well as photographing and video-recording fashion and iconography. This data was later analyzed and coded for exploratory analysis. What follows is a summary of that preliminary analysis, with the assistance of Brian Hughes, associate director for PERIL and a doctoral fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. A more detailed coding and analysis is currently underway for submission to a peer-reviewed journal in early 2021.
This exploratory analysis groups its findings into three broad categories: Groups & Factions present at the rally; Narrative & Rhetoric comprising the primary messages of the rally; and Cultural Objects such as fashion and iconography that conveyed these messages in a non-verbal way.
Group & Factions
This category describes the subcultures most prominently in attendance at the rally. It describes the demographic, cultural, and ideological clusters that were most visible. These are generally the groups that traveled together, marched together, and tended to socialize among their own group. While exact attendance statistics are unavailable, these groups are listed in descending order according to how numerous they appeared on the day of the rally.
The most common face seen at the rally belonged to people whom we’ve coded as the “MAGA Normie.” This group represents Trump’s voting base and base of ideological support. Iconographically, they rarely went further than sporting a MAGA hat and Trump sweatshirt, or waving an American flag or Trump flag. While some reported sympathy or casual encounters with more radical elements of the far right, they are definitionally not affiliated. This was the largest group witnessed throughout the day —and notably, these were the attendees with whom extremists attempted to ingratiate themselves.
This broad category incorporated members of all other groups. People from all over the country flew and drove to Washington, DC, to attend the rally. They frequently expressed narrative tropes related to “Stop the Steal“(see below).
Protestant and Catholic groups were both represented in this category. Unsurprisingly, they made frequent use of Christian iconography. This group often expressed narratives relating to the “Tyrants and Traitors” and “The Truth is Out There” codes.
As election polling results indicated that Trump’s support does not come exclusively from white demographics. Minority demographics were well represented at Stop the Steal. They commonly expressed the narratives such as “Tyrants and Traitors” (see below).
The Epoch Times:
The Epoch Times is an outlet associated with the fringe religion Falun Gong and its various offshoots. The Epoch Times has been accused of frequently spreading misinformation. This code recognizes any time their activities were spotted. The Epoch Times’ volunteers and workers frequently expressed narratives associated with codes like “Tyrants and Traitors” and “The Truth is Out There” (see below).
This code refers to an online subculture led by “post-alt-right” figure Nick Fuentes. The name “Groyper” refers to an internet meme that updates Pepe the Frog imagery for the present day. This group was represented in high numbers and was recognizable by the distinct “America First” logo on their flags and paraphernalia. Later in the evening Groypers were seen mixing with Proud Boys outside of broadcaster Alex Jones’s hotel, setting up an uncomfortable mix of extremist fringes. The two extremist groups mixed easily, even chanting one another’s’ slogans.
This code refers to the Proud Boys subculture, identifiable by their signature black and yellow colors and iconography depicting laurel wreaths, the OK sign, and the slogan “Stand Back and Stand By.”
Proud Boys most expressed narratives and rhetoric falling under the code of “Tyrants and Traitors” (see below). This was reflected not only in their chants and signage, but in their vandalism of Black Lives Matter memorials and assaults on counter protesters later that night.
QAnons + Conspiracists:
This code refers both to QAnon and to more traditional conspiracy theorist subcultures. These groups frequently overlap to include QAnon, flat earth believers, Illuminati theorists, people associated with Alex Jones and the Infowars ecosystem, 9/11 truthers, and other “doomsday” prophets. This subgroup could be recognized by the symbols and messages they carried. These included QAnon clothing, signs proclaiming the end of the world or a coming NWO, and conspiracies about Bill Gates and “pedophile elites.” They most commonly expressed narratives falling under “Tyrants and Traitors” and “The Truth is Out There.” Interestingly, this sub-group was at times more muted and passive than some of the other radical and extremist milieus present at the rally.
Narratives & Rhetoric
This category refers to the stories and styles of communication on display at Stop the Steal. For the purposes of this study, a narrative refers to a worldview, or to a belief in a given pattern of history and/or current events. Narratives can be based on technically true but politically slanted, facts, or they can be based on false facts and even supernatural delusions. Rhetorical strategy refers to the style in which a narrative or ideological position is communicated. Here, focus is placed on the form rather than the content of the message.
“Stop the Steal”:
The primary rallying cry and goal of the event was to protest and resist election results by alleging election fraud without evidence. This narrative was typically spread through the rhetoric of chants, marching, protesting with signs (both handmade and professional) and attendance at the rally itself. Influencers and political celebrities led many of these actions, including Ali Alexander, Alex Jones, Jack Posobiac, and Nick Fuentes.
Rhetorical techniques categorized under this label refer to tactics such as calling into question enemies’ mental stability, using a wide spectrum of demeaning labels, ranging from “snowflakes” and “crybabies” to “pedophiles,” and “satanists.” In all cases, an emphasis was placed on attacking political opponents’ weakness. Subjects using these rhetorical styles derived visible gratification from it. One may draw many comparisons between these features and online trolling. The two practices seem clearly to inform one another.
Negative imagery and chanting directed at president-elect Biden was common at the event. Most narratives revolved around accusations that Biden was a “radical socialist,” a puppet of Chinese interests, that he was mentally deficient, or even a sexual abuser of women and children. These narrative tropes were expressed both by “MAGA normies” and “QAnons.” Shared narratives such as these provided points of contact and homophily between these groups, which in turn present opportunities for mainline conservatives to encounter and potentially adopt more extreme and conspiratorial versions of their existing worldview.
Tyrants and Traitors:
Tyranny and oppression narratives use a victim/hero framing to imbue its believers with a sense of purpose and epic meaning. Narrative tropes falling under this code tended to revolve around “deep state elites,” “oppressive socialist dictatorships,” and/or “secret criminal political cabals.”
When asked, attendees defined traitors as those who resisted key Trump agendas, such as the Whitehouse’s Mideast policies and economic program. This stark distinction between friend and foe can—and did—spill over into real violence as the day wore on. At the rally many people sported rebellious symbolism and chanted that they would give their lives for the president. Some paid homage to a coming civil war.
The Truth is Out There:
In this case, rally attendees played the role of gumshoe or brave truth teller, unearthing clandestine misdeeds and ‘waking up’the people of the world. Many at the event held signs attacking the media (many of the people in attendance believed that even Fox News has become untrustworthy) while a few had signs explaining elaborate conspiracy theories. Individuals associated with The Epoch Times made use of this trope. It should be noted that discovering and revealing ‘hidden truths’ is a popular trope in gamified subcultures.
Resist the “Cure”:
Many at the event expressed skepticism toward public health information concerning COVID-19 and its vaccine. Some promised never to take a vaccine, while others denied that COVID-19 was real at all. Most attendees refused to wear a mask.
This section gives description of different imagery or symbolism that was present. These are the objects and designs that non-verbally communicate ideology, narrative, and identity. Research shows that cultural objects such as these offer ready onramps to radicalization.
This code tracks the cultural artifacts favored by extremists. “Skull mask”-style gaiters and balaclavas were ubiquitous. Other examples of Extremist Momorabilia included variations on the American flag with fascist iconography (including the literal fasces), RWDS (Right Wing Death Squad) Patches, “boogaloo”-style Hawaiian shirts, and other internet meme references such as images of Pepe the frog.
Guns and Gear:
It is illegal for civilians to carry firearms in Washington DC’s national parks. This includes many sites on the Capitol, and several arrests were made during the rally related to illegal possession of firearms. Nevertheless, gun imagery and tactical gear was ubiquitous at Stop the Steal. These items signify a variety of themes, including freedom, a sentimental myth of America’s founding, or a blunt expression of one’s willingness to commit violence.
Conclusion and analysis
Narratives, rhetoric, and cultural artifacts act as pathways to transition between subcultures. And at the Stop the Steal rally, these elements mixed freely between the fringe and the mainstream. The mixing of extreme and mainstream on display at Stop the Steal is a cause for serious concern, as it allows fringe figures to attract attention from more mainstream groups and individuals, and for extremist and conspiratorial worldviews to reach the unaware and/or uncommitted. On the fast-changing world of the American radical right, groups rise, fall and coalesce to form new conglomerations and develop new tactics for propagandizing, harassment, and political action. As the Trump administration reaches its end, it is natural to expect the American far right and extreme right to change in both form and strategy. It is presently unclear what exact form these changes might take. The action and rhetoric of key figures in the Republican Party—not the least of whom is Donald Trump himself—will bear significant effect on the attitude of the far right to the transfer of power. However, given the mixing between groups and the narratives and rhetoric on display at Stop the Steal, one may make some tentative predictions. The violence promised by groups like the Proud Boys and so-called Patriot groups will continue to grow its support among the conservative rank and file. Conspiracy theories will also increasingly color the outlook of this rank and file as well. Perhaps most concerning of all, however, is how these groups will encounter their ideological opponents in the coming year. The COVID pandemic and its attendant shutdowns have physically—and discursively—separated the American far right from the center and left-wing of the country. Many Americans have become more radical in their perspective as they spend more time in online echo chambers and less time in their offline communities and in public. As vaccines are rolled out and citizens of all political stripes begin once more to mix in the public square, the possibility for strife increases. If the blending of various Trumpian and extremist subcultures at Stop the Steal is any indicator, this strife will likely demonstrate the ongoing mainstreaming of extreme ideology and the radicalization of the mainstream itself.
Mr Brian Hughes is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate in School of Communication at American University. See his profile here.
© Brian Hughes and Caleb Cain. 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).