Lede: How is the radical right embedded in the everyday city? It is easy to overlook it, but it is visible – albeit with a trained eye. In this CARR Insights piece, I would like to argue that urban life has potential for radicalisation-by-osmosis, through the passive absorption of, and exposure to, various extremist rhetorics, ideologies and visual symbols, e,g., forms of banal nationalism, that work to normalise extremist politics. These banal places and symbols can lead to very real impacts. Earlier philosophers, writing before World War II, saw how cities related to rising fascism. Today’s resurgent radical right invites revisiting these ideas.
I. Unseeing and Seeing
In China Miéville’s novel ‘The City and the City’ (2009), two fictional cities exist side-by-side, sometimes overlapping. Residents in one city (Beszel) and the other (Ul Qoma) are trained not to see the other city, or to ‘unsee’. Thereby, as they walk down streets, they are able to ignore the buildings, passing vehicles, and neon-advertisements that belong to the other city. One can extend this into a metaphor of the way that the radical right exists in the architecture, design, and symbols of the city. These are often visible in very ordinary places of public gathering and socialising, as well as through recreation, shopping, and entertainment.
It is easy to dismiss these visibilities as harmless or banal, but to do so overlooks the danger for slow and passive radicalisation, and also, the deliberate usage and dissemination of these signifiers by radical-right groups who seek to reach and recruit broader populations. Georg Simmel (1903) and Walter Benjamin (1935), keen observers of both modern urban life and early 20th-century rising European fascism, explicitly linked the city to anxiety, paranoia, and angry, reactionary emotions. Though fascism is sometimes portrayed as an anti-urban reaction, it is in and through urban life that fascist ideologies often coagulate and gain power, from Rome and Vienna to Madrid and Manhattan.
More recently, as Miller-Idriss (2017) notes in her study of a resurgent radical-right in the early 21st century, there is a powerful radicalizing potential in brands, logos, and consumer products, especially for young men and young people (for example, t-shirts or hats with extremist insignia, sold and purchased un-intentionally). Likewise, Reid Ross (2017) warns of the ‘fascist creep’ and the (deliberate) tactics through which extremism seeps into daily life and becomes normalised. The line between mainstream and extreme, between ordinary and dangerous, is a fine one. But once it is crossed, as evidenced by recent episodes of right-extremist violence and terror, it is too late. Therefore, learning to read the city as a text, and decipher the codes embedded in the architecture, will enhance the toolkit for identifying and combatting radical-right threats before they metastasize. The following section presents one example of how these codes might be encountered in an ordinary day in the city, drawn from personal experiences.
II. Squats After Work, and White Supremacism? The ‘Iron Pill’
Gyms, for example. Gyms are everywhere: downtown on main street, and in the suburbs next to ‘Costco’. Many millions around the world regularly frequent such facilities. Those that use gyms are usually not extremists, and gyms, for the most part, are places where politics and ideology are put aside for an interval of self-care. A closer reading, however, can reveal some extremist clues.
The right-radicalisation process is frequently depicted by insiders through the analogy of pill-taking. To be “red-pilled”, for example, as discussed on online forums popular with the far-right, is to have a radical political awakening of some sort, usually (not always) toward some aspect of right-extremism. But there are other types of ideological pills. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) (2019) contains, in its helpful ‘Guide to Online Pills, the following description of the “Iron Pill”:
Taking the iron pill most often refers to lifting weights and working out. Among the extreme right, being ‘ironpilled’ refers to working out in preparation for the impending race war.
The release of the IronMarch.org data (posts, topics, usernames, some personal information of users) in 2019 – an extremist discussion forum popular with hate groups – revealed that fitness, and the “Iron Pill”, was a robust topic of discussion, where users shared workout tips and nutritional advice for cultivating a physique worthy of fighting a war for far-right domination.
Within the geography of gyms there are more extreme spaces that cater to more extreme users. Sometimes, there are explicit links to radical-right language, slogans, imagery, and logos. Users not familiar with these may not be aware of the significance, but for those ‘in the know’, these codes offer a welcoming message, signs that ideology is shared, and an invitation for community formation. But because these are not spaces specifically dedicated to a specific radical-right group, doctrine, or cause, the question of where exactly the extreme touches on the banal is hazy, a dynamic space of both radicalising and de-radicalising potential. Gym users can become ‘ironpilled’ through encountering more extreme ideologies in physical gym spaces, but also by encountering these ideologies online, in the hybridized meeting-zone of fitness, wellness and the radical right, a fecund terrain for nationalism and white supremacism to sink hooks into mainstream discussions. A casual conversation might lead to a political idea; that idea might lead to further conversations and affinities. This does not have to lead to the radical right (and mostly, does not). But the fact that it might is worth exposing.
Doherty’s Gym, in Melbourne, Australia (see Figure 1 above) is a popular gym in the very centre of that city, located in the arches underneath Flinders Street Railway Station. The logo for Doherty’s is the Celtic Cross, seen all over the gym, and emblazoned on the T-shirts for sale at the gym’s front desk. The Celtic Cross (depending on context), is defined by the Anti-Defamation League as, “a traditional Christian symbol used for religious purposes as well as to symbolize concepts like Irish pride. As such, it is a very common symbol and primarily used by non-extremists”. Several radical-right extremist groups, however, use a rounded-variation of the Celtic Cross known as the ‘Sun Cross’, ‘Odin’s Cross’, or ‘The Wheel Cross’ (see Figure 2 below). Notably, this has long been a symbol of white nationalist groups (like the Ku Klux Klan), and part of the logo for the ‘Stormfront’ website, which the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) notes was the first, and most significant, hate-site on the internet.
Whether the logo for Doherty’s was selected for reasons linking it to the radical right, or for other reasons, such as an appreciation of Celtic heritage, is unclear. There is, however, increasing evidence of infiltration of radical right extremism into gym and fitness circles, and the emergence of gyms as one of the portals through which radicalisation might occur. On the more overt end of this are groups that have long been demarcated as hate groups, such as the ‘Operation Werewolf’ movement, an Odinist-white-nationalist movement that emphasises strength training and bodybuilding, and is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Another US-based example is the ‘Rise Above Movement (RAM)’, a white supremacist organization based in Huntington Beach, California, for which gyms and fitness (i.e. bodybuilding and MMA, or mixed martial arts fighting) play a central role. The ADL describes RAM as follows:
“Operating almost like a street-fighting club, RAM emphasizes physical fitness, boxing and martial arts; some members have even traveled to Europe to take part in far right-associated MMA events. In 2018, RAM also launched a clothing line called “Right Brand Clothing.”
But key to organizations like RAM are the way they mask their extremism with mainstream, using patriotic motifs like American flag bandanas and masks. Thus, the question emerges of how far the radical right has penetrated into the tens of thousands of gyms in cities around the world, and into the minds and ideology of gym users, normalising these symbols among users.
While most gyms are not explicitly linked to hate groups, many have an affective atmosphere of nationalism, hyper-patriotism and libertarianism that overlaps, or borrows from, the radical right. The gym-space pictured in Figure 3 (above), from suburban North Carolina, exemplifies the wall-hangings common to American gyms, such as the ‘Thin Blue Line’ and ‘Thin Red Line’ flags (indicating support for police officers and firefighters) and the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’, or ‘Gadsden Flag’ much loved by anti-government militias (pictured). These are mainstream symbols in a mainstream space, but their meanings shift over time and context and have been deployed by the extreme right in specific circumstances. Further research might look to where locally-contextualized symbols likewise link these spaces to varying political ideologies and causes in different settings, including those attached to the radical right.
To conclude, this CARR Insight has not suggested that gyms are inherently extremist, or that their users are on a path to radicalization. To frequent a gym, as many millions of urbanites do, is not itself to become ‘blackpilled’. Nonetheless, the pills are available, accessible, digestible, with the right codes, keywords, questions, and appetites. Thus, I have used the example of gyms and their symbology to indicate one way (out of many) that the radical right becomes visible in the places and spaces of everyday urban life, easily blending into the background. With the right lens and background knowledge, this ‘other’ city (or ‘Ul Qoma’ in China Miéville’s imaginary) can be revealed, and its radicalising pressures can be combatted.
 Britain alone has more than 7,000, according to a recent report from Statista (2021).
Dr Jason Luger is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Northumbria University. See full profile here.
© Jason Luger. 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).