More than two centuries of peaceful handovers of power each time a new US president has entered the White House were cast aside on January 6, when thousands of far-right, often violent protesters stormed the Capitol building in Washington, DC to challenge Joe Biden’s perfectly legal electoral victory.
Figuring out who, or what, emboldened that mass of people to challenge the legitimacy of American democracy has been the subject of much debate ever since.
Some point the finger of blame at former President Donald Trump, who spent most of November and December rallying disgruntled voters with entirely unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.
Others blame the spread of the QAnon conspiracy theory and its millions of adherents on different social media platforms who claim that Democrats are evil paedophiles. Groups boasting hardline forms of nationalism, such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, have also been blamed, as well as those groups and individuals who openly profess white supremacy.
It is true that the insurrection has no historical parallel in the United States. Yet, the dogma that binds these groups together – far-right ideology – has a deep, storied history, which pre-dates those individuals who believed that the fate of their country depended on trying to overturn a free and fair election.
For some outside of the US, the American brand of far-right thought may seem strange, if not downright absurd. After all, what is the “nation” that groups like the Proud Boys seek to defend?
Generations of immigrants have regularly altered the US’s demography, making it next to impossible to pinpoint any kind of cultural or ethnic “essence”.
It is harder to say the same of, say, the French, Germans, or English. Just take a peek at the founding dates of certain universities – the University of Cambridge in the UK, dates back to 1209. Harvard is considered the oldest university in the US, beginning more than 400 years later in 1636.
Certain nationalities have more than a millennium behind them, while in the US, Americans are not only much younger as a nationality, but – with the exception of Indigenous peoples – are also made up of groups from all over the world.
Still, right-wing forces in the US have found enough commonality to forge connections with counterparts in Europe. In fact, the resurgence of right-wing ideology at different points in history has often gone hand-in-hand on the two continents.
Consider Steve Bannon, who served for a time as one of Trump’s advisers after spending years as the chair of the right-wing website, Breitbart News. After leaving the White House, Bannon found political leaders and movements in countries such as Belgium and Italy, with an appetite for his brand of far-right nationalism.
Shortly before Trump won in 2016 with his “America first” message, it was Brexit that shocked many, as English nationalism struck a blow to internationalist sentiment in the form of the European Union.
Meanwhile, Viktor Orban and his brand of anti-immigrant illiberalism remain strong in Hungary. France’s Marie Le Pen, daughter of the right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, is plotting to run for president again next year with her well-known brand of xenophobic nationalism that has attracted millions, despite losing to Emmanuel Macron in 2017.
Even though enthusiasm for the far right dampened down for a few decades in France after World War II, it has come back in past decades. The Le Pen family name is basically a brand for the far right in France.
Reflecting on this time in history – with the far right in focus – can show us a lot about the drivers of far-right politics not only in the US, but globally, today.
Moreover, a left-wing abdication of daring, combined with programmatic mass politics in favour of centrism, has provided the right-wing with ample space to fester. This, with international economic forces driving change around the world, has propelled many who feel alienated from political discourse to align with elements that provide a false promise of returning to over-hyped, past “glory” days.
Nazis, all around the world
Chances are that Adolf Hitler is the name that springs to mind if people think of the far right.
One problem is that too many representations of the Nazis centre on its despotic 1930s leader, portraying him as an isolated maniac who somehow, someway, managed to orchestrate the mass murder of millions and plunge the world into war.
The reality is far more complicated, of course.
In the 1920s and the 1930s, the German Nazi Party ran candidates in elections and won some parliamentary seats, with the support of millions of German voters.
In 1932, Hitler came in second to Paul von Hindenberg when running for president, with just more than 19 million casting their lot for the latter and 13 million for the former. Legislative elections that same year saw the Nazis earn the most representation in the German Reichstag, gaining more than 37 percent of the seats.
The Nazis didn’t hide their form of virulent anti-Semitic nationalism from voters, regularly featuring it in their propaganda in the 1920s and 1930s.
The voters who chose Hitler knew what they were getting.
And, the appeal that the Nazis manufactured resonated beyond the borders of Germany, including across the Atlantic.
Charles Lindbergh, the American pilot who achieved fame for being the first to fly across the Atlantic in 1927, would return to Europe to meet prominent Nazis, such as Wilhelm Goring, in the 1930s. As the spokesman of the American First Committee, the isolationist organisation that sought to keep the US out of World War II, Lindbergh helped drive the spread of anti-semitism within the US.
Other organisations at the same time, such as the German-American Bund, represented Nazi Germany favourably to Americans, hosting events such as the now-infamous “pro-America” Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden that attracted approximately 20,000 attendees to listen to Nazi sympathisers.
Right-wing agitators were found in the US and throughout Europe, not only in countries such as Italy and Spain where fascists took power, but also in the United Kingdom, as well as in France, where they built a groundswell of support throughout the years between the two world wars.
When the Nazis occupied France during World War II, they found many willing collaborators who helped deport Jews to concentration camps, as well as officials, such as World War I hero Philippe Petain, who governed the pro-Nazi, Vichy France from 1940 to 1944 according to the principals of “travail, famille, patrie” (work, family, fatherland) at the expense of the French Republic’s traditional ideals of “liberte, egalite, fraternite” (freedom, equality, brotherhood).
Considering the far right at this time, what’s worth noting is that instead of “evil” individuals cheating, fooling or cajoling their fellow citizens, we see the rise of mass, popular movements.
They did encounter some resistance.
Opposition from those on the left varied, taking the form of organised armed resistance – as seen in the Spanish Civil War – to more decentralised efforts in the US.
Armed and covert efforts by French citizens challenged the Nazis, as organised boycotts, led by Jewish Americans with labour union support, sought to inflict economic damage on the German economy and raise awareness of the spread of violent anti-semitism in Europe.
Regardless, the left in Europe either struggled to mount effective resistance to the right’s moves to win support and take power, often being repressed into submission.
The power of conspiratorial thinking
The reality is that anti-semitism, as well as other forms of racism, nativism, and conspiracy-type thinking, did not suddenly emerge in the 1930s.
Racism, institutionalised in the form of the Jim Crow laws in the US, made it such that people of colour lived in poor-quality housing and studied in sub-par schools. Arising in the second half of the 19th century, these laws entrenched a legal system of white supremacy that subordinated people of colour politically, economically and culturally. Well before that, race-based, hereditary slavery came into existence when European settlers made a plantation economy central to colonial export agriculture.
Throughout much of US history, African Americans have been negatively stereotyped in popular culture – from white actors using blackface in theatre as a way to depict Black people as lazy and stupid, to movies, which tend to feature people of African descent as violent or criminal. This latter representation, namely, as a threat, continued long after slavery. Such fears and anxieties provided a layer of mass paranoia to the political and economic institutions supporting white supremacy.
If it wasn’t fear of Black people, provoking conspiratorial thinking, then there was suspicion about “the Catholics” that whipped Americans into a frenzy in the 19th century.
This was one of the primary drivers behind the popularity of the “Know-Nothings”, who received this name because if a member was asked about the group, they were to say that they “knew nothing”, a secret society-turned political party which came onto the political scene in the US in the 1840s and 1850s. This group pedalled the notion that Catholics, led by the pope, posed a threat to the dominance of Protestants. Irish immigrants were then believed to be the carriers of papal political machinations who, in droves, swarmed to the US to do the pontiff’s bidding.
Some 170 years before QAnon played a role in spurring right-wing activists to storm the Capitol, the “Know-Nothings” were portraying Roman Catholic immigrants as the evil force threatening the US.
On multiple occasions in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, the anti-immigrant group sparked multiple riots in major American cities. In Philadelphia, two separate riots in 1844 led to the killing of 29 immigrants, as well as to the burning of Catholic churches.
A few decades later, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), known for its white hoods, cross-burnings, and hatred of African Americans, would also be motivated by anti-Catholic paranoiac conspiracy.
The KKK, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers one of the oldest hate groups in the US, began after the US Civil War of 1861 to 1864. After the defeat of the Confederacy, former generals of the Southern forces and other sympathisers formed the Klan in 1865 to keep newly enfranchised Black American citizens from exercising their political rights. Intervention from the federal government, specifically the 1871 Enforcement Act, which led federal troops to occupy the South to quell racially-motivated violence and fine, as well as imprison, Klansman for violent crimes, effectively ended the first wave of Klan activity.
Anti-Catholic conspiracy helped rejuvenate the Klan in the 1910s and 1920s. Part of the Klan’s white supremacist ideology, besides racism, was also the promotion of Protestant Christianity that excluded both Jewish people and Catholics.
This, in combination with an embrace of temperance – the turn-of-the-century movement that saw to the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s – catapulted the number of members of this right-wing violent organisation towards four million by the 1920s. With numbers in the thousands before and after this time, the Klan reached its peak in the first couple of decades of the 20th century.
The point is that conspiracy theorising – a kind of stringing together of disparate people and events into a simplistic narrative that attributes blame to some specific group – is nothing new in the US.
Europe, too, has witnessed the marriage of far-right thought with conspiracy thinking.
In France, it was Alfred Dreyfus, the young, Jewish officer at the turn of the century who was court-martialled for allegedly passing military secrets to the Germans. Publicly degraded and denounced at his court-martialling, Dreyfus was sent to Devil’s Island – the French prison island – for life.
The evidence concerning Dreyfus’ alleged collaboration was basically non-existent. After a letter was found in the German embassy that appeared to show treasonous intent against the French government in 1894, blame fell on the only Jewish person in the general staff of the French army.
Dreyfus would spend five years imprisoned, as his case divided the country. A pardon came his way, first in 1899, followed by a full military exoneration in 1906.
The Dreyfus affair, as it is now known, was controversial, not merely for accusing a person of guilt without real evidence.
In her work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt noted that the controversy put anti-Semitic conspiracy thinking on full display. Taking centre stage was the fact that Dreyfus was Jewish, which conspiracy theorists and propagators connected to untrustworthiness and treachery. In her analysis, Arendt found the draw of anti-semitism to be intimately tied to national decline; masses of people were willing to believe conspiracy theories and target Jewish people, often violently, when their national identities were in doubt.
A critical catalyst in the Dreyfus Affair, this dangerous combination of conspiracy and national anxiety, would drive Hitler’s rise in Germany just a few decades later.
When crisis hits, it’s time for scapegoating
Whether it’s paranoia surrounding a non-existent papal cabal, or anti-semitism, there is always present, everywhere, a certain group of people looking to blame some other group for some kind of perceived “wrong”.
Yet, when that “wrong” is generalised enough, say, with surging unemployment, conspiracies find a different soil to grow. Such was a contributing factor that Hitler managed to mobilise in the 1920s and 1930s.
Germany’s loss in World War I was made more painful as the victors blamed the Central European country for the war, forcing it to pay reparations. The economic harm done by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 was compounded with the economic fallout of the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and ravaged the US, which harboured its own mix of toxic, race-baiting conspiracy theories.
Can’t eradicate it, but sure can suppress it – with national welfare policies
The end of World War II saw not only the start of a period of extended economic recovery, but of major political parties in Europe and the US implementing wide-sweeping, public policies on unions, healthcare and infrastructure.
The administration of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) began some of these initiatives before the start of World War II in what together came to be known as the “New Deal”. During the course of the 1930s, from deep reform of agriculture to the provision of social security and the promotion of infrastructure projects, the US government managed to construct a certain kind of welfare state.
Similar policies existed on the other side of the Atlantic, but after the war, the institutions of many European welfare states grew in size. Such examples include the creation of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), which came in 1946. The Ordinance on Social Security was passed by the French Provisional Government after the war, which included child benefits, old-age pensions and coverage for industrial accidents. There were similar initiatives in Belgium and the Netherlands.
These pushes for change in how governments related to their populations were backed by the US-financed Marshall Plan, which sent billions in the form of grants and loans to reconstruct war-torn Europe.
That cash was not part of some benevolent charity project.
In part, the resources went to combat the expansion of Soviet influence. In so doing, resources were sent to countries that accepted US investment and bought American products, while also agreeing to update production practices and reject communism.
Whether viewed as self-serving measures to build US influence or a coordinated effort to make the world safe for democracy, what is undeniable is that the Marshall Plan helped Europe rebuild.
Along with the slew of mass, bold projects within various countries in the 1930s and 1940s, the Marshall Plan was part of a public policy bonanza that showed how innovative government initiatives on a significant scale could improve the lives of millions.
Catholics weren’t the problem, poverty was. Blaming, say, the Jewish people for unemployment doesn’t create jobs – reforming production techniques and investing in infrastructure does.
Serious public policies with proven results suppressed the growth of far-right movements at this time.
Racism wasn’t defeated, however – racists were just given less chance to scapegoat specific groups in society. The proof is that, despite expanding governmental programmes, from healthcare to unemployment, far-right hardline groups still popped up at times.
For instance, as seen in John Birch Society in the US, with its anti-communist conspiracies that developed in the 1950s, the far right was diluted within a Republican Party that had agreed to the central tenets of the New Deal Welfare state that FDR made possible. It was Eisenhower, the first Republican elected after World War II, who did not seek to undo FDR-era policies, but in fact, built upon them.
The Ku Klux Klan also made its presence felt, especially in the south of the US, to oppose desegregation in the 1960s. Yet, as violent as this group was, it never managed to recapture the success that it reached in the 1920s in terms of membership or geographic reach.
Racism and conspiracy thinking were not defeated – far from it – but their hold on people had been reduced.
The right in Europe at this time also found itself somewhat marginalised. Marshall Phillipe Petain, who led collaborationist France during the Nazi occupation, was convicted of treason in 1946 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released in 1951, at the age of 95, due to his declining health. He died the same year. Other, younger upstarts on the far right, such as Pierre Sidos, started various movements during the course of the 20th century, but never mustered more than a few thousand supporters. In Italy, not only was the Fascist Party banned in the country’s new constitution in 1946, but one of its offshoots – the Italian Social Movement – managed to seat just a few dozen representatives in the parliament in the 1950s and 1960s out of a total of the 630 MPs that sit in the Italian lower house of parliament.
The backdrop to the far right’s marginalisation was a time of sustained economic growth.
Most major political parties in Europe and the US supported central elements of the welfare state. Such items included the role of unions in negotiating wages and work conditions, as well as the place of government intervention in providing healthcare. Even the US, which remains the only major advanced capitalist state without a public healthcare system for every citizen, saw the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. While these programmes do not ensure that healthcare is a legal right, they do provide subsidised health insurance to the elderly, people with disabilities and low-income Americans.
In short, a consensus, however imperfect, reined in the far right’s excesses in many countries in North America and Europe. Still, however, always there were the conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazis and other far-right agitators who stayed active.
1970s – consensus undone
Stagflation – a mashup of economic terms, meaning stagnant productivity with rising inflation – appeared in most discussions in the US and Europe concerning economic affairs in the 1970s.
Workers in advanced capitalist states went on strike to demand higher wages as a way to cope with how inflation at the time was chipping away at their purchasing power. Meanwhile, owners wanted greater productivity and, of course, higher profits, yet struggled to compete with cheap imports from emerging economies like Japan. A disgruntled workforce only added to their headaches.
Far-right movements neither caused stagflation nor found the answer to it. They did, as we will see, benefit from the measures taken to address the economic malaise of the 1970s.
Basically, what we find at this time is the use of heavy-handed tactics by governments in the US, the UK and elsewhere in Europe to suppress workers’ unions. As unions were confronted, monetary policy would also change, with the answer to inflation coming from Chicago School economists such as Milton Friedman, who advocated for minimising the role of the government in economic affairs.
“Laissez faire”, meaning to “let go”, became considered as the best approach for thinking about economic policy.
Chicago School advocates believed the key to economic growth was in tax cuts and deregulation. Welfare state programmes, such as unemployment insurance, were to undergo “reform”, which meant tying in eligibility-to-work requirements or limiting access altogether. Unions were not painted as counterweights to economic and political elites but, instead, special interest groups that needed to be put in their place.
Resulting from these changes was a certain stability. Inflation was brought under control while productivity rose. Yet, along with production gains was also an increase in socioeconomic inequality.
The importance of collective bargaining – that is, when unions were widespread and seen as legitimate in the post-World War II period – was in tying economic productivity to negotiated wage increases. With unions suppressed, companies could make decisions without having to seriously consider the input of their workforces. Furthermore, with China embracing free-market changes and seeking foreign investment and the former communist states doing the same as the Soviet Union fell, corporations would seek out investment opportunities on a global scale that had been unimaginable in the 1960s.
The stage had been set for the rise of the right.
First, this increase in foreign investment, especially into Eastern Europe and Latin America, would disrupt local economies in such a way as to spur people to leave those countries. This, along with the spread of laissez-faire economics to the Global South, led to a reduction in social safety nets around the world. From Mexico to the US, or Poland and Ukraine to Germany, as well as the UK, economic transformation meant an increase in migration.
The influx of migrants to Europe and the US provided fuel for conspiracy-minded demagogues.
These new arrivals, were they stealing jobs, destroying national heritage or, even worse, bringing infectious diseases? Nationalists found in migrants a group of vulnerable, often politically disenfranchised people, who would become raw material for hate politicking and mobilising.
This much is seen today in certain flashpoints, for instance, concerning refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. Far-right actors, armed with their social media accounts, managed to turn the presence of thousands who are fleeing desperate situations in their home countries into a call to protect European identity.
Meanwhile, economic inequality had created, in certain countries like the US, a way of conducting politics that required large sums of cash. With unions on the retreat, effective counterweights to elite control were significantly weakened.
Economic inequality became political alienation.
Movements on the right, meanwhile, were building power. In the US, militias saw an increase in membership during the 1990s. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh organised the Oklahoma City bombing, which until the September 11 attacks in 2001, was considered the worst terrorist attack to take place in the US when 168 people were killed and more than 700 injured.
The target – the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building – was chosen for housing various agencies including offices for the Social Security Administration, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).
This last department, in particular, had caught the attention of some on the right for what was perceived as federal overreach.
Specifically, in 1992 and then 1993, the ATF and the FBI had coordinated sieges at two sites – the first in Idaho at the site known as Ruby Ridge, and the latter near Waco, Texas, at the compound of the Branch Davidians.
Both events were about firearms, with Ruby Ridge concerning the illegal production of weapons, while at Waco, the issue was their stockpiling.
Both episodes lend themselves to conspiracy thinking.
What is known is is that people were killed – five, including one federal agent, at Ruby Ridge; and 86 including women, children and four government agents in Waco.
The questions of who shot first, who was to blame, who did what and why have all been the subject of various documentaries and exposes produced since.
For many on the far right, these events confirmed suspicions that the government had become too big and was too out of control. Not only did it want to take guns away, it would kill people that got in its way doing so. Natural rights such as self-preservation were at stake. As much was confirmed in the testimonies of various anti-government militia leaders who, in 1995, were called to testify before the bipartisan Senate Terrorism Subcommittee.
The hearings, in part, led to the passing of the controversial Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. This legislation, in seeking to be “tough on crime” and include suspects of domestic and international terrorism, limited the right of Habeus Corpus of defendants, while increasing penalties. Signed into law by President Clinton, with the support of then-Senator Joe Biden, this piece of law also cut into the right of due process by speeding up executions.
The bill did nothing to address feelings of political alienation or economic inequality within American society.
Then, the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, in 2001, shifted attention to international terrorism, drawing many European governments into the US-led war in Afghanistan. Where economic adjustment didn’t drive migrants and refugees to leave their homes, military interventions would.
Meanwhile, in Europe, far-right groups were moving away from praising Hitler to dressing themselves and their ideology in their respective flags.
We see such efforts in Jean-Marie Le Pen – the father of Marine Le Pen – who launched the Front Nationale political party in 1972, becoming the far-right party’s perennial nominee in the 1980s and 1990s.
The 2007/2008 financial crisis – especially its aftermath – only added fuel to the fire that far-right efforts had been kindling for years.
The Left leaves a void
The economic crisis not only exacerbated economic inequality, but also came and went with no elites receiving punishment for causing it. It appeared as if Wall Street bankers and elected politicians were in cahoots – the one bailing the other out, as “the common man” struggled. Houses were lost, yet bonuses were paid – to executives.
Left-wing forces could have stepped up at this time to usher in New Deal-esque policies, perhaps to invest in infrastructure projects. Immigration – then as now – was a problem, and perhaps then was the time to change the conditions of citizenship. Or, still yet, corporate giants such as Facebook or Apple could have been brought to heel with new regulations on privacy.
But none of these issues was addressed. Wealthy bankers and investors were not even investigated for potential wrongdoing.
By this time, the left had become politically weak and tied to economic elites.
This didn’t start with Obama, in 2008, but with Clinton in 1992 and Tony Blair, who became prime minister in 1997 and who embraced the more central, business-first element of the Labour party.
As in other countries, left-wing politicians had adopted the economic perspective championed by Chicago School economists that urged a reduced role of government. Less regulation and fewer public policies became synonymous with “freedom”. In the words of Ronald Reagan, government was not the solution, it was the problem.
Governments became the central act in a tragedy of low expectations – no longer would people turn to it for mass, public policies a la Marshall Plan, but instead, would heap scorn on it for many of their problems.
This was a new consensus – with union power questioned and in decline, few, if any countervailing forces could take on the power of economic and political elites.
At the same time, social media rose as a conduit for grievance and raising awareness.
Yet, instead of pushing real policy change, Facebook feeds and Twitter accounts gave angsty forces – on the left and right – a contrived, false sense of political accomplishment when enemies were denounced and causes embraced. The discipline required to build coalitions to advance public policy was replaced by the ease of complaining from the comfort of one’s living room.
Meanwhile, crises abounded, from rising economic inequality to climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought us into the fold of a global health and economic catastrophe as a direct result of laissez-faire austerity policies pursued by Western governments for more than a decade.
Yet, government has not been seen in a positive, constructive light for decades.
Forces on the right, including Trump, took a hands-off approach to the raging pandemic, pushing people to return to work as they downplayed the virus’s seriousness. The proactive moves that right-wing leaders did make seemed to be aimed more at stoking conspiracy theories than at containing the virus. Orban, in Hungary, pushed legislation that expanded his powers as the coronavirus pandemic began. While his actions moved to restrict freedom of speech, the prime minister ordered many of the same measures as seen in other countries – curfews and rent freezes.
These efforts did not mobilise significant resources or people to engage in confronting the virus and its effects but encouraged more conspiracy thinking and hatred.
Around the world, far-right forces in many countries have managed to blend their prerogatives and beliefs into viable electoral projects. Conspiracies, no longer at the fringes, have been weaponised and deployed to mobilise not thousands, but millions of people. Meanwhile, the left has abdicated its former position of launching bold, systemic policies.
This is the general context where we can place the January 6 insurrection in Washington, DC.
It was a long time coming, featuring elements that have been central to far-right efforts for decades.
This also means that effectively presenting a counterweight to the right will take more than simply mounting a feeble, failed impeachment attempt.
More to the point – crises provide opportunities for real change. The left, in the past, rose to the occasion with sweeping public policies that made life better for millions. As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced upon us a series of challenges, the question will be whether the left can respond to the right’s ongoing conspiracy theory scapegoating, or if it will fail for a lack of initiative and vision.