The radical right has been going through a period of post-Jan. 6 retrenchment and reorganization that has the surface appearance of a decline: A recent study of political violence in the U.S. finds that it declined sharply, numerically speaking, in 2021.
But just as the decline in the total numbers of hate groups over the same period disguised a shift on the ground in which fewer people signaled their radicalization with membership in hate groups, while certain groups also significantly increased in recruitment and in violent activity, the researchers at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) who compiled the data warn that the underlying conditions around the decline indicate it is far more likely to be a period of calm before the storm.
“While the total number of political violence events in the United States declined in 2021 after far-right groups stormed the Capitol at the start of the year, trends since then reflect an ongoing evolution in anti-democratic mobilization on the right—not the aftermath of its high-water mark,” the report warns. “Many of the same far-right groups and networks involved in the Capitol attack have adapted their activity to fit the new environment.
“These adaptations have manifested in multiple ways: the landscape of actors has become more defined; demonstration engagement has shifted, with a focus on protests that allow for the co-option of new supporters; some actors, like the Proud Boys, have increased their use of violence; armed protests have proliferated, particularly at legislative facilities; contentious counter-demonstration trends have intensified; offline propaganda and vigilantism is on the rise, especially motivated by white supremacy and white nationalism; and preparatory actions have surged, including recruitment drives and training exercises.”
ACLED’s data is similar to what the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate-group reporting found: While the numbers of groups have tailed off, membership and recruitment have increased for certain groups like the Proud Boys and QAnon, and their activity has increased significantly:
[M]any groups actually increased their activity and influence. Some of the most active and violent groups, like the Proud Boys, have only become more active and more violent: Proud Boys activity rose by 15% overall in 2021, and the group’s engagement in violent demonstrations rose by 57%. Approximately 25% of all demonstrations involving the Proud Boys turned violent in 2021, relative to 18% in 2020. Militias and MSMs are also increasingly engaging in right-wing demonstrations more broadly, generating recruitment and coalition-building opportunities within the wider right-wing activist network but also amplifying the risk of violence: when militias and MSMs are involved in right-wing demonstrations, the events are 12 times more likely to turn violent or destructive.
So while the total number of U.S. political-violence events declined from 2020 to 2021, that number hides a couple of key trends—namely, that political violence simultaneously became more lethal last year and it increasingly targeted civilians. The ACLED researchers suggest that the post-Jan. 6 decline in violence is attributable at least in part to “heightened legal and media focus on members and associates of far-right militias and MSMs [Militant Social Movements], and especially those present at the riot.”
The remaining members of groups like the Proud Boys and Three Percenters, as we’ve been reporting, have shifted their attention instead to local politics, where they are more likely to gain ground by rebranding themselves with a new image. ACLED reports “a shift in demonstration engagement, with a focus on protests that allow for the co-option of new supporters ‘as part of a larger strategy to appear more understated, friendly’; a heightened propensity for aggravating tensions at demonstrations by using violence and intimidation, bringing firearms, and countering other protesters; a rise in offline propaganda and vigilantism, especially motivated by white supremacy and white nationalism; and, an emphasis on preparatory mobilization, including recruitment drives and training exercises.”
“Over the past year, the Proud Boys have worked to embed themselves amongst local activists who haven’t been tarnished by the Jan. 6 insurrection,” Devin Burghart, executive director of the Missouri-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR), says. “They’ve enmeshed themselves into local efforts to push back against vaccine mandates, or critical race theory, and other local conflicts, which has allowed them to steer clear of the national discussion about the insurrection and provide them with a base of support that they didn’t have prior to Jan. 6.”
And while these localized protests drew considerably less media attention than the far right’s headline-grabbing rallies of 2020 and Jan. 6, they increased significantly in numbers. An earlier report from the ACLED project found that not only were there a significant number of pro-Trump rallies in 2021, a disproportionate number of them featured armed participants, and the majority of them were held at “legislative grounds”:
- 6.8% of pro-Trump demonstrations (112 of 1,646) between January 2020 and November 2021 were armed, compared to 1.5% of all other demonstrations (501 of 33,298).
- The percentage of armed pro-Trump demonstrations increased last year. In 2021, 8.8% of pro-Trump demonstrations were armed (32 of 364) compared to 6.2% in 2020 (80 of 1,282).
- Between January 2020 and November 2021, 47.3% of armed pro-Trump demonstrations (53 of 112) took place at legislative grounds, compared to 12.2% of all other armed demonstrations (61 of 501).
- The percentage of armed pro-Trump demonstrations that took place at legislative grounds increased in 2021, with 81.3% (26 of 32) reported at these sites compared to 33.8% (27 of 80) in 2020.
Some other key findings:
- The events most likely to become violent are counter-demonstrations involving two opposing groups, particularly when far-right militias and MSMs like the Proud Boys are present. A third of such counter-demonstrations in 2021 turned violent or destructive.
- White nationalist and white supremacist ideology has become the leading driver in far-right demonstrations involving militias and MSMs in late 2021, which came to a close with a surge in such events.
- The people turning out for these far-right demonstrations are more frequently armed, and their protests are increasingly focused on state capitol buildings and legislative facilities. These armed protests, it says, have been particularly acute at the statehouses in Lansing, Michigan, and Phoenix, Arizona, which have seen more armed demonstrations since 2020 than any other state capitols in the U.S.
- Extremist militias and MSMs are also ramping up preparatory actions, notably recruitment drives and training exercises. These range from the Oath Keepers splinter group in Arizona called the Yavapai County Preparedness Team, to training exercises from American Contingency—a “Patriot” movement “preparedness” organization that specializes in training people to shoot their neighbors if necessary—to the neofascist group Patriot Front, which has been organizing media-grabbing marches in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
- The police response has been counter-productive at best: “Despite the heightened threat of violence, law enforcement intervention in demonstrations involving far-right groups continued to decrease,” the report observes. “While authorities took a heavy-handed approach to demonstrations associated with the BLM movement in the summer of 2020, they responded more conservatively to demonstrations involving far-right militias and MSMs, including openly violent groups like the Proud Boys.”
The report warned that the trends indicate a rolling litany of future violence being generated by the coalescence of these forces: violent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, armed demonstrations, and rallies at legislative grounds. In particular, the report warns, there is a looming likelihood that far-right organizing will revolve around LGBTQ events and political rallies in the near future:
As an election year with midterms as well as a number of key gubernatorial races, 2022 is likely to see a rise in organizing focused on the upcoming votes. There have already been examples of protests involving ‘Freedom Convoys’ expressing support for Trump and including voter registration opportunities at events, signaling the start of this evolution.
In addition to election-related mobilization, there may also be a resurgence of other recent drivers as well. With Republican officials launching a new anti-LGBT+ legislative push around the country, mobilization against LGBT+ rights may increase, even though coordinated organizing on this issue has not been a major feature of the political violence and protest landscape in which far-right militias and MSMs have engaged in recent years. Broader activity on the right is currently coalescing around the reinvigorated anti-LGBT+ legislative campaign, in addition to organizing against institutions and companies seen as ‘too supportive’ of LGBT+ rights.
We’ve already received rumblings of precisely this kind of dynamic emerging this summer around LGBTQ Pride events, such as the one in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, at which members of a local “Patriot” group vowed to show up and confront them in June. That is, most likely, just the beginning of this kind of threatening behavior.
Published with permission from Daily Kos.