Last Saturday, thousands of protesters thronged maskless in the streets of Washington, DC, to deny the reality that the 2020 presidential election is over, and Joe Biden won. Some participants in this Million MAGA March (which fell hundreds of thousands of MAGAs short by most counts) were simply ardent supporters of President Trump, people who showed up to cry foul because they’d been convinced by his baseless claims of mass voter fraud. Others, though, represented far-right extremist groups—antigovernment Oath Keepers, “Western chauvinist” Proud Boys, open white supremacists. They walked together, wore Trump 2020 and Confederate flags like capes, and insisted that the election had been stolen.
Later that night, they clashed violently with counterprotesters, leading to 21 arrests and widespread digital finger-pointing. Counterprotesters blamed the skirmishes on Trump backers. Trump supporters claimed that it was Black Lives Matter groups or “antifa” who incited the violence. All sides blamed DC police for not protecting them while the president tweeted about “ANTIFA SCUM” and urged the police to “do your job and don’t hold back!!!” Eventually, the scene settled down, but even as the US prepares to swear in President-elect Biden and envisions a day when Trump’s tweets won’t be national news, Americans may have to get used to this.
Since Saturday, agitation has continued. Infowars’ Alex Jones urged people to swarm the governor’s mansion in Atlanta, Georgia. A former Milwaukee County sheriff called for the Proud Boys to start a chapter in Wisconsin. Throughout the week, right-leaning media outlets from NewsMax to Fox News have either pushed or failed to counter conspiracy theories about the validity of election results, further fueling viewers’ suspicions and anger. So far, though, those frustrations have been mostly expressed in online theorizing and small demonstrations that occasionally erupt into ugliness, like the scene that developed when extremist groups got involved in Nevada. The situation hasn’t been ideal, but many experts and watchdogs were expecting something far worse.
For months prior to November 3, researchers warned that a Trump defeat might spark violence from right-wing extremist groups, especially the antigovernment militias that had already become restive during quarantine. Trump appeals to these factions for a variety of reasons—some love that he’s a political outsider, others admire his combative attitude with progressive activists, others like his history of bigoted remarks and policies—but regardless, he’s their guy in a system they find otherwise bankrupt. Now that Biden’s won the election, observers are waiting to see what happens next. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it’s been this calm,” says Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a researcher at American University who studies extremism. “But a lot of folks are waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Extremist groups are notorious for their bluster and for fracturing into ever-tinier factions and eventually oblivion, and that could very well be what happens to the far right once Trump is no longer in the White House. But there’s also reason to believe that, for the moment, it’s only conspiracy theories and election misinformation that are keeping that shoe aloft. “Experts remain quite concerned about this. There is still quite a bit of activity and collected momentum,” says Kathleen Belew, a historian of the white power movement at the University of Chicago. “In the past, the moment that’s lead to violence against American citizens, federal officials, infrastructure, and more is the moment white power and militia activists conclude that mainstream politics does not offer what they want.” That’s what happened in 1983, when white supremacists realized Ronald Reagan wasn’t about to restore Jim Crow. Due to the flood of election misinformation being spread by the president and his allies, that moment has not yet arrived for many pro-Trump conservatives—let alone right-wing extremists.
Many experts were looking to Saturday’s Million MAGA March as a kind of violence-and-extremism barometer, but, much like the election itself, it wasn’t decisive enough to be entirely comforting. It wasn’t a deadly bigot block party like the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in 2017, but it wasn’t as wan or poorly attended as Unite the Right 2 in 2018. Social media chatter suggests that for some Trump supporters, the truth of his loss is beginning to dawn on them, leeching energy from the movement. But for some of the most dangerous extremists, their movement has never really been about Trump.
The spike in hate and extremist group activity that America is experiencing now is ultimately the result of the response to a different election—President Obama’s. Antigovernment and hate group numbers surged to record highs in 2008 and 2009. The Trump administration has been a period of normalization and mainstreaming for these groups, a time when the highest official in the country has failed to condemn them. Meanwhile, 2019 was the worst year on record for hate-crime killings. “Trump was just kind of a golden goose,” says Shannon Reid, who researches street gangs and white power at UNC Charlotte. “He wasn’t really the leader of the movement the way a [Steve] Bannon or a Stephen Miller or someone who truly wants a white ethnostate would be. He is a symptom. He is not the cause.” These extremist movements will outlast Trump’s presidency because the reason that they exist long predates it.
Violence could still erupt after the Electoral College vote or Biden’s inauguration, and, even if it doesn’t, experts urge caution, patience, and continued attention to this issue. “It would be the same mistake we made as a country, as researchers, as journalists after the skinhead scene,” says Reid. “Just because they weren’t on Maury or Oprah anymore didn’t mean they stopped existing.” In September, the Department of Homeland Security declared white supremacists the “most persistent and lethal” threat to the internal United States, more so than any foreign terrorist threat or any group on the left. A poorly attended rally or two is not a reason to think that these groups are going to fade away. “The ones who march in public are not the same as the activists who are interested in doing violence,” Belew says. “They’re not interested in getting a million people who will march down the street. They’re interested in getting six people who will detonate a bomb.”
Not only is this problem bigger than Trump, it’s also bigger than America. In the past five years, far-right terror has gone up 320 percent worldwide. “White supremacists do communicate with groups in other countries. Antigovernment groups are traditionally more US-focused, but we’re seeing similar phenomena in European capitals,” says Miller-Idriss. “This isn’t just domestic politics. There are issues afoot globally.” Unfortunately it's not entirely clear what those issues are, since these kinds of extremist groups are notoriously understudied. “We can’t keep saying it’s economic insecurity,” Reid says. “We need the research that looks at who the more violent individuals are because that’s where the interventions and suppression are needed. It can’t keep hitting a federal level, like the Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping plot, before there’s any intervention.”
Many of those interventions will need to come from lawmakers and local law enforcement, but average citizens can do more than just wait—or put all of this quietly out of mind. “The better we can not keep dismissing all of this as a phase or fad or subculture, the better we will be able to intervene early,” Reid says. “Families are the first line of defense.” Miller-Idriss’ lab has been developing a guide for parents and training teachers on what to do if, say, a student shows up to a Zoom lecture with a Nazi symbol as their background. They urge alertness, and recommend asking questions rather than launching into corrective diatribes. America’s problem with far-right extremism runs much deeper than the events of 2020, and the easiest way to dig people out of that digital rabbit hole is to never let them wander too far down in the first place.