WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Proud Boys were treated with deference as they walked along the capital’s streets earlier this month during the Million MAGA March.
A handful of other attendees asked the group if they would pose for photos — the members happily obliged — while others cheered when they saw the pack approaching in their signature black-and-yellow garb and visible bulletproof vests.
“Good job, Proud Boys,” one woman shouted.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy organization that aims to fight extremism, designates the Proud Boys as a hate group with anti-Muslim rhetoric, misogynistic views, a violent dogma and some links to white supremacy. But the group appeared to be among friends at the MAGA march, a pro-Donald Trump gathering held to support the president’s claims about election fraud.
Hate groups and other extremist organizations existed in the United States long before President Donald Trump took office — but data suggests they are thriving under his presidency.
“In the past four years, the inability of leaders to clearly denounce racism and bigotry has enabled a vacuum to emerge and, in this climate, extremists feel emboldened and embraced,” said Joanna Mendelson, the associate director for the Anti-Defamation League’s California-based Center on Extremism.
The ADL is a civil rights group that records and aims to prevent attacks on Jewish people. The organization, which has been tracking anti-Semitic activity since 1979, recorded its highest number of incidents last year. More than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment were reported, including five fatalities.
The FBI also recorded a record number of fatal hate crimes in 2019. The agency reported 51 hate-crime killings, the highest figure since the organization began tracking this data in the early 1990s.
Meanwhile, Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told a Senate committee earlier this year that white supremacists were currently the “most persistent and lethal threat” in terms of domestic extremism.
According to Mendelson, one of the most alarming aspects of the current political landscape is how the far-right rhetoric has bled into regular political discourse.
Mendelson explained the MAGA March wasn’t a fringe event, as it was supported by the sitting president and attended by some Republican members of Congress. But she said extremist groups and far-right conspiracy theorists were still permitted to take part in the march without reproach.
Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was even invited to speak. Jones is perhaps best known for falsely asserting that the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax. His followers later harassed the victims’ families as a result.
“His speech was crazy,” said Mendelson, adding that he promoted QAnon conspiracy theories and talked about bringing death to the new world order.
The situation turned violent later that night when small groups of Trump supporters headed to Black Lives Matter Plaza and clashed with counter protestors. More than two dozen people were ultimately arrested after fights broke out between the two opposing sides.
Some left-wing activists believe it is sometimes necessary to use aggressive tactics when dealing with right-wing extremists. But Mendelson said this is never a productive solution.
“Violent measures against adversaries only creates a vicious self-defeating cycle of attacks, counter attacks and blame,” she said. “It doesn’t help. It just enflames the situation and it gives these groups their justification for what they are doing.”
Instead of physically fighting, Mendelson urged concerned citizens to focus on educational efforts and to push their elected leaders to firmly denounce extremist beliefs and organizations.
“Unless our leaders are willing to use their pulpits to clearly denounce hate, extremist groups will thrive,” she added.
Trump, who has described himself as the “least racist” person, has sometimes disavowed right-wing extremism. But there have been many other occasions where he instead chose to play coy.
He declined to rebuke Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke during an interview in 2016, explaining he had never met him. He also famously said there were “very fine people on both sides” after a counter protestor was killed by a white supremacist at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Virginia.
More recently, Trump refused to condemn the Proud Boys during the presidential debate in September, instead telling the group to “stand back and stand by” before quickly switching the conversation to his concerns about the radical left.
The president has additionally declined to refute baseless QAnon conspiracy theories. Followers of QAnon believe Trump is fighting a secret pedophile ring run by Satan-worshipping Democratic politicians and celebrities.
At times, Trump has also welcomed members of the far-right into his inner circle.
Steve Bannon, the former chairman of far-right website Breitbart News, helped run Trump’s first presidential campaign and later served as the chief White House strategist. Bannon was recently banned from Twitter after calling for Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray to be beheaded.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Fremont, told San José Spotlight it was clear the president was most concerned about his own self-preservation.
“President Trump has repeatedly shown that he will fan the flames of intolerance if it has an electoral benefit to him,” he said.
The congressman added this behavior puts democracy at risk.
“White nationalists and domestic terrorist organizations are antithetical to our nation’s democratic project,” Khanna said.
Focus on middle class
While Trump may have allowed extremist views to become mainstream, William Armaline said reversing this situation is going to take far more than swearing in a new president. Armaline is the founding director of the Human Rights Collaborative and an associate Sociology professor at San Jose State University.
He said elected leaders on both sides of the aisle have utterly failed the working class. Millions of Americans have been left behind, he said, which creates the fertile ground needed for hate to grow.
“Someone like Trump can then play the strings pretty easily and tap into that anger and desperation of those who have long since been crushed or left out of society,” he said, adding that extremists and authoritarian leaders historically tend to re-direct that fury toward some type of scapegoat, like immigrants.
“This really isn’t just about Trump,” he continued. “It’s about the fact that we have these conditions that allowed someone like Trump to get 70 million people to vote for him.”
Armaline advised liberal leaders to work for real change, such as better labor protections or Medicare for All, to improve the lives of the working class. Otherwise, he suspects many struggling Americans will continue to be drawn to the far-right’s ideology — and the Democratic party will be hammered in upcoming elections.
“We have this desperation that’s just accumulated and accumulated, and nothing has been done about it,” he said. “…We need to actually give working people a future again.”
Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.