Since the Vietnam War era in the United States, radical-right groups have articulated an apocalyptic vision under which white people would be restored to their “rightful place” of dominance on the North American continent. Over the years, various groups and personalities have expressed this vision in slightly different ways, though have involved the toppling of the government followed by extensive bloodletting. The term “RAHOWA” — racial holy war — originated with Ben Klassen and his World Church of the Creator, and was then taken up by Matt Hale and his successors.
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Another key figure from this generation of white nationalists, Tom Metzger, founder of the White Aryan Resistance (WAR), argued that “white revolution is the only way” to achieve the restoration of Aryan dominance. Inspired by William Pierce’s 1978 novel “The Turner Diaries,” Robert Mathews and his Silent Brotherhood sought to ignite RAHOWA in the early 1980s by launching a terrorist campaign in the American Northwest before the FBI and other law enforcement agencies brought his adventures to an abrupt end. Louis Beam, a former Klan leader and long-time advocate of white racial revolution, thought that “leaderless resistance” might lead the way toward RAHOWA.
The tactics these 20th-century advocates of RAHOWA planned to employ required a vivid imagination to be taken seriously. The late Richard Girnt Butler, then head of the Aryan Nations, remarked that Mathews “had made his move too soon” — as if a few more months would have made a difference in the outcome. In fact, at the time, neither small groups of would-be Nazis such as the Silent Brotherhood nor the “lone wolves” had the slightest chance of igniting a racial holy war. They tended to be self-defeating and more than slightly ridiculous.
The atmosphere in which successor generations of radical-right groups such as the Atomwaffen Division, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights or the Boogaloo Boys operate has changed significantly from the post-Vietnam era, in ways that seem more favorable to revolutionary objectives. The internet has been a boon to and an essential tool of these newer contestants.
Today’s radical rightists can, inter alia, recruit members, share conspiratorial and apocalyptic visions with large online audiences, send messages or memes to various targets (such as Jewish journalists during the 2016 presidential campaign) organize in-person gatherings (like the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017), and display pictures of like-minded militants in action.
Further, the United States is far more polarized than it was in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Thanks in part to Fox News, right-wing talk radio celebrities, Breitbart News and the various other online outlets (including The Daily Stormer) for the expression of inter-group hostility, trust in government institutions is at an all-time low. The same generalization applies to interpersonal trust, at least since polling on these questions began in the 1950s. Americans not only mistrust government institutions but mistrust one another as well.
Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 based largely on his ability to channel this mistrust as well as support for white nationalist violence. As David Neiwert put it in his 2017 book, “Alt America,” “Trump seemed to encourage the violence directed both at protestors at his rallies and at minorities generally, by expressly suggesting the use of assaults and threats against them in his fiery rally speeches.” Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, before and after the election, has helped to legitimize the radical right’s racist and anti-Semitic threats, fomenting violence to a wider-than-usual audience.
In office, Trump has done what he could to loosen the guardrails of constitutional government, by seeking to “capture the referees.” In other words, he has sought to strengthen the executive’s control over government functions at the expense of congressional authority and various federal regulatory bodies, including the Federal Election Commission. He has encouraged his audiences to violate norms of civil conduct. Trump has also sought to “capture the referees” by appointing to the federal judiciary right-wing ideologues with limited courtroom experience. The justice department under Attorney General William Barr has become an instrument in the pursuit of Trump’s personal vendettas.
Against this background, and with Trump seeking reelection, the United States faces a serious crisis involving the COVID-19 pandemic, high levels of unemployment and a massive wave of protests ignited by police killings of defenseless African Americans, most notably the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Some observers think the country has reached an inflection point at which the democratic order is under serious threat.
The present situation is one that groups on the extreme right could only have imagined a few decades ago. Among the new radical-right aggregations, the Boogaloo Boys, distinguished by wearing Hawaiian shirts over combat paraphernalia, hope to exploit the current racial unrest and promote an atmosphere conducive to civil war. Acting as agents provocateurs, Boogaloo Boys members have participated in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. They carry out violent attacks on the authorities and encourage other protesters to do the same. In this way, they hope to provoke an excessively violent reaction by the police and other authorities. The Boogaloo Boys and their “compatriots” hope to set off an escalatory spiral of violence leading to a white backlash and something approaching race-based civil war.
This Boogaloo approach will probably not achieve its ultimate objective. Nonetheless, their tactics seem more plausible, given the current situation, than those attempted by their late 20th-century radical-right predecessors. This new path to right-wing revolution bears considerable resemblance to the so-called strategy of tensions pursued by Italian neo-fascists and rogue police officers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during Italy’s Gli Anni di Piombo — Years of Lead. In the Italian case, exposure by journalists and the commitment of Italy’s elected officials to defend the country’s democracy prevented a right-wing seizure of power. Let us hope the same holds true for the United States.
*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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