Mar 21, 2021

Behind the Capitol Storming: Breaking Down the New Far Right (Part 1)

Signs: "Stop the 2020 Steal", "Off With Their Heads"; US Capitol in background
In this interview, Three Way Fight contributors Matthew Lyons and Xloi discuss the far right forces involved in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The interview was broadcast on Out-FM on WBAI radio on February 9, 2021. The interviewer was Bob Lederer. The original interview in both audio and video formats can be found here. Part 2 of the interview, which was broadcast on February 16, has not yet been transcribed but can be found here.

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John Riley: Welcome to Out-FM, New York City's progressive LGBTQI news, culture, and activist hour on WBAI, New York. I'm John Riley, tonight's host. For most of the rest of the hour, we'll be hearing Bob Lederer’s in-depth interview with researchers and writers who study the far right, Matthew Lyons and a colleague by the name of Xloi, on the insurrectionary right that took over the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. Well, that action is over. Who were the forces that were there? And where will this right-wing movement that launched it go in the next year? Is this the same old group of far right activists or is there something new about the groups and their approach? We'll start with a clip from a right-wing cinema verité documentary called “The Siege on the United States Capitol” by the YouTube group Insurgence USA that produced it. It includes sounds from the shooting of a right-wing insurgent that climbed through the broken window of the Liberty Lobby that had been under siege by these insurgents for quite some time. The video has since been taken down.

Bob Lederer: And that was sound gathered during the assault on the U.S. Capitol building on January 6 of this year. And you hear the crowd smashing the building’s windows and the police shooting a right-wing rioter, and this is an excerpt from a recording by the right-wing group Insurgence USA. The following interview has been co-produced by John Riley and myself, Bob Lederer. We’re members of the Out-FM collective at WBAI.

The violent storming of the Capitol building on January 6 by hundreds or perhaps thousands, which aimed to stop the certification of Joe Biden's election and left five people dead and scores injured, dramatically highlighted the growing strength of the far right. It's a movement that's been steadily building for decades. On this program, we're going to examine the politics, organizing strategy, and increasing violence of that sector. Analysis of the diversity of the movement reveals a frightening array of groups that shatter the mold of far right groups from even ten years ago. The January 6 action demonstrates an emboldened, self-consciously insurgent right-wing movement that brought together many sectors of the far right along with fervent Trump supporters and not organized into the far right, at least not yet. This included some splinters of the old white supremacist and neonazi right. But as we will learn in this interview, growing sectors of the far right have moved away from open blatant white supremacy as a central tenet of their organizing, even as they fight for a racist and, in many cases, Christian fundamentalist state. In fact, some of these far right groups have begun engaging in multiracial organizing, which is another new and disturbing development. Central to the politics of many of these groups, particularly the Christian theocratic ones, is an anti-woman and anti-queer ideology that should be particularly alarming to women, LGBTQ people, and our allies.

A longtime researcher of far right organizing, Spencer Sunshine, wrote on just days before the Capitol attack, “2020 was a record year for far right violence in the US.” Sunshine cites the rise of the Boogaloo movement which he calls “a new grouping of younger activists with militia-style politics,” and followers of QAnon, who as Sunshine puts it, “believe Trump is always about to arrest a cabal of liberal, deep state, satanic pedophiles.” He goes on, “aggressive street demonstrations led by the Proud Boys reached a fever pitch, inspired by comments from Donald Trump, and renewed opposition to the revived Black Lives Matter movement.” And he adds, “the Proud Boys became the undisputed far right street force of the year, and were even mentioned in the presidential debate, with Trump telling them to “stand back and stand by.”

In Portland, Oregon, where Black Lives Matter demonstrations had gone on for over 200 days, the Proud Boys held a series of violent demonstrations. There were a large number of murders and car attacks at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The most infamous of these were the murder of two demonstrators by a militia member in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Sunshine also notes the right wing-led and sometimes menacing demonstrations last year against the COVID-19 shutdown in various states, the most aggressive of which was last April when armed protesters pushed their way into the Michigan legislature. Several of these right-wingers were later charged with plotting to kidnap and even execute elected officials there.

To dissect the role of the far right in the capital assault and its implications for politics in the coming period, we're joined by two guests who have closely followed these groups for years, and have developed expert analyses of them in an effort to aid the work of left movements that are fighting against them and fighting for a new society. And so I want to welcome Matthew Lyons. He's been writing about right-wing politics for over 25 years. He's the author of the book Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, that came out three years ago. And he's the co-author with Chip Berlet of the book Right-Wing Populism in America that came out in 2000. And he's also a regular contributor to the radical anti-fascist blog Three Way Fight. And Matthew is a white Jewish cis heterosexual man who's based in Pennsylvania. And our other guest is Xloi, who does investigative reporting and analysis on the far right and related issues. She's also a contributor to the Three Way Fight blog. Xloi is a white Jewish cis queer woman based in California. And thank you so much for joining us, Matthew and Xloi here on Out-FM.

Matthew Lyons: Thank you, Bob. Very happy to be here with you.

Xloi: Thanks for having us.

Bob: Okay. Let's start with some questions about the differing ideologies within the far right. Matthew, shortly after the assault on the Capitol, you published an essay that updated your 2018 book Insurgent Supremacists -- and that book was [completed] just after the Charlottesville white supremacist riot -- you wrote, “The far right hates the ruling class. It believes these elites are using multiculturalism, mass immigration and globalization to weaken and destroy white Christian America.” Matthew Lyons, can you define how you see the far right? And why you argue that the appropriate label is “far right,” rather than “extreme right” or “fascist right”?

Matthew: Sure. The kind of ideological diversity that you mentioned in your introduction is part of the reason why I take kind of a different approach to defining the far right. People tend to define the far right in terms of a particular ideology. My definition has two parts. I argue that when we're talking about the far right in the United States, and in this historical period, we're talking about political forces that, first of all, regard social inequality as either natural or inevitable or desirable. And also, that these forces reject the legitimacy of the existing political system.

I define the far right in this way to reflect a particular kind of historical development. If we're talking about white supremacist forces -- which are a major part of the far right, although not the whole thing -- fifty years ago, these were forces that embraced the kind of Jim Crow segregationism that had been integral to U.S. society for generations, along with other forms of explicit racist oppression and discrimination. Following the changes that took place in and around the 1960s, some organized white supremacists came to believe that they could no longer achieve their racial goals within the existing political framework. And therefore, they needed to either break away from the United States or overthrow the U.S. government. And there were similar kinds of political shifts within other right-wing forces, particularly right-wing Christian groups.

To tie it back in with the quote that you cited earlier about the far right attitude towards the ruling class, this notion of the existing political system being illegitimate is very much tied in with the sense that the political elites and economic and cultural elites have betrayed them. That the people who used to be defenders of traditional social hierarchies and systems of oppression, they're no longer doing that job in the way that the far right forces want them to do. As far as the use of the term “far right” versus “extreme right” or “fascist right,” extreme right is a term that often is used in a way that tends to equate the left and the right extremes -- the notion of extremism as a generic political phenomenon that is a danger to the moderate or rational center. And I very much reject the notion that we can equate the “extreme left” and “extreme right.” So that's why I tend to steer away from that particular term.

As for “fascist right,” I would say that the fascist right is a major part of the far right, as I've defined it. But there are some far right forces that I would not consider fully fascist, although they certainly have important elements of fascist politics. We may want to get into more of that later. But just in brief, to me, fascism implies not just right-wing authoritarianism, but a more systematic effort to transform society, the culture, all kinds of different institutions to conform to an overarching ideology. You can certainly find examples of that within the U.S. far right. But there are also far rightists who don't necessarily have that notion of an overall transformation of society.

Bob: I want to turn to our other guest, Xloi, and look at the comment that Matthew made in his essay and explained just now that the far right hates the ruling class. Now, Xloi, in an essay you published on January 13 of this year, you and B. Sandor write the following: “We cannot assume that the movement that stormed the Capitol on January 6 was at large anti-state or solely an insurgent movement from below, while elements of the movement were insurgent. This movement was egged on by Trump and other key people in his administration in Congress.” So Xloi, tell us how you see the interplay between these two forces, the anti-state and elements of the state, and what this might mean for the far right in the months ahead.

Xloi: That's such an interesting question. Well, one thing I think we need to bring into context here is that there are elements of the far right, that are anti-state, and even anti-capitalist, and even self consciously revolutionary. What B. Sandor and I were arguing is that the groups of people that came together to storm the Capitol that day, were really actually more of a mixed bag. Some of them were far right and have been organized since the Obama administration and definitely insurrectionary but others were really recently politicized under Trump, and definitely since Stop the Steal. And it was pretty evident at the Capitol that day that there was no actually coherent leadership. We both would argue, there was no coherent leadership that was actually attempting to fully overthrow the state, per se, or institute a new form of governance. I don't think they were even close to that organized. There are several significant things about this. The first is that many of them have been loyal to Trump. And while they are shifting, from regime-loyal to kind of questioning the regime or even being against the regime, particularly in terms of how they are responding to the police that day, I think it's significant that some of the movement are so loyal to Trump that we can't expect for them to continue to be part of the insurgent or revolutionary right. I think that what we saw specifically that day, was that some of the terrain was already shifting.

So for example, this shift was most prominent in how people were responding to the police. Many of the people who have been involved in Stop the Steal and even in the larger MAGA tent more broadly, have also been a part of Blue Lives Matter. Very pro-police. You started to see some of that shifting, even in the lead up to the Capitol takeover. And you really saw some of that consciousness shift, even that day where you had some demonstrators talking to the police, being close with them, being like, “We're on your side. Come on, get out of the way now.” But you also saw other demonstrators yelling at the police and saying, “Now, not only do black people hate you, white people hate you too,” and telling the police to get out of the way. So I think it's important to understand that there's a lot of shifts happening right now.

Bob: And if I could add, also physically attacking police.

Xloi: Right. And physically attacking the police. Yeah.

Bob: I'm sorry, continue.

Xloi: Oh, just that there's definitely shifts happening. But I think that versus a kind of self-conscious, revolutionary far right that is anti-state, this movement that stormed the Capitol that day is more mixed. There are a lot of possibilities of where elements of it can go from here. I'm imagining a lot of splits within that movement between anti-state and reformist elements after what happened at the Capitol.

Bob: Well, picking up on this theme, I want to quote a very significant section of that same essay that I cited earlier, written by our guest Matthew Lyons, which was just published last month in January, in which he wrote, “In persuading millions of his followers to reject the validity of the voting process, Trump sparked a political upheaval unlike anything we've seen since the overthrow of Reconstruction. A huge chunk of the U.S. population has suddenly shifted, at least temporarily, from system-loyal politics to oppositional politics. The size of the U.S. far right increased by an order of magnitude.” I think this analysis and the one that Xloi just gave us is really important, and very unlike what we've been hearing from most of the corporate media, and even from a lot of the left media. So Matthew, what would you say is your evidence for this huge shift in the population? And what are its implications, both for mainstream politics and for the work that the left needs to engage in to build popular struggles?

Matthew: Very good question. I think that polls that were taken last month of people in the voting population showed that something upwards of 70% of Republican voters regarded the presidential election as fraudulent. And more than 40% of independents also felt this way. And in a political system that is founded on elections, is founded on the voting process, if you are saying that the election of the president is fraudulent is, is illegitimate, then you are, at least at this time, saying that the government is illegitimate, that the people who are in power should not be in power, that they have no right to be there. Going back to what I said earlier about the way that I defined the far right, you could also call it the oppositional right. It's this divide between those who believe that they can achieve their goals within the existing political framework, and those who believe that that isn't possible, that that's not an effective framework for what they want to do. And these may be people who share the same or similar goals. But they have very different notions of how they can be brought about.

It's a different side of the situation, a different way to put the emphasis than where Xloi was putting the emphasis a little while ago. I think Xloi is quite right to emphasize the complexity and the uncertainty and the instability of the situation. But another side of that is, this is a major shift. I mean, if we're talking upwards of 70% of Republicans and a large chunk of independents, we're talking certainly tens of millions of people. And if even a fraction of those people hold on to that kind of political stance, that's a huge change. That has implications in a lot of different ways. You asked about what it means for mainstream politics and people on the left. Well, for one thing it means a major crisis in the Republican Party. And we've seen that in terms of the kind of difficulties and tensions and struggles that have been going on within the Republican Party over how do they deal with Trump? How do they deal with this Stop the Steal politics? How do they deal with the impeachment? All these things. And I think it's not clear exactly how that's all gonna play out. But there are certainly tensions between those within more of the base of the party, who are pulling in a direction that is at least challenging the legitimacy of the system, versus more of an establishment wing of the party that is trying to rein them in, but also not wanting to do so too blatantly, because they don't want to alienate their base.

As far as what it means for the work of the left, it's a very difficult situation. It's not fundamentally new but it highlights and intensifies the fact that we face a double-edged challenge. On the one hand, we face the growing and increasingly militant forces of the far right, that have some really scary goals of what they want to do with society. And those are forces that pose an immediate danger to people in many communities as well as longer-term threats of various kinds. And so, we need to look at how do we combat those forces, and to what extent do we need to enter into coalitions to combat them. At the same time, there is the continuing reality that we live in a society that is deeply oppressive, that is deeply dehumanizing and alienating and disempowering for the vast majority of people to varying degrees. And it would be dangerous and self-defeating for leftists to simply ally with the center and the forces of the state and the forces of the current administration against the insurgent far right.

Bob: This is Bob Lederer, and I'm speaking with authors Matthew Lyons and Xloi on an analysis of the far right in the wake of the January 6 assaults on the Capitol and you're listening to Out-FM on WBAI.

Now I'd like to focus on the differences between far right groups that have been created or activated since Trump's election in 2016 and that joined the Capitol assault in January. Matthew in a recent essay, you write, “Explicit calls for all people of color, and usually all Jews, to be subordinated, excluded or killed are less common among U.S. far rightists than various forms of cultural racism, in which limited numbers of people of color are accepted as long as they conform to Eurocentric rules and don't challenge underlying disparities of power.” So let me ask both you, Matthew, and Xloi to talk more about the ideological differences within the far right concerning race, including the talk that's been increasing in recent months by groups like the Oath Keepers about their so called color-blindness. So what are the implications of this more undercover racism for the right’s recruitment of different sectors of white people, and also of small but growing numbers of people of color? So Xloi, you want to go first?

Xloi: Yeah, I think starting with the Oath Keepers. The Oath Keepers were actually founded during the Obama administration. For the most part, they have never explicitly identified as a white supremacist or white nationalist organization. And usually when people accuse them of doing so they will say that's not how they see themselves. The Oath Keepers, along with a number of other organizations in the far right, like Patriot Prayer, and even Proud Boys, have done exactly what Matthew Lyons mentioned in his article, which is accepting some number of people of color in their ranks, while largely promoting white supremacist ideologies and actions. So they're pretty vehemently anti-immigrant. There's a really strong thread of anti-Muslim sentiment. They're oftentimes very anti-LGBTQ and have a strong sense that the identity of this country is Christian. They tend to uphold this idea of being a constitutionalist, which is a framework also used by white supremacists in the South who fought against voting rights for formerly enslaved people during Reconstruction.

So I think that there's both the historical legacy that a group like the Oath Keepers comes from, and also leans on in terms of how they identify themselves. The fact that there is a group of armed militia, many of whom have come out of the military and police forces as well, that truly saw Obama as a socialist, and rallied around trying to create a more local or sovereign society, because they thought Obama represented a federal government that was no longer representing them, you know, has such racial undertones. I think we need to tear apart a couple of things here, which is, it is important how groups see and define themselves. And then also, it's important for those who are fighting for a free society to also understand historically what groups like the Oath Keepers are fighting for. Because, if we're only looking at identity, for example, and we see a group like the Proud Boys have a leader who's a person of color, it can get a little bit confusing. So, Matthew, what do you think?

Matthew: I would just add a couple of things. One is just that the limited multiracial membership that Xloi described in terms of groups such as the Proud Boys is something that you also see on a larger scale within sectors of the Christian right, such as the New Apostolic Reformation movement, which is a very large Christian theocratic movement that has literally millions of followers. This is actually an international movement with very significant membership in Asia and Africa and Latin America, as well as in North America. And within North America, it includes significant membership by people of color, and similarly reflects or embodies this kind of colorblind ideology as opposed to an explicit white supremacist ideology.

The other thing I just want to add is that it would be a mistake to interpret this situation as simply a matter of hypocrisy, or that a group such as the Oath Keepers is just hiding their true views. I think they're sincere when they claim to be colorblind. There's an inherent kind of self-delusion in the whole ideology of colorblindness, but I don't think that they're lying when they say that this is what they believe. I think that it's a matter of there being different kinds of racist ideologies that are at work in the far right, as there are in U.S. society. And the fact that a significant portion of the far right embraces and promotes color-blind ideology reflects the fact that it's a form of racial ideology that is widely accepted among white people in the United States, in a way that explicit white supremacism is not. That gives them a kind of entrée to a much wider sector of the population than they would have if they were simply espousing a kind of traditional Klan-style or Nazi-style racism.

Bob: This is Bob Lederer, and I'm speaking with authors Matthew Lyons and Xloi on an analysis of the far right in the wake of the January 6, assault on the US Capitol. And you're listening to Out-FM on WBAI. Now, I want to ask you about the fact that there are other differences among far right groups, not only around the question of race, but also the questions of gender and sexuality. For instance, Matthew Lyons, one of our guests, writes, “There's a branch of the Christian right that wants to create a full-blown theocracy. And that vision centers not only on religion, but also on patriarchy, heterosexism, and enforced gender roles.” Now, many liberals and leftists don't see the Christian right as part of the far right, and generally not as part of the violent sector of the right. So let me ask you, Xloi, to talk about the interaction between these two sectors of the right and how the Christian right has targeted women and LGBTQ people, and in recent months has particularly escalated their attack on transgender rights.

Xloi: I think it's important to understand that there's a long history that goes back several decades of the more insurgent elements of the Christian right forming a close alliance with the racist right. And this goes back to a meeting that happened that led to the formation of the 1990s militia movement. Essentially, a form of the Christian right that goes by Christian Reconstructionism was really interested in trying to bring about a theocracy. They were interested in forming small models that would be erecting Christian theocracy at the local level. And they saw an alliance in the racist right to go about doing that. And if you fast forward until today, some of these sectors that seem like they're very separate -- militia groups like the Oath Keepers, for example, and others who are specifically fighting against abortion rights or against LGBTQ rights -- seem separate but if you do a bit of a deeper dive, you can actually see that there's many overlaps between these groups.

So for example, at some point, I started looking more deeply into a constellation of groups that understand themselves as abortion abolitionists. They've been on the fringe movement of the Christian right for quite a long time. They work with leaders that justified violence against abortion providers in the 90s. And if you look a bit deeper, you see that actually a number of the groups that were behind violent anti-abortion acts were actually literally a part of the 1990s militia movements. And today you see something very similar, which is that you have groups like the Oath Keepers, or even their contingency within law enforcement, which is called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Many of them are not just fighting for a white nation, they're actually fighting to maintain a Christian nation. They see that rights for women's reproductive health or rights for people to express their sexuality and gender are signs that the state has become secular, and abominations. Some of them are trying to fight by any means necessary to make sure that that doesn't happen.

Bob: In the same vein, many sectors of the far right, and our guest Xloi has just been referring to some examples, but I would cite in addition Proud Boys and QAnon, have made misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia important parts of their ideology and their targeting of oppressed people. So, Xloi, can you talk about these groups use this kind of attack to attract more supporters and to advance their violent agenda, and in particular the example of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican who was recently elected to the U.S. House, who has openly embraced QAnon, and just had her wrists slapped by the House Democrats, who tossed her off the committee she sits on? How do you see these attacks as reinforcing the racist, anti-Jewish, and anti-woman attacks of these same movements? And also what are the key differences among the different far right groups on these questions of gender and sexuality?

Xloi: For someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene, she really rose to fame in Georgia partially through her bold far right, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant stances. She herself identifies as Christian. Her talking points specifically reference the Christian right and also the Patriot movement. Early on, in one of her twitter feeds, for example, she’s talking about how the drag queens in the area are having a “drag queen reading group,” and how the reading group is a way that they’re trying to advance their neo-marxist agenda that’s, according to her, destroying the very fabric of the United States. And you can see how that type of quote goes viral and is liked by so many different people in her midst. Now that she has actually made it into Congress, she is already sponsoring a bill that would make it so that young trans and gender-queer athletes can’t compete in women’s sports in schools. It’s important to note how it’s both something that’s a central part of her politics but also something that I think actually allows her to speak to her base.

And I just want to say one thing, which is that if you do some kind of deeper reading of how they view the world, it’s a kind of conspiracy theory where neo-marxists, Black people, Islamo-fascists, queer people are all trying to come together and destroy the United States as we know it, and that she and these Patriot movement groups are the defenders of the true United States. It’s a kind of conspiracy theory that is obviously incredibly dangerous and leads to groups like Proud Boys and others actually violently harrassing and attacking trans and queer people, but it’s something that goes way back to these kind of Christian nationalist ideas that she panders to.

Bob: Okay, and the final question for this part of our discussion is that both of you have written about your very serious concern as to the political response to the assault on the Capitol from the establishment politicians. President Biden has said he’ll put forward a bill against domestic terrorism. Other centrists and even liberals are saying that we need legislation to increase police presence at protests, to adopt further measures to criminalize dissent. So Xloi wrote in a recent essay along with B. Sandor, “What is this political amnesia we have? Within a moment, the momentum and political consciousness gained after years of anti-police struggles that culminated in the mass movements against the murder of George Floyd seemingly went in reverse.” So as we close out this part, let me have you, Xloi, start and then Matthew talk about what are the risks of this type of legislation and this sort of consensus that this is of course needed to contain the dangerous right wing, and that even liberals and some leftists are getting on board that train.

Xloi: Yeah, I think that the liberal establishment, including the Democratic Party, would really want people, including progressives and radicals, to see them as our savior against the far right and to put our hope in their ability to build out more surveillance, more police responses to the far right as the ultimate enemy. And I think it’s important right now probably more than ever to have a three way fight analysis, where we understand that the multiracial neoliberalism that the Democratic Party represents right now is not the only way forward against the insurgent, violent far right, that indeed we need to actually have a liberatory alternative to both, and really believe that there is a possibility, building on the momentum of what happened over this summer, to chart a course that is actually about the emancipation and freedom of all people.

Bob: And I’ll give the last word to Matthew Lyons.

Matthew: Well, that was such a great word to end on, but I will just note that there’s a long history of antifascism being misused to bolster state repression, most blatantly during World War II, when it was used as a rationale for the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans as well as a number of other repressive measures. And in more recent decades, for example following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 by neonazis, the Clinton administration used it as a rationale to push through repressive legislation that represented serious attacks on civil liberties and made it more difficult for people on death row to appeal their convictions. This is scary stuff. And so as Xloi said it’s important for us to chart an independent course for a liberatory political path that rejects state repression as a way to combat the far right. 

Photo credit: By Tyler Merbler, 6 January 2021 (CC-BY-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.