US ELECTION ANALYSIS: the Trump years – how the far right has changed

By Martin Smith and Tash Shifrin | 15 November 2020

Donald Trump by street artist Subdude. Pic credit: duncan c

There was an outpouring of relief and joy when the announcement finally came through that Donald Trump had lost the US presidential election – people were literally dancing in the streets. Barring a highly unlikely set of court rulings the world’s most powerful far right racist populist has been toppled at the ballot box.

His defeat is a huge blow for white supremacists and extreme rightwing forces in the US and it has taken the wind out of the sails of other far right rulers, such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and India’s Narendra Modi.

Trump’s defeat is also a blow for other far right and fascist parties in Europe and elsewhere.

Polarisation

The four years of Trump’s presidency have only increased the polarisation in US society. We will look below at what it has meant for the far right.

But it is also important to note that there have been continual mobilisations on the left throughout the Trump era, from the huge women’s protests that broke out at the very start of his term, the campaigns to defend migrants and against Trump’s “Mexican wall” to the brilliant Black Lives Matter movement that has rocked America and the world.


Celebrations in New York as Trump loses the presidency

That lasting mood of resistance to Trump lies behind eventual winner Joe Biden’s vote – at over 78 million, the highest ever gained by a presidential candidate in US history. In exit polls, more than three in ten of Biden’s voters said they had voted primarily against Trump rather than positively for Biden.

Among his own voters, many don’t believe Biden offers solutions to the problems faced by working class people and minorities in the US. And, as we write, it remains to be seen whether the Democrats will take enough seats in the Senate to carry through even their modest political programme.

But millions of people – especially poorer people, African Americans and minority ethnic groups, women and LGBT people – were desperate to see the back of Trump, and many campaigned to make sure voters turned out against him.

And around the world, millions of people celebrated the defeat of Trump in solidarity with all those who have stood up against him in the US.

But after the celebrations, we have to look at the warning signs from this election.

Warning

With polarisation driving an increased turnout on both sides, Trump’s vote has also gone up sharply in real terms since 2016, by almost 10 million votes.

Despite all his very public racism, sexism and homophobia, his undisguised self-obsession and his often bizarre behaviour in office, Trump has retained and even increased his base of support.

He has been able to sustain more than a week of challenging and attempting to undermine the election results not only because of his own enormous ego and personal insecurities, but because of the size and commitment of that support.

The size of Trump’s vote and the failure to break it down leaves open possibility that he, one of his family members or possibly another far right figure will be able to build a new and potentially stronger attempt on the White House in 2024.

That challenge could feed off widespread discontent if Biden proves unable to deliver sufficient change for the mass of the US population.

Trump himself will continue to have huge reach. Alongside his own twitter account with nearly 90 million followers – which he will keep, having used his personal account rather than official White House outlets during his presidency – there is now a semi-organised raft of social media accounts and groups passing on his every word, and the various far right and fascist memes that he promotes form time to time.

The past four years have shown how the US political system and establishment has utterly failed to rein Trump in.

His conduct in office has demonstrated the fragility of US democracy and the apparatus of the federal state as well as, more recently, damaging public perceptions of the integrity of the electoral system.

Trump’s relentless attacks on the independent media and continually ignoring the normal conventions of democracy and diplomacy have shown just how weak the supposed “checks and balances” of the system are – and how easy it is to create a widely believed “alternative” to verifiable truth.

Four years of Trump have exposed democracy in the US as thin and frail.

“Trumpism”

When Trump won the 2016 US presidential election we described Trump as a far right racist populist whose electoral support was based on the Republican Party and drew on the white evangelical churches, while he was also able to mobilise sections of blue-collar workers.

He has been able to build on the traditional base of the Republicans – rich, white, gun-toting evangelical Christian voters. But his populist focus on tapping anger over the increasing misery of poorer working class people has succeeded in pulling a new section of voters into his camp.

We also noted that although Trump was not a fascist his victory had “given confidence to the rag bag of Tea Party and alt-right groups, and even more dangerous organisations like the Ku Klux Klan”.

While that broad framework to describe Trump’s base stands, much has changed over the past four years.

Trump has not sought to build a party or organisation for himself, standing in 2020 as the Republican Party candidate and relying on its electoral machine just as he did in 2016.

But amid his endless streams of self-promotion, Trump is an aggressive ideological warrior for the far right. He has declared war on the US establishment and openly promoted far right outlets such as the Breitbart News Network, whose reach has grown both in the US and internationally during his presidency.

He has continually pumped out racist, Islamophobic and antisemitic tropes – providing from a high level a normalisation, legitimisation and amplification of these ideas that has benefited fascist and far right movements internationally.

Trump’s presidency also gave an important early boost to his former advisor Steve Bannon, who sought to establish network of international far right and fascist groups.

Trump has led vicious campaigns against any movement that has challenged him – or his vile racist politics.

This has included an attempt to formally designate Antifa – in reality a loose network of antifascist groups and individuals – as a terrorist organisation.

He has also dubbed the Black Lives Matter movement “an extreme socialist” organisation and “a Marxist organisation”, in an attempt to combine red-baiting with an appeal to racism.

Conspiracies

Trump helped to give wide public prominence to far right conspiracy theories, openly endorsing supporters of QAnon as “people who love our country”.

QAnon is a far right conspiracy theory that alleges that the world is being run by a powerful cabal of Satan-worshiping paedophiles – including Democrat politicians and Hollywood stars.

This cabal is supposedly engaged in human trafficking and harvesting a chemical substance from the blood of children – an idea that echoes antisemitic blood libel tropes. QAnon adherents believe that Trump is waging a secret battle against this cabal and its allies in the “deep state”.

Trump’s endorsement has not only helped to spread the theory inside and outside the US, but has helped its adherents into positions of power. During the presidential election the Texas Republican Party used the slogan “We are the storm”, a phrase taken directly from QAnon. Party officials denied this, claiming instead that the slogan was inspired by a biblical passage.

QAnon supporting Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene has now won a seat in the US Congress. Another QAnon supporter, Lauren Boebert, also won a House seat in Colorado. Greene and Boebert were among several Republican candidates for Congress – with some estimates putting the number at more than 20 – who had expressed some degree of support for QAnon.

Violence

While Trump does not have and has not sought to create a street movement of his own, he has been an enabler for violent far right, fascist and white supremacist groups on the streets in the US.

His four years in office have provided a fertile environment for right, fascist and white supremacist groups to grow dramatically, with the new groups such as the Proud Boys gaining explicit recognition from Trump.

No part of the far right has been too extreme for Trump. In August 2017, a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, brought together open nazis, white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan activists. One of the participants, a nazi and white supremacist called James Fields, murdered civil rights activist Heather Heyer by ramming a car into antiracist counterprotestors.

Trump’s response was to declare, “There are good people on both sides.”

Nazis and white supremacists on their way to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Pic credit: Anthony Crider

Before Trump’s election in 2016, much of the growth of the far right was centred on lobbying groups, such as the Tea Party movement, which aimed at getting hardline rightwing conservative candidates in place in elections.

But his term of office has seen a sharp growth in activity by fascists, white supremacists and other far right elements on the streets.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors far right and racist activity, notes:

Between 2016 and 2018, Americans witnessed a major upswing in street mobilization by far-right groups, making it one of the most active periods of on-the-ground, extremist activity in decades.

The SPLC has documented 125 rallies, marches and protests nationwide, which were organized and attended by far-right extremists, including white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, the “alt-right” and rightwing reactionaries during these three years.

Armed militias and paramilitaries form part of this growth trend. Last year, the SPLC identified 579 extreme militias with a membership of 40,000 people, although the monitoring group noted that not all these militias support Trump.

We have previously noted how far right activists have jumped on the coronavirus crisis, with militia groups – including “accelerationists” who want to spark a “new civil war” – making their presence felt on anti-lockdown protests.

Armed militia turned out on an anti-lockdown protest in Ohio, in April 2020. Pic credit Paul Becker

White supremacist militia groups have also attempted to counter Black Lives Matter protests in some parts of the US, including major cities.

Over the last few months, news networks have beamed images of gun-toting far right militia protesting harassing protestors on the streets and seeking to intimidate voters.

A joint report by Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) notes:

Throughout the summer and leading up to the general election, these groups have become more assertive, with activities ranging from intervening in protests to organising kidnapping plots targeting elected officials.

The ACLED report goes on to name nine militias as the “most active” in the US that could “take action… including Three Percenters, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Light Foot Militia, Civilian Defense Force, American Contingency, Patriot Prayer, Boogaloo Bois and People’s Rights”.

Such groups are autonomous of Trump, but have gained a level of protection under his presidency.

Proud Boy paramilitaries march in Washington DC on 14 November 2020

It is doubtful that Trump’s defeat will weaken them – some observers believe such organisations could in fact become more active, seeking to become part of the opposition to Biden’s administration.

While much of the wider far right in the US and internationally may feel knocked back by Trump’s defeat, it is important to note just how much of a boost a far right racist in the White House has given them over the past four years.

Where next?

Trump’s victory in 2016 was no freak result. It was part of a wider revival of far right racist populist parties internationally. Trump may have been defeated but his support base has been politicised over the last four years.

His support springs from a deep bitterness against the political establishment that has pursued a neoliberal austerity agenda. And Biden is no more likely than his Democrat presidential predecessors to fundamentally challenge austerity, poverty and inequality in the US.

This means we could be looking at four years of far right insurgency in the US, possibly with Trump or one of his family at its head. It would be foolish to rely on Biden to act as a shield against the far right.

But against the strengthened far right, we have also seen the potential of leftwing movements – and it is these that will need to mobilise and to challenge the far right in all its guises: ideologically, politically and on the streets.

2 comments

  1. Andy Coles said:

    Excellent article. A C

    16 November 2020 at 10:47am
  2. Suzy Franklin said:

    Not to mention Trumps full on support for Boris Johnson & vice versa, Johnsons late tweet congratulating Biden spoke volumes , Johnson cannot now rely on the trade deal which he knew he could get from Tump, it’ll be a different negotiation.

    16 November 2020 at 12:51pm

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