Far-right domestic extremists like those who attacked the US Capitol a year ago have faced criminal charges from law enforcement and crackdowns from social media companies. But they have not gone away.
On the contrary, they have evolved and adopted new strategies while regrouping, recruiting, and muscling their way into the mainstream with worrying success, experts say. And their ranks are growing.
“Many of us thought these groups would splinter and fall apart and go underground after the FBI started going after them. But that hasn’t really been the case,” Heidi Beirich, cofounder and chief strategy officer of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, a nonprofit focused on transnational hate and far-right movements, told BuzzFeed News.
Indeed, as the country marks the anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history and prepares for the consequential midterm elections in the fall — where extremists, such as MAGA supporters, could again try to undermine the will of voters — extremism researchers and government officials are warning that homegrown extremists pose a greater threat to our democracy than they did before Jan. 6, 2021. They just look a bit different now.
“The threat of domestic extremism today is perhaps less obvious. We’re not seeing the Proud Boys organize massive marches in Washington, DC, or militias storming capitol buildings every weekend. But what’s happening is gravely serious,” Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told BuzzFeed News.
In a new report published Tuesday, Holt wrote that domestic extremists were “battered by the blowback [they] faced after the Capitol riot, but not broken by it. In fact, the sentiments espoused by domestic extremist causes are as public and insidious as ever.”
Far-right extremists, he told BuzzFeed News, are increasingly seeking legitimacy by latching onto mainstream conservative causes; they are taking a decentralized approach, preferring to operate in small groups or cells; and they are switching their focus from national actions to hyperlocal initiatives, like focusing on school board and city council meetings.
There have been several reports in recent months about far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists, including members of the neo-fascist street gang the Proud Boys, showing up and intimidating officials making decisions on health measures and school initiatives at community meetings.
Holt’s report highlights how extremists’ ideas are increasingly finding fertile ground among disaffected conservatives and leading voices in the Republican Party who are teaming with them to fight “culture wars” on topics like vaccines, race, and education.
Beirich said that shift is a serious cause for alarm.
“When I look back at the last year, the thing that I find most astounding isn’t really about the groups we’d label extremist — it’s about what’s happened with the Republican party… The infiltration of extremists into its ranks,” she said.
She cited extremist and white supremacist ideas such as the “great replacement theory” — the false idea that white people are being purposely replaced by nonwhite immigrants — being peddled by GOP politicians and Fox News commentators as evidence of the radicalization of the conservative right and “extremism going mainstream.”
“I’m hard-pressed to even call them fringe ideas anymore,” she said. “They’re not confined to extremists. You can’t call it a fringe idea; it’s a mainstream idea among conservatives.”
The experts’ concerns were backed Tuesday by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who said that authorities over the past year “have improved and strengthened our approach to combating this dynamic, evolving threat.”
In the wake of the pro-Trump mob attack on the Capitol, President Joe Biden made combating domestic violent extremism one of his top priorities and enlisted leaders across government agencies to help. Department of Justice and FBI officials, in particular, have led the charge. They have testified in front of Congress on several occasions about the threat posed by extremists, particularly those on the far-right side of the political spectrum. With Jan. 6, they are at the forefront of not only the festering extremist problem but also one of the largest criminal investigations in US history.
More than 700 people, including several with military experience and many associated with white supremacist and anti-government extremist groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters, have been charged in the sweeping federal probe into the Capitol attack that was blamed for the deaths of five people and dozens more injuries. The images of the rioters stomping on Capitol police officers, crashing through barricades, bashing in windows with poles adorned with the American Flag, and storming the halls of Congress are seared into the American consciousness.
While the Biden administration has made some strides in the fight against domestic violent extremists, Mayorkas said the threat of them remains “very grave.”
Some experts think the US government was slow to respond and will have trouble tackling the problem of extremism.
Beirich said authorities should have taken steps a decade ago to quash the rise of far-right extremism and white nationalism, “when this stuff really was on the fringe [and] it could have had a massive impact.”
Now, with it so deeply entrenched in the mainstream political right and white supremacist and anti-government groups backing them up with threats of violence, she fears it may be too late to turn the tide.
“If 2024 is contested like 2020 was,” she added, referring to the upcoming midterm elections, “we’re going to have major civil unrest in this country.”