In the years since the civil rights movement, open white supremacists have largely been stigmatized, marginalized, condemned and all but banished from mainstream American society. That's especially true for neo-Nazis, who have existed mostly on the extreme outer boundaries of American public life.
This article first appeared in Salon.
That has changed. The Age of Trump has given permission for the worst of human behavior, and those kinds of norms have been twisted, bent or broken. Donald Trump's regime, the current Republican Party and the larger white right have been willing to amplify such voices, bringing them into the highest levels of government and power and, through "narrative laundering," into the mainstream of American society and politics. Trumpism and American neofascism are at once a reflection, a cause and a symptom of growing racial authoritarianism and outright white supremacy, both in the United States and around the world.
Note this most recent example: Last week, all 208 Republican members of the House voted against investigating white supremacist and neo-Nazi activity in the military and exploring how to address it. Those 208 Republicans included Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, vice chair of the Jan. 6 committee and hero to the mainstream commentariat and entirely too many liberals. Tess Owen of Vice summarizes the situation, noting that this amendment passed the House on a strict party-line vote:
If the amendment survives Senate scrutiny, it would mandate the chiefs of the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Defense to produce a report assessing the extent of white supremacist or neo-Nazi activity in their ranks and how they plan to address it. They'd have 180 days from the enactment of the National Defense Authorization Act to compile that report.
The stark divide between Democrat and Republican support for the amendment is a reminder of how the genuine national security problem of white supremacist infiltration of government agencies has instead been turned into a partisan football.
"We just voted to combat neo-Nazis in our military and every single Republican voted no," tweeted New Jersey Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr.
In more normal times, voting to investigate Nazis and members of other white supremacist hate groups in uniform would be an easy political win for both Republicans and Democrats. What respectable public figure would want to risk being viewed, correctly or not, as sympathetic to Nazis, Klan members or other far-right racial terrorists?
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
But today's "conservative" movement has become a big tent of the worst possible type. Many are ready to welcome or embrace white supremacists and other right-wing extremists. Others are content to look the other way, while demonstrating a shared affinity for many of the same fundamental values, beliefs and goals. Republicans in the Age of Trump are not willing to alienate their most enthusiastic supporters, even at risk at being seen as aligned with hate groups.
I asked antiracism activist and author Tim Wise for his reaction:
As usual, the MAGA-fied GOP has shown its true colors: unwilling to openly condemn or investigate white supremacists and nationalists in the military despite warnings that these are becoming significant problems among the enlisted. Why? Because too many of their base endorse those ideologies, or at the very least are comfortable with them. To condemn white racism is to condemn huge swaths of their voter base. It literally puts their electability in question. It would be like a Democrat announcing they were for segregation; only, please note, the difference between Democrats and Republicans is that being for segregation and racism gets you in trouble if you're a Democrat. Being against Nazism and racism sinks you as a Republican. Fascinating.
Meanwhile, their inaction puts the nation at risk. Racists admit they are targeting such folks for recruitment because they want battle-tested (or at least trained) soldiers for their race war. Neglecting to investigate this issue proves that the GOP cares nothing for national security, and only for their own reactionary base of neofascists.
David Neiwert, one of America's leading experts on right-wing extremism, highlights the incremental creep of the Republican Party's inexorable slide toward avowed white supremacy and right-wing extremism:
This vote in the House is really just the latest action cementing the Republican Party's ardent embrace of the same right-wing extremism that overtook the Capitol on Jan. 6. The GOP now openly and undeniably defends the politics of sedition and insurrection, and has become a fundamentally antidemocratic entity. At some point, Americans who believe in democracy need to awaken to this reality and treat it with the deadly seriousness it deserves. But it's escaping our notice because it's happening brick by brick.
The Republican Party's refusal to support efforts to deradicalize the U.S. military and federal law enforcement is part of a much larger pattern. The right-wing movement is working to end America's multiracial democracy and replace it with a pseudo-democratic Christian-fascist plutocracy, where a small minority of wealthy white men and their allies will rule over American society without resistance or challenge. In local, national and state elections across the country, various kinds of right-wing extremists are seeking office as Republicans. They understand today's Republican Party to be their natural home.
A large proportion of Republicans and a majority of Trump voters buy into the most important claims of the "great replacement" conspiracy theory, which holds that white people in the U.S. and other Western nations are being "replaced" in "their own countries" by nonwhite immigrants, as part of a deliberate strategy by "global elites" (which tends to mean Jewish people). That conspiracy theory has repeatedly led to violence, including white supremacist mass shootings in Buffalo, El Paso, Pittsburgh and numerous other places.
Social science researchers have repeatedly shown that white racism and racial animus are determining factors in support for Trump and the Republican Party.
White Republican voters also believe that white people in America are the "real victims" of racism. These delusions and fantasies are central tenets of white supremacist ideology as espoused by neo-Nazis and other hate groups.
Many Republicans also believe that Trump's coup attempt and the Jan. 6 Capitol attack were at least partly justified, and view the people who attacked the Capitol as "patriots" who are being unfairly persecuted by Democrats and the federal government.
Members of right-wing extremist and paramilitary groups, most notably the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, were integral to Trump's coup plot and the terrorist attack on the Capitol. In practice, these groups functioned as Trump's personal stormtroopers on Jan. 6, and hoped to go much further during the reign of terror that might have followed his seizure of power after nullifying the results of the 2020 election.
I asked Jenn Budd, an author and former patrol and intelligence agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, for her perspective on the escalating dangers from the Republican Party and the growing neofascist movement:
On Jan. 6, our democracy was almost overthrown not just by radicalized white Americans but also by many in Congress who are Republican leaders. Democrats are trying to investigate and prevent future acts of terrorism with the very people who took part in the coup. The threat of terrorism is coming not just from white nationalists outside but from within the government itself.
We should not be surprised by any of this. The largest federal police forces are CBP, Border Patrol and ICE. They are literally based in white nationalist ideology, as they are constantly looking for people who "don't belong" to deport them, i.e., Black and brown bodies. The entire reason political leaders have militarized our borders is to keep "those people" out while opening the door for white migrants like the Ukrainians. The truth is that both sides created these agencies to enforce the laws that ensure white supremacy. It is difficult to address white nationalism and terrorism when our entire system is based on that ideology.
Right-wing extremism, including neo-Nazism and other white supremacist ideologies, is a long-standing problem in the U.S. military and law enforcement. Repeated efforts to confront this security challenge, as we have just seen, are repeatedly resisted by Republicans and the mainstream right. Stephanie Foggett, a resident fellow at the Soufan Center, provided further context, noting that domestic terrorism "has been recognized as a top national security priority by law enforcement," and that there's no valid reason why addressing that threat should be a partisan issue:
That lawmakers must address means to combat white supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration of the armed forces and law enforcement should not come as a surprise: Violent extremist groups highly value having service members and veterans among their ranks. In recent years, current and former service members have been linked to these groups and movements; some participated in the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.... On the one hand, violent extremist groups seek to recruit among this demographic for operational and tactical reasons. They hope to benefit from both the skillset these members would bring, like weapons training, as well as combat and other types of "real-world" experience. On the other hand, individuals with extremist beliefs and affiliations may seek to join the armed forces or law enforcement, so it's important to have policies for screening new recruits for extremism.
Another concern is among veterans; America's history already shows a worrying intersection between war and far-right extremism. The reality is that the armed forces and law enforcement are uniquely vulnerable to this threat, from extremist actors looking to recruit among the demographic to extremist actors looking to infiltrate these institutions to the vulnerability of veterans to recruitment following their service. It is a security imperative to root out far-right extremism in the military and police, for the benefit of the institutions themselves as well as for the country they serve to protect.
The conservative movement's incremental embrace of white supremacy and racial authoritarianism is part of a much larger global phenomenon. Today's Republican Party has more in common with right-wing extremist and fascist political parties in Hungary, Poland and Turkey than with mainstream conservative parties in Germany, France or the U.K.
Leading "conservatives" view Vladimir Putin's Russia and Viktor Orbán's Hungary as models for the type of anti-democratic and anti-pluralistic order they want to enforce on America. CPAC held a gathering in Hungary last May that drew far-right figures from all over Europe, and Orbán will be a featured guest at the next CPAC gathering in Dallas later this year.
I asked James Scaminaci III, a leading expert on right-wing extremism and political violence, for his insights into the Republican Party's refusal to investigate and monitor white supremacists and other extremists within military and law enforcement:
I served four years in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the genocidal war and covered the war in that country from the start in the late 1980s as a civilian military intelligence analyst. The GOP is balkanizing this country like the ethno-nationalists did in the former Yugoslavia. Under the ethno-nationalists, you could only trust members of your own ethnic-religious group. The GOP is doing its utmost to ensure that social and political polarization goes to the extremes. We are in the gravest of dangers, and while a large majority of the public, both GOP and Democrat, realizes the dangers, we have one political party driving us towards Christian-nationalist fascism. We have no fail-safe measures.
Today's Republican Party and the larger "conservative" movement and white right are a clear and present danger to American democracy and American society. The Trump cabal's 2021 coup attempt was no aberration. It was part of a larger pattern of violence and radical extremism with the goal of ending America's multiracial pluralist democracy and replacing it with right-wing minority rule. The Republican refusal to monitor, deradicalize or purge white supremacists and other right-wing extremists from military and law enforcement is one obvious aspect of that larger strategy.
Too many members of the mainstream news media and larger political class remain committed to the self-soothing fiction that contemporary Republicans and "conservatives" are capable of being responsible partners in government and democracy. They are not, and it's long past time to abandon that delusion.